Embrace Boston offers expansive view of reparations from education to transportation

A new report from Embrace Boston offers a sweeping view of what reparations could mean in the city of Boston, emphasizing that the goal is not a cash payout to descendants of enslaved people, but rather a wholesale transformation of a society built on structural racism.

Released as part of the organization’s first Embrace Black History event Tuesday, the report includes an array of facts about racial inequity in Boston — ranging from housing to education to transportation and infrastructure — and suggests ways government and other institutions can begin to address those harms.

The report is “our offering of an approach to reparations,” said Elizabeth Tiblanc, vice president for arts and culture at Embrace Boston. She noted that it took several years to create the report, which is intended to help guide Boston’s reparations task force.

That task force was launched last year. Earlier this year, the task force announced a team of researchers who will document the history of slavery and economic discrimination in Boston in order to guide their recommendations for repair.

“I’ve been describing it [the Embrace Boston report] as an articulation tool to revisit, to think about, to break down and look at the intersectionality,” Tiblanc said, “but also have the opportunity to to dig deeper into individual areas as well.”

The concept of reparations often ties back to the notion of the 40 acres of land offered to newly freed Blacks on the Georgia and South Carolina coast after the Civil War. The U.S. government never provided the land that was promised, and it has remained a metaphor for 150 years of Black economic exclusion. Several widely discussed proposals have suggested that Black Americans are owed in the range of $14 trillion for the wealth that has been denied them since the advent of slavery in America.

But in listing the “harms” that reparations should address, the Embrace report goes beyond a cash amount. The report suggests reparations need to include closing the funding gap between highest and lowest spending school districts; prioritizing the growth of low-income and affordable housing, and ensuring that housing is built in wealthy neighborhoods as well; and enhancing public transportation infrastructure for people in urban areas to bring their options up to par with well-served suburban areas.

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“Part of understanding all these opportunities for repair across sectors, across spaces, is understanding how each individual in this country has embodied racialized trauma that lives inside of them,” Tiblanc said.

She said the first challenge is getting people to understand that racism is woven into our existing systems.

“It’s in everything that we do,” she said. “It’s how we interact with each other in public spaces and private spaces. It’s how infrastructure is set up. There’s a physical infrastructure, social infrastructure, how folks are supported, how the media builds narratives.”

As a result, Tiblanc said there is not single policy or program that will be sufficient to repair the vast harm.

“It’s more than a dollar amount, right? That the dollar amount is not the only conversation,” she said. “There are more ways in which we need to heal in order to become whole as an entire society.”

Sandra McCroom, president of Children’s Services of Roxbury, says the root of reparations begins with recognizing Black people’s humanity.

“You know, we wrote laws that said you’re 3/5 a human. How is that even possible?” she asked.

She says Boston — and the nation — has to grapple with that issue of inequality before moving on to conversations about specific actions of repair.

“Before we can have a conversation about housing: Why don’t I deserve housing? Why do you anticipate that if I’m your neighbor, your property value is going to go down?” she asked.

McCroom, whose organization provides wraparound support for families across the state, including shelter, mental health care and youth development services, said many people in her community do not even believe they will be welcomed to participate in significant swaths of activity and programs in the city.

“I’m two miles from downtown and some of the families I serve could not imagine — could not imagine it and wouldn’t feel comfortable — going two miles away to a restaurant downtown,” she said. “Couldn’t imagine it. Wouldn’t want to go.”

For a conversation about reparations to begin, she said, the first step has to be acknowledging “the weight of racism,” which is “a consideration that people of color have to make, for a lot of decisions in their life, you know? Am I going to go to the doctor? Are they going to believe me when I say I’m in a lot of pain and I’m not asking for pain medicine, you know, to get high … all of these considerations that we know going into almost any situation that our race is going to have some undercurrent to it.”

The Embrace report “is specific to black residents and the harm against black lives and black bodies,” Tiblanc said, so it does not address calls from Native Americans for reparations for the genocide and land theft that displaced entire communities from the region. But Tiblanc added “that conversation is not something that is foreign to Embrace Boston or that we don’t believe should also be lifted up.”

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