A resolution to form a task force on reparations for Black Philadelphians descended from people enslaved in America was introduced in City Council Thursday, and the organization that lobbied for it hopes it will have a wide ranging impact.
What might such a task force explore? Advocates cited underfunded schools, poor health, food deserts, environmental racism, and pollution, among other issues.
“[There are] so many things that need to be covered by the Philadelphia Reparations Task Force,” said Breanna Moore, co-chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA PHL), which organized to seek lawmaker support for the idea.
As proposed, the task force would “study and develop reparations proposals,” according to a notice released by Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who is co-sponsoring the resolution with Councilmembers Kendra Brooks and Isaiah Thomas.
“When we discuss implementing solutions that get at the root of problems like poverty and gentrification, reparations has to be a part of that conversation,” Gauthier said at a January rally supporting such a task force.
“Reparations are not a handout,” she said. “They are what communities of color, and especially our Black community, are owed.”
N’COBRA PHL co-chair Rashaun Williams hopes a task force would be given ample time to work. “I think that we need two years, at minimum,” he told Billy Penn. “Our people need repair from centuries of things that have happened to us.”
There’s also a more recent slight to address: N’COBRA PHL believes Philadelphia isn’t fully enforcing laws on reparations it adopted in 2005.
The slavery disclosure law, which requires banks and businesses the city works with to examine their history to see if they’ve profited off America’s slave trade and offer reparative programs if they have.
Philadelphia officials say they believe the law is being followed, but have declined to provide details.
“We are not aware of any depository providing materially false information regarding Slavery Era Business disclosures,” said city spokesperson Sarah Peterson, in response to questions on whether banks were turning in fully accurate records.
Billy Penn was denied interviews on the topic with the Philadelphia Treasurer’s Office, Procurement Department, and Law Department — the agencies in charge of adjudicating and certifying the historical accounts banks and businesses share.
Philadelphia is open to exploring a reparations task force, city says, after advocates push for action
Mayor Kenney’s administration does seem open to the idea of a task force.
“We are open to exploring options, whether that be a task force or a commission on reparations, and will continue gathering necessary information as well as having internal conversations to identify an appropriate path forward,” Peterson told Billy Penn in January.
What is N’COBRA? Its Philly roots and ongoing impact
N’COBRA, the national organization from which N’COBRA PHL stems, was founded in 1987 by Imari Obadele — a native Philadelphian who in 1968 cofounded the Republic of New Afrika, an organization seeking to carve out an independent Black nationalist state in the Southeast U.S., or the Black Belt — and Adjoa Aiyetoro, a lawyer and activist long connected to Black nationalist and Pan African movements.
Its mission is to serve “as a broadbased organization with the sole purpose of obtaining reparations for African descendants in the United States and supporting the movements for reparations for Africans and African descendants throughout the Diaspora and Africa,” according to an article authored by Aiyetoro.
N’COBRA is one of the groups that continues to lobby for H.R. 40, federal legislation first introduced in 1989, which calls for a national study on the merits and possibility of granting reparations.
The Philly chapter was founded in 1994 by Latifah Ali, Sheila Jones, Richard White, and others in advance of a national conference held in Philadelphia the following year, according to Williams, the current co-chair.
While supporting movements for reparations elsewhere, N’COBRA is specifically seeking reparations for Black Americans descended from people enslaved in the U.S. — not other British colonies or any other European colonial projects. The resolution being introduced in Philly reflects that same point of focus.
Local polls on reparations have not been commissioned, but multiple surveys show fewer than 30% of Americans are in favor of reparations for slavery. Some surveys show the main reason people think Black Americans shouldn’t get reparations is because they simply don’t deserve it, not because of preexisting policies intended to right historical wrongs or because they believe Black people are treated equally today.
Black Americans’ support for reparations, however, has consistently surpassed 75%.
Some faith leaders in Philadelphia, especially some of Philly’s Quakers, are in favor of reparations. The Green Street Friends Meeting in Germantown kicked off a decade of reparative efforts last year by offering their Black neighbors free real estate and legal services to address tangled titles, wills, and deed transfers.
Other local groups are in favor of the measure as well: The Japanese American Citizens League’s Philadelphia chapter in March issued a statement in support of the creation of a task force.
“Japanese Americans are one of the few communities who have received reparations from the United States government as a result of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988,” the statement notes.
The statement notes that the “friendship, solidarity, and allyship” of Black civil rights leaders was essential for Asian Americans to gain the right to become naturalized citizens and enjoy the rights Black Americans have been at the forefront of winning for racial minorities.
Aiming to garner more support as the resolution moves through Council, the chairs of N’COBRA PHL also think the task force could offer a useful lesson for a city that tends to celebrate its history of abolitionism when conversations about slavery crop up.
“Philadelphia was just as culpable as the South as far as enslaving people of African descent,” said Moore. “Universities built their wealth off Black folk, [like] so many industries in Philadelphia.”
Other disputes aside, Moore thinks that arguments against reparations for Black Americans can’t be drawn from the historical record.
“To me there’s no way, if you really know the truth in history, that you could be skeptical. I would say that you should dig deeper and see where that skepticism lies.”