Activists split over whether reparations should go to Black immigrants

BOSTON — When this city announced earlier this year that it would consider giving reparations to its Black residents, it was heralded as another victory in a national movement to offer recompense for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

The city had played a key role in financing the slave trade and was the site of fierce resistance to integration. Now, advocates said, it was time to address the lingering damage.

But as the mayor started choosing members for the Boston task force, the city quickly became one of the chief battlegrounds of an adjacent fight playing out within the Black community: Should reparations programs be limited to people who trace their ancestry back to American slavery, or should they include Black immigrants who came to the country by choice?

The debate highlights tension within America’s rapidly changing Black community and risks fracturing a movement that is already struggling to gain mainstream acceptance. It could also shape the reach and ultimate price tag of reparations programs being developed in more than a dozen states and cities across the country.

“There is not going to be some ‘Kumbaya’ moment,” said Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, a Boston-based activist calling for reparations to be limited to descendants of enslaved people. “We’re going to have to fight, and we’re going to have to make the strongest case possible.”

The factions are at odds over what it means to be Black in America at a time when that story is rapidly changing. For most of U.S. history, nearly all Black Americans could trace their ancestry back to American slavery. Immigrants, less than 1 percent of the Black population in 1980s, now make up 10 percent. Between now and 2060, about a third of the growth in the Black population will come from immigration from countries such as Jamaica and Ethiopia, according to the Pew Research Center.

After centuries of a shared history, the Black American community is increasingly heterogeneous. And the division is showing up in attitudes about the need for reparations. According to a 2023 Washington Post-Ipsos survey, 75 percent of Black Americans think the federal government should pay reparations, including 77 percent of native-born Black people compared with 59 percent of foreign-born Black people.

“When we talk about the nation’s Black population, we have to understand it is one that is changing and becoming even more diverse than it already was,” said Mark Lopez, Pew’s director of race and ethnicity research. “Immigrants are a big part of that story, and so the immigrant experience is a growing part of the experience of Black Americans today.”

It is a debate playing out across the country.

A California panel has recommended billions in reparations for its Black residents, but it would exclude anyone who cannot trace their lineage in the United States back to 1900. Smaller reparations programs launched by cities in Rhode Island and Illinois have not made a distinction, and Black immigrants are able to apply.

Under a proposal being debated in San Francisco, descendants of enslaved Americans would be given more points than others in a formula to determine eligibility for up to $5 million in payments.

In Boston, the distinction could drastically impact the reach of the panel’s recommendations. Black residents make up 19 percent of the city’s overall population. But 37 percent of that population is foreign-born, the highest rate of any metropolitan area in the country, according to a recent study by the Boston Foundation.

Freedmen perspective

For decades, activists have been calling on Boston to atone for its history of racial discrimination — from the financing of the slave trade to the bulldozing of Black communities. Boston-based traders and investors were responsible for at least 307 separate slave trade trips, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that traces the history of slavery.

The movement was revived in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, when activists called on local leaders to apologize for the city’s racist history and establish a reparations commission.

City leaders agreed. “For four hundred years, the brutal practice of enslavement and recent policies like redlining, the busing crisis … have denied Black Americans pathways to build generational wealth, secure stable housing, and live freely,” Mayor Michelle Wu said in a statement announcing the reparations panel.

The city soon found itself the target of a loosely organized group of activists, calling themselves Freedmen, waging a nationwide campaign to keep reparations programs limited to descendants of enslaved people.

For the reparations movement to succeed, it can’t be seen as free-for-all for anyone in America who identifies as Black, these activists say. There should be narrowly tailored restitution plans for people whose ancestors’ labor and property were stolen, they say.

Freedmen activists point to data showing that Black immigrants generally fare better than the community overall.

Black immigrant households have a higher median income — $57,200 — than U.S.-born Black households — $42,000 — but one lower than other immigrant-led households, according to a 2022 Pew report. In Boston, the median net worth for nonimmigrant Black families in the Boston area was $8 compared with $12,000 for Caribbean Black families, according to a 2015 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

“It’s like being in an emergency room, and you see somebody come in with a paper cut, and somebody else who is having a heart attack,” said Robinson-Goodnight, a Freedmen activist. “Who are you actually supposed to help first?”

Freedmen activists are facing opposition from advocates who say the slave trade and its legacy have affected the lives of every Black person in America, no matter when their ancestors arrived — with some even calling for reparation dollars to be sent to Africa.

“One of the things that actually unites all African people is the right to reparation, because we were all damaged by this transatlantic slave trade and this experience of slavery,” said Amilcar Shabazz, professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The modern reparations movement must address the state of 21st-century America, said Yvonne Mendez, a second-generation Panamanian American. “We have to deal with slavery,” she said. “But we also need reparations that address the issues that all Black people are facing today.”

As Boston officials began planning the city’s reparations task force, Robinson-Goodnight, then the project director for the New Democracy Coalition, a grass-roots organization, lobbied for seven of the 10 seats to go to Freedmen activists, including one for herself.

“We don’t need a task force that is full of academics or politicians or people with money,” she said.

