More Than 100 People Attend Reparations Listening Session Featuring Congressman McGovern
The African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA) hosted a listening session on January 11 featuring United States Congressman Jim McGovern. The webinar was attended by at least 113 people, including all town councilors except Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), and Pat DeAngelis (District 2). State Representative Mindy Domb was also in attendance. The webinar was part of AHRA outreach efforts to determine the shape of Amherst’s reparations program. The webinar can be viewed here.
Introduction To The Harms Of Structural Racism
The webinar began with AHRA member Hala Lord welcoming participants to a safe space with a song. The assembly members then reviewed the five areas of harm caused to the Black population. Amilcar Shabazz pointed out that “reparations” is an old term which means looking to people who have been harmed and to address the effects of that harm. He stated that the United States needs to address the effects of slavery that should have been dealt with in 1865, but were not. The five areas of harm he identified are: Peoplehood, Health, Education, Criminal Justice, and Wealth and Poverty.
Alexis Reed noted that slavery and its aftermath resulted in destruction of Black identities and cultures causing displacement from land, language, and families. Irv Rhodes said inferior education in Black communities is associated with poorer health outcomes, increased incarceration, increased poverty, and lower rates of home ownership. He asserted that jails are filled with people of color with undiagnosed and untreated attention deficit and hyperactivity syndromes.
Lord said the mistreatment of African Americans by the medical profession and unequal access to healthcare has resulted in higher mortality. She stated that a study by Harvard researchers asserted that if mortality among Blacks was equal to that of Whites, there would be 8.8 million more Blacks in the United States.
Shabazz pointed out that slavery existed in Amherst until 1865, and that local police enforced the Fugitive Slave Act to return runaway slaves to their owners. He added that disparate treatment between Blacks and Whites has persisted in differential punishment for drug use and increased incarceration.
Yvonne Mendes highlighted the increased rate of poverty and decreased wealth among African Americans resulting from job discrimination, poor education, increased incarceration, and discrimination in lending practices leading to denial of access to house and land ownership and consequently, the ability to build wealth.
McGovern Answers Questions About Federal Efforts For Reparations
McGovern then spoke briefly and took questions from participants. He is a co-sponsor of HR 40, a House bill to create a commission to study reparations on a federal level. He said it is necessary to tell the real history of this country, even if it is uncomfortable, adding, “We have an obligation to right the wrongs of the past, to do what is right and decent.”
Shabazz asked the congressman if President Biden can bypass Congress by creating a commission that would produce proposals for reparations and bring them to the congress. McGovern agreed with a two-pronged approach: to build support for HR 40 in the House of Representativesand also reach out to the President, saying “You don’t have to wait for us.”
Resident Peter Blood of the Interfaith Council asked what faith groups can do to help get HR 40 passed. McGovern replied that reparations are a moral issue and faith communities have large constituencies. They can call their Congressional representatives and engage in education about the issue through local events. Although slavery was abolished a long time ago, he said, its impacts persist until this day. He added, “Disparities based on race are stunning, and they were more and more in our face during the pandemic. Are we going to fix these disparities — or do nothing?”
Resident Meg Gage was concerned that the commission on reparations stipulated in HR 40 may not lead to action. McGovern replied that constituents need to be “in the face” of their representatives to be sure that actual changes occur. However, he emphasized that the commission would be an important first step to developing the necessary specifics.
Resident Ciara Cosby wanted to be assured that HR 40 is aimed at descendants of chattel slavery, not all Black Americans. She also wanted to know if McGovern would support direct cash payments to these descendants. He said he would support cash payments, but fixing our systems (education, health, criminal justice, etc) is more important. As to who would be eligible for reparations, he would listen to the community.
Resident Gary Tartakov asked McGovern about what might be appropriate for reparations on the federal, state, and local levels. McGovern answered that the point of a commission would be to decide what programs or payments are most appropriate. But he cautioned, “If we don’t include systemic change, we are losing an opportunity to right past wrongs. We need a commission. We can’t leave the decisions to one congressman or senator.”
Amherst Residents Express Thoughts On Reparations
Shabazz cited the need to create an agency to aid in genealogical research, documenting people whose ancestors were enslaved and creating a public registry of freed people..
Susan Lowery voiced concern that some people might be excluded from reparations because of a lack of DNA evidence, but Shabazz replied that the AHRA plans to use an inclusive model as outlined by Amherst native William “Sandy” Darity in his book The Black Reparations Project. Darity’s model takes into account residency, lineage, and identity.
Several residents stressed the need for reparations to be ongoing, not a one-time payment for example. Ash Hartwell recommended increasing the quality and availability of early childhood education. Jacqueline Smith-Crooke spoke of the importance of career mentoring for young Black people. Isolda Ortiz-Bustamante wanted to document Black enrollment and graduation rates, and hiring of Black faculty over time. She lamented the loss of the local Upward Bound program that provided an introduction to higher education for disadvantaged youth. Kathleen Anderson, female co-chair of NCOBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) noted the importance of financial education to support maintaining wealth through generations.
Carly Tartakov urged people to listen to those who have been most harmed, those who have inherited the legacy of slavery. She said that unless we change the systems that created the inequity, nothing will change. She said she is less interested in determining a blood quantum than in examining existing inequities, so that “we can all have a better life.”
Milan (who did not give his last name) asked if the reparations effort is not just performative, letting Amherst residents separate themselves from the history of slavery in this country. He said he has experienced more racism living in New England than when he lived in the South, and he worried that these efforts will give Black people a little power at first, only to remove it later. He added that Amherst has become so expensive that even White residents can’t afford to live here, and whether people who had to leave Amherst because they could not afford to stay here would still be considered residents eligible for reparations.
Pat Ononibaku said she is frustrated that the reparations fund was only allotted a total of $2 million over 10 years when the town has an excess of free cash that is being used to support a big library instead of helping Black residents. She opined that the reparations fund was “just checking off a box”. She went on to say that she helped form a Black Business Association, encompassing more than 20 Black-owned businesses because of racism she has experienced from the Amherst Chamber of Commerce and Business Improvement District, and pointed out that none of those businesses received any of the federal ARPA money allotted to the town to support local businesses..
Rhodes responded to Ononibaku saying there are two sides to every issue. He also said that the AHRA needs to verify peoples’ claims before accepting them. He encouraged people to complete the survey that the AHRA is developing and to register at the Engage Amherst site to receive communication from the AHRA. He noted that the AHRA cannot disperse funds without two-thirds support of the Town Council.
As to gathering feedback from those who feel uncomfortable speaking at a public forum, Mendes said the AHRA welcomes written communications, and that another organization, the Black Assembly of Amherst, meets regularly at the New Africa House at UMass.
The listening session ended at 9:04 p.m. after Anderson read the moving poem by poet laureate of Alabama Ashley M. Jones, “Reparations Now, Reparations Tomorrow, Reparations Forever”..
The session was attended by Washington Post journalist Emmanuel Felton, who has been reporting on reparations efforts around the country. He offered his contact information to Amherst residents: firstname.lastname@example.org or 504-481-9169.
McGovern’s aid in Western Massachusetts is Koby Gardner-Levine who can be contacted at 413-341-8700, McGovern’s local office is at 94 Pleasant Street, Northampton, MA 01060.