Edmund Ford taught math for 14½ years and noticed that opportunities were sparse and unevenly distributed in Tennessee’s Shelby County Schools.
“My classrooms were probably about 95% Black,” he said. “Many of my students weren’t getting the tools and resources they needed so that after they graduated from high school, they’d be impervious to social ills and predatory lending and things like that.”
Partly motivated by these sobering observations, Ford, who was elected to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in 2018, is one of the community’s most enthusiastic advocates for the study of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people.
In February, Shelby County officials approved a resolution to investigate the feasibility of reparations. The Board of Commissioners has 13 members: All eight Black members voted in favor of the resolution, while three white members voted “no” and two others abstained. With its recent decision, Shelby County joins a growing group of local and state governments — from California to Atlanta’s Fulton County — pushing to explore how reparations might offer keys for confronting deep-seated racial inequality in areas including housing, criminal justice, health care, career opportunities, and generational wealth. This movement comes as progress on the federal level continues to face roadblocks.
“When the Black community is a strong community, the greater community is also a strong community,” Ford said. “If you go back and look at the communities where dollars are being invested properly, those groups of people become stronger economically. And you know what else becomes stronger? The schools, the banks. Those people end up being assets to the taxpaying base. That’s something I think that everybody should want.”
In majority-Black Shelby County, the median household income for white families is $82,050, while for Black families, it’s only $39,766.
The resolution uses the definition of “reparations” laid out by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America: “a process of repairing, healing, and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions, and families.”
Shelby County Commissioner Miska Clay Bibbs, who previously worked in education advocacy and policy, echoed some of Ford’s sentiments, stressing that what she and her Black colleagues want to do is figure out how exactly to address racial disparities on a structural level.
“We want to put dollars into resources so that the people in our community can change their lives,” she said. “This [study] is about changing the trajectory of our community.”
Here’s a closer look at the current state of the nationwide reparations movement — and its future.
‘Normalizing the conversation’
What’s happening in Shelby County isn’t unique. The past few months have been chock-full of meaningful developments on the reparations front; the movement shows no signs of slowing down.
Last week, for instance, California’s pathbreaking Reparations Task Force held its first public hearings in Sacramento. The two sessions followed more than a year of parsing the state’s history to chart the enduring impact of anti-Black government policies — the results of this exploration are available in a 500-page document — and allowed the public to weigh in on the task force’s work.
(Even though California entered the union as a free state in 1850, legislators there still bolstered the institution of slavery. In 1852, they passed a fugitive slave law that “promoted slaveholding rights so successfully that one antislavery Californian remarked that ‘this State now is, and forever hereafter must remain, a slave State,’” the historian Stacey Smith noted in 2011.)
Similarly, in January, the Board of Commissioners for Georgia’s Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, gave the green light for a $250,000 budget for a task force to determine the viability of granting reparations to Black residents.
And in December, San Francisco’s African American Reparations Advisory Committee released a 60-page draft proposal recommending a one-time payment of $5 million for each eligible resident and funds targeting issues such as housing and education disparities.
Together, these and other reparations efforts underscore something of a sea change that’s been occurring over the past several years, especially since George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
“This trajectory seems to be normalizing the conversation about reparations and the use of the terminology,” said William Darity, a professor of public policy, African American studies, and economics at Duke University. “I think that folks even five years ago would’ve typically been running away from using the term ‘reparations’ or thinking about the idea.”
This isn’t to say that Americans are monolithic when it comes to their sentiments about reparations. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 77% of Black Americans support reparations, while only 18% of white Americans feel the same way. Nor is this to suggest that pro-reparations advocates don’t face their fair share of challenges — including backlash from the political right.
“I’ve gotten negative emails and things like that,” Ford said. “But when you believe in something, and you believe that it’s right, you can’t worry about the noise.”
Even in the face of such pushback, supporters remain firm in their beliefs.
Eric McDonnell is a native San Franciscan and said that his mother fled to the city from McComb, Mississippi, when she was 15 years old in order to escape the blatant racial terrorism permeating the Jim Crow South. Yet San Francisco, he explained, has always been a tale of two cities: a city of opportunity and wealth for some, a city of discrimination and poverty for many others.
Consider the racial wealth gap in San Francisco. For Black families, the median household income hovers around $30,000. Meanwhile, citywide, the figure is more than $104,000.
This landscape of racial injustice encouraged McDonnell, who’s the chair of San Francisco’s African American Reparations Advisory Committee, to wrestle earnestly with what recompense might look like for the city’s Black residents.
“When the [reparations] conversations began to gain energy, and when Shamann Walton [formerly the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors] crafted legislation to create what’s now the African American Reparations Advisory Committee, my interest was in trying to shape that work for Black San Franciscans,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell — like Ford and Clay Bibbs of Shelby County, like advocates all across the U.S. — wants to narrow the distance between the country’s bleak racial realities and its grand narratives of racial equality.
Where to go from here?
The future of the reparations movement is to synchronize local efforts, according to Robin Rue Simmons.
The former 5th Ward alderman for Evanston, Illinois, Rue Simmons played a vital role in helping the city to become the first in the country to issue reparations to begin addressing some of the harm caused by decades of anti-Black housing practices.
Now, she’s the founder and executive director of FirstRepair, a nonprofit organization that informs reparations work beyond Evanston — in fact, Ford partially credits her with inspiring the resolution in Shelby County.
“At FirstRepair, we’ve begun meeting with local reparations leaders across the U.S. and looking at having regional cohorts, because there are things within regions that communities can learn from,” Rue Simmons said.
Coordinating local efforts, she added, might help to advance a federal call for reparations and provide the infrastructure needed to continue examining the institution of slavery.
In January, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced S. 40, legislation to establish a body to consider reparations proposals. Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has been at the forefront of reparations efforts for years and is the lead sponsor of H.R. 40, the House’s companion bill. Over the decades, analogous bills have been introduced — to no avail.
At least for Darity, the Duke professor, granting federal-level reparations is really the only way to remedy the legacy of slavery and anti-Black racism.
“A central condition for an effective reparations plan must be restructuring to eliminate the racial wealth gap,” he argued. “That would require an expenditure of at least $14 trillion — but the combined budgets of all state and local governments in the U.S. is less than $5 trillion.”
He went even further, adding, “In my more cynical moments, I think that local efforts are actually a detour — a deflection — from the type of program that’s really needed.”
Supporters might not agree on everything. But they’re united in acknowledging that federal involvement is necessary.
“We all believe that H.R. 40 is the North Star of our work,” Rue Simmons said, “and that full repair will come with a federal initiative.”