Her family was enslaved in Mississippi, Robinson-Goodnight said, and after World War II moved to Boston, where they threw themselves into the burgeoning Black community.

On a piece of notebook paper, Robinson-Goodnight recently jotted down in bright-blue ink the web of businesses that her family has lost over the years — a variety store, a coffee shop, a bar. At one point, they owned 10 properties around Boston, she said.

There is no trace of that wealth left at the corner of Shawmut Avenue and Windsor Street, where her grandfather once owned two buildings. In the 1960s, the city used eminent domain to take the properties for a highway project.

“It’s almost 80 years since we first got here, and it feels like I’m still fighting just for my family to be here,” she said.

The city’s historically Black Roxbury neighborhood was once written off as a slum, she said, but is now attracting students from nearby Northeastern University as well as immigrants from around the globe, including many Black migrants from Africa and the West Indies. Where once stood soul food restaurants and barbecue joints, now stand Jamaican jerk places and Ethiopian restaurants, she said.

“On the ground in Roxbury, people know that their experiences are different than say someone who immigrated here from Africa or the Caribbean,” Robinson-Goodnight said.

As the city debated the job of its reparations committee, Robinson-Goodnight put herself forward, seeking and getting nominations from other activists and local government officials.

But the Freedmen’s agenda drew opposition from other reparations advocates.

“If you relegate reparations to just slavery, then you’ve missed the mark,” said Michael Curry, chief executive of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and former head of the Boston NAACP. “Because if you’re Nigerian or Cape Verdean or Black Brazilian, you’ve experienced the same things, been stopped by the police, you’ve been denied a job, you’ve been denied that bank loan. This is about repositioning a whole people.”

In February, Wu named 10 members to the city’s nascent reparations task force to “release a study on the legacy of slavery in Boston and its impact on descendants today.” Robinson-Goodnight wasn’t among them.

So far, the newly minted commission has not taken a stance on eligibility. Joseph Feaster Jr., a Boston attorney and chair of the city’s reparations commission, said that the committee still has a lot of work to do before starting to discuss which residents should be eligible for a reparations program.

The issue should not be resolved by government officials, said Segun Idowu, Boston’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion.

“This is a huge debate within the Black community itself,” said Idowu. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for government to make decisions about what reparations should be.”

Stark disparities, common insults

Freedmen’s activists say they are not giving up. Robinson-Goodnight has set her sights on legislation introduced in June to establish a statewide reparations commission in Massachusetts.

Activists have also descended two hours west of Boston, where Floyd’s death sparked multiple protests in Amherst, Mass., followed by months of calls for reform in the progressive college town. In 2020, the town’s council voted to “end structural racism and achieve racial equity for Black residents.” Then, the next year, it formed the Amherst African Heritage Reparation Assembly and pledged to create a fund.

About 6 percent of Amherst’s population, around 2,400 people, are Black. About two-thirds of them, reparations committee members say, are students at one of the town’s three colleges. But the city’s racial disparities are stark: The median household income for Black residents is $48,276, compared with $55,592 for Asian households and $65,133 for White households, according to census data. The bureau did not release data on Latino households.

“We think of ourselves as a progressive community today,” said Michele Miller, who spearheaded the local reparations effort. “But we knew that there were slave owners in Amherst’s history. We knew that there was all sorts of discrimination that happened here that needed to deal we with the legacies of.”

The city has pledged $2 million, so far, for the panel’s reparations recommendations, which are expected to be released in August. Committee members are still discussing how the funds should be used. Possibilities include providing emergency funds, housing assistance and education scholarships for Black residents and renaming public spaces for Black historical figures. But they have not seriously considered excluding the 40 percent of the city’s Black population born outside the United States, board members say.

That has angered Freedmen activists. “This needs to be lineage-based,” Jaylynn Conway, a Boston-based activist, said after joining a December committee meeting over Zoom. “If not, you would be giving away our money to immigrants who came over here willingly. We came over here forcibly because we were sold by our own people.”

Shabazz, the University of Massachusetts professor and a member of Amherst’s reparations task force, immediately rejected demands that the panel stop calling its program reparations unless it was limited to descendants of enslaved people.

“I won’t back off from the word, and I’m not going to shift,” Shabazz, who says he can trace his ancestry back to U.S. slavery, said at one meeting. “This is reparations. Reparations on a local municipal level to address harms that occurred here.”

Mendez, who is also a member of Amherst’s reparations committee, also resisted the Freedmen’s demands.

While she traces her lineage outside the country, raising three Black children in Amherst means constantly putting out fires, Mendez said, including worrying how her sons will be treated by police.

Once, her daughter’s drama teacher assigned her the monkey role in a school play.

“I think it was ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” Mendez said. “My daughter at the time was young enough not to know what the message was, but I did, so I went right down to the school and I said, ‘Any time you’ve got Black kids in your class none of them are going to be the monkeys.’”

Mendez said that she learned later that another Black parent had the same conversation with the teacher two years earlier.

“We all have those stories in Amherst,” she said. “And so, for me, this reparations program is about changing it for the next generation, chipping away at the systemic racism we have here and creating a place where there’s affinity and facility as well as prosperity for people of color.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report from D.C.

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