Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

Rappaport Center and Black Law Students Association Hosts Panel on Reparations

The Rappaport Center and the Boston College Black Law Students Association (BLSA) hosted a webinar panel titled “Reparations: Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities,” at Boston College on Thursday, September 9th.  

Jeffery Robinson moderated the panel that featured Robin Rue Simmons and Nkechi Taifa. Robinson serves as the executive director of The Who We Are Project, which he founded. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Robinson spent four decades as a public defender and in private practice before joining the ACLU. 

Simmons advocates for local reparations based on her experience as the 5th Ward Alderman for the City of Evanston, Illinois. While working as Alderman, she collaborated with the community and other organizations to provide local housing reparations funded by adult use cannabis sales. 

Taifa is an inaugural commissioner on the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC). She has testified before Congress on the necessity of reparations for the Black community, as well as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

All panelists were introduced by Travis Salters, co-president of BLSA. Salters co-founded Next Generation Men and Women in Atlanta before going to law school. 

“I did not come to the issue of reparations decades ago,” Robinson began. “I was certainly in the struggle for racial justice, but when I came to the ACLU I started a conversation that ended up with our board of directors endorsing HR-40 for the first time in the history of the ACLU.”

HR-40 stands for House Resolution 40, which is the bill that would form a commission to study reparations to the Black community for harms done through slavery and other forms of racial injustice in the colonies and early America, starting in 1619. A similar commission led to reparations for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. 

“Reparations is an issue whose time has come. And you know, today is exactly 32 years since the introduction of HR-40 by Congressman John Conyers,” Taifa began, in a brief history on reparations. “My personal journey began long before that. I was very passionate about injustice, I felt that the idea of reparations was reasonable and fair and I vowed to talk about the concept whenever and wherever I could,” she explained. When Taifa began her work, just saying the word reparations and starting conversations was important to give the idea validity. Fifty years later, there would be panels and government hearings testifying to the need for reparations to the Black community. 

“There has been no time when the call for redress has not been passionately voiced,” Taifa argued. 

Robinson added, “In January of 1865, the North knew they were going to win the war, and they held secret meetings with freed Black men in Savannah, Georgia in January.” 

The United States government asked the group of freedmen what it would take for Black people to make it in a newly emancipated South. The response was land that women, children, and the elderly could work, because the freedmen would take roles in the government. 

Robinson then pivoted to Simmons to ask about the specific reparations program she implemented in Evanston, IL. 

“Did you roll out of bed one morning and say reparations in Evanston? How did this come about?” Robinson asked. 

“I grew up in a racially segregated community in Evanston, IL, in the 5th Ward. I experienced personally, I have lived expertise in the barriers to accessing opportunities, entrepreneurship opportunities, capital, home ownership,” Simmons began. 

As the 5th Ward Alderman, and through her commitment to increasing business opportunities to the Black community, Simmons recognized the work still having to be done and the failures of public policy thus far. 

There was a $46,000 income divide between white and Black residents of the city, despite all the work Simmons and other city councilors had accomplished and celebrating diversity. Racial injustice simply wasn’t being addressed by policy changes. 

“Reparations was the most appropriate legislative response to the specific injuries in Evanston. What policies specifically in Evanston have kept us racially segregated, financially segregated?” Simmons asked. 

For Evanston, it was specific redlining and other housing problems from 1919 to 1968 that contributed to the bulk of injustices and segregation. From there, Evanston began a legislative journey to begin the process of local housing reparations. 

“The Black community gave feedback and housing rose up as a priority,” Simmons stated. “So we moved forward through a two year legislative process.” 

With the bulk of the panel complete, Robinson turned over the moderator role to K.P. Ifediba, also a BLSA co-president, to field audience questions. Ifediba is also a part of the Business Law Society at Boston College Law. 

An anonymous audience member asked, “how should the voices of those incarcerated and their families be included in the reparations conversation?”

Taifa added a second question from the chat about, “how folks feel about enslaved Black bodies and years of Black life lost to jails, prisons, and executions?” 

“One thing that’s important to reiterate is reparations is more than just basic public policy, which should be happening anyway. It is that something more, that something specific, like what Robin and her constituents did,” Taifa began. 

Issues like mass incarceration and police murders are directly tied to the enslavement era and its vestiges, such as Jim Crow laws and redlining. For Taifa and others on the panel, the modern American prison system is an extension of the era of enslavement 

“We’re talking about over-incarceration, hyper-incarceration. All that can be part of a reparation’s settlement. If I were to testify before a commission I would definitely make that recommendation,” Taifa concluded. 

The next Rappaport Center panel is on Thursday, September 23, at 5:00pm, and it will feature a discussion on rent control.

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