Reparations are main topic of panel discussion at MLK event

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Should descendants of enslaved African Americans receive reparations? What could those reparations look like?

A panel will tackle those questions from 12:30-2 p.m. Jan. 17 during the online discussion “You Can Keep the Mule: Let’s Explore Reparations Models” that is part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

“I’m hoping people can walk away with an understanding of why reparations are needed, and have a sense of the different ways reparations could be paid out” beyond just money, said Feodies Shipp III, director of the U-M Detroit Center, which is co-presenting the event along with the Crafting Democratic Futures project.  

Reparations, or the idea that African Americans should be compensated for past abuses, have been discussed with little progress since the end of slavery in the 1860s, said Earl Lewis, a U-M professor and lead principal investigator for Crafting Democratic Futures.

However, Lewis said those discussions have picked up steam over the past five or so years, with some U.S. cities taking steps to provide compensation to African Americans. In November, voters in Detroit passed a proposal to create a commission that would consider reparations for city residents.   

“We think this conversation is both timely and somewhat urgent, and we believe particularly on MLK Day, that it’s an important one,” said Lewis, who also is the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor, director of the Center for Social Solutions, and professor of history, Afroamerican and African studies and public policy.

“King called on the nation to explore ways to heal itself. We believe no healing can occur unless we explore fruitfully and fully the topic of reparations.”

The panel discussion will explore forms reparations could take, from cash payments to free land or college tuition, with a focus on African Americans and Native Americans. It will also explore whether reparations are owed at all.

Each panelist is involved in Crafting Democratic Futures, a three-year, grant-funded initiative that is housed in the Center for Social Solutions. The project aims to tackle the complex histories surrounding race by working with colleges and universities around the country to develop suggestions for research-informed, community-engaged racial reparations solutions.

The panelists are:

  • Cynthia Spence, principal investigator for the Spelman College CDF team.
  • Timothy Eatman, co-principal investigator the Rutgers-Newark CDF team.
  • Ricky White, community fellow for the Concordia College CDF team.
  • Lauren Hood, a member of the U-M CDF team who serves as the community fellow for the metro Detroit area.
  • Alize Asberry Payne, a member of the U-M CDF team who serves as the community fellow for the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area.
  • Lewis, who will moderate the discussion.

The name of the event comes from the period after the Civil War when some people campaigned for “40 acres and a mule” to be given to African Americans who had endured slavery.   

Shipp said the concept of reparations applies not just to slavery, but also to the historical abuses the U.S. government committed against Native American and other populations.

“We often don’t look at or have knowledge of the things people of color have lost in this country,” Shipp said.

“You Can Keep the Mule: Let’s Explore Reparations Models” will include both the panel discussion and a question-and-answer session. It is free to attend virtually, although pre-registration is required.

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