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Reparations Can — And Should — Take Many Forms, Says Human Rights Researcher


This week the city of Evanston, Ill., authorized spending on reparations to its Black residents in the form of housing grants. The news was among the first of its kind but just the latest in the evolving national conversation about the subject. Joining us now is Dreisen Heath, researcher at Human Rights Watch. Welcome to the program.

DREISEN HEATH: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: You've been watching what's been going on in Evanston pretty closely. And I know on Twitter, you've called it historic and that there could be it could provide sort of a pathway to other cities. In what way?

HEATH: Absolutely. I mean, the Evanston model speaks directly to what you can do at the local level. So in Evanston, they looked at discriminatory housing policies initiated at the local level between 1919 and 1969. The community decided on housing and economic development as priorities for this reparations fund, and therefore, they established a reparative housing program. This very model can be used in other cities depending on what specific harms were inflicted on the Black residents in that area.

CORNISH: People are so focused on the idea of kind of cash transfers, and in this case, again, it's money coming out of a fund. Is that the only example of how reparations can or have worked in the past? And what could people be also considering?

HEATH: Absolutely. So financial compensation is obviously a viable form, but there are other forms, including, you know, an official apology by the government in response to a specific wrongdoing. We've never had an official apology by the federal government for slavery and its continuing impacts - institutional and legal reforms that are necessary to ensure that Black livelihood and well-being is respected in this country.

CORNISH: Do you think that people have been receptive to the Evanston program because of the nature of its funding, that it's funded from a new source of money in marijuana taxes, and that the perception is not that it's, quote, unquote, "taking away" from people or taking away from white people and taxpayer dollars?

HEATH: I think, you know, we still deal with white supremacist and paternalist ideals and thoughts. I think people need to open their minds on what taking looks like because this country was built on theft. It continues to take away from our most marginalized communities when there are an excess of resources to be shared and administered to make sure the conditions are equitable. We deal out money all the time for government needs, for specific corporations and for specific entities, and most of those are benefiting white people. So how can we continue to interrogate that and break that down in a way that makes the picture more equitable for everyone? Racial discrimination has impacts for everyone.

CORNISH: How does the conversation about reparations actually fit into the larger conversation about racial justice? Is this something people should focus on considering the other harms or the other solutions?

HEATH: Reparative justice is a important pillar of racial justice, and you cannot achieve racial justice unless there is a repair for these past and ongoing harms, right? How can we achieve racial equality if we haven't fully rectified what has happened in the past and what continues to impact Black people today and other marginalized communities today? So anyone taking on, you know, the mission to achieve and advance racial justice has to incorporate reparation and remedy in their process and framework.

CORNISH: Dreisen Heath, thank you so much for your time, and thank you for sharing this with us.

HEATH: Thank you so much, Audie. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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