BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor city commissioners voted Monday to unanimously support a U.S. Congress bill that would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and continuing discrimination against African-Americans.
“This is a bold and it’s a big step,” Mayor Marcus Muhammad said. “... Our history is horrific in this country. We know that something needs to be done.”
Under the bill, introduced earlier this year by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson, D-Texas, the commission would also make recommendations on reparation proposals for the descendants of slaves.
The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act was first introduced in 1989 by former U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, who died in 2019 at age 90.
Commissioner Sharon Henderson said that reparations have been paid to other groups in America that have been wronged, including to the Japanese-Americans who were sent to internment camps by the federal government during World War II.
She said another example is from the 1923 Rosewood Massacre in Florida, where a white mob destroyed the town after a Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman. The Florida Legislature agreed to pay reparations to the survivors and their descendants in the mid-1990s.
In the Tuskegee experiment, the U.S. government studied the progression of syphilis on untreated Black men in Tuskegee, Ala., from 1932 to 1972. The government agreed to pay reparations to the men and their survivors in 1974.
“This is something that America has done before that I don’t think people realized it has, so they can do it,” Henderson said.
Commissioner MaryAlice Adams said she supports the resolution, but would prefer to have it call for movement towards reparations rather than another study.
“We’ve been studied too long,” she said. “We want action.”
The United States Conference of Mayors, which Muhammad belongs to, issued a letter on July 10 in support of the bill.
The resolution states that the Civil War may have abolished slavery, but it didn’t “eradicate systemic racism and the institutional structures that perpetuate it.”
It points to Jim Crow laws, redlining, school segregation and mass incarceration as ways that were used to “politically, economically and socially disenfranchise Black Americans and maintain a system of white supremacy.”
Because of the systemic racism, generations of Black Americans have had limited opportunities to build the inter-generational wealth that comes from owning homes and businesses and having access to banks.
According to the resolution, the Brookings Institution found that the average net worth of an American Black household ($17,150) is one-tenth of the average white household ($171,000), and this wealth gap may be worsened by the disparate impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the Black community.
Commissioners further approved an ordinance for adult recreational marijuana businesses, although due to some information being missing, they will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. today to fix that problem.
In other business, commissioners approved:
- supporting the Black Lives Matter mural to be painted on the street in front of Benton Harbor High School on Aug. 8;
- a social equity policy concerning recreational marijuana;
- interviewing four candidates for the city’s finance director position;
- a special use permit submitted by Wilson Chandler for Greenstone Wellness for a medical marijuana provisioning center to be at 90 W. Main St.