Two bills to advance paying reparations to Oregonians descended from slaves have stalled in the state Senate. But with increased momentum to make Black Americans whole amid systemic wealth inequities, members from both sides of the Oregon Senate have parlayed the proposals into support of U.S. Congressional action on reparations.
Chief sponsor Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) called Senate Bill 619’s fate disappointing, if not particularly surprising.
“The real key element there, and the reason I brought it forward, was because it was time to say, ‘alright, put up or shut up,’” Frederick told The Skanner.
SB 619 would have directed the state Department of Revenue to establish a program to pay reparations in the form of a $123,000 lifetime annuity to Oregonians who can demonstrate they are descended from a slave; who have identified as African American on legal documents for at least a decade; who are at least 18-years-of-age; and who have resided in Oregon for at least two years. SB 618 would have directed a study of how to deliver reparations.
Frederick called the $123,000 annuity a negotiation number.
“If I had said that it was $25, some folks would’ve objected to it as well,” he said.
Critics of reparations, including a handful of Oregonians who submitted written testimony objecting to the bills, often characterize slavery as long passed and since resolved, arguing that no one directly involved in it is still alive today. But proponents point out that legalized slavery was swiftly replaced by racist laws that continue to target and incarcerate Black Americans at a much higher rate than Whites, and that this, coupled with long-running practices of real estate redlining and discriminatory lending, has denied Black families the opportunity to build generational wealth and financial security. The impact can indeed be measured in today’s terms: In 2019, the average net worth of a White family was $188,200 -- nearly 8 times that of the average Black family, the Brookings Institute reported. The covid-19 pandemic has only widened that gap, with Black families typically much less buffered from the economic and employment fallout that has resulted.
There is a broader argument for providing reparations that would boost the financial well-being and thus the buying power of Black Americans: According to the Berkeley Economic Review, some experts estimate that closing such wealth gaps could boost the U.S. gross domestic product by up to 6% in the next decade.
Frederick pointed out during a March 10 public hearing that reparations are not unprecedented in the U.S., alluding to reparation payments that were made to some of the surviving Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II.
“Understand that as a community, we’ve been through this before,” Frederick said. “‘Forty acres and a mule’ was not lived up to, like the treaties with native tribes. We, as a country, finally acknowledged the loss of property and livelihood for our Japanese cousins. It is time we acknowledge that there is something that needed to be done in this situation.”
While Oregon’s two bills languished without a work session, momentum for Black reparations appears to be building on a national level, and even within Congress. And Gov. Kate Brown last month announced in a meeting with Reimagine Oregon that she intended to “lay the groundwork” for reparations payments to Black Oregonians.
She specifically mentioned a recent resolution by the city council of Evanston, Ill., as a case study.
Calls to Brown about her stance on Oregon’s approach to reparations were not returned by press deadline.
In March, the Evanston City Council voted 8-1 to direct some proceeds from legalized cannabis taxes to a housing initiative that would benefit Black residents of the Chicago suburb who could show they either lived in the city between 1919 and 1969, or were directly descended from someone who did, or who can demonstrate they suffered from housing discrimination in the area after 1969.
The Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, which offers up to $25,000 in grants to eligible applicants, is meant not as slavery reparations, but reparations for the city’s exclusionary zoning laws.
The one dissenting vote against the program came from Alderwoman Cicely Fleming, a Black woman who objected to what she saw as the over-regulation of payments meant as a remedy.
“I think as we’ve seen reparations in other places, it’s always involved a cash payment,” Fleming told The Skanner. “Because we’re only dealing with Evanston, and our repair is not as great as (for) the slave trade, it could be a smaller cash payment. But not to give people an option, in my opinion, falls into many narratives and judgments around poor or minority people and their ability to manage cash,” she said, invoking the derogatory stereotype of the “welfare queen.”
“We tied it to housing because that’s the identified repair, but then made a lot of stipulations on the rest of it: You have to live here, you have to buy a house here, or you have to be a homeowner, you have to be able to qualify for whatever loan.”
Fleming said she likens reparations to a class-action lawsuit payout.
“If you fall into the category of being a plaintiff in that lawsuit, then you qualify for whatever the remedy is,” she said. “No matter where you live or anything else. We identified our harm as redlining, but it does not mean that the repair itself, the tangible repair, needs to then be connected to a house.
"The repair needs to be connected to the people harmed
"And then the part which would make you whole, so to speak, should just be cash. There should be a cash offering. If we want to do either/or, and someone says, I’d rather take $5,000 cash, or someone says I want a $25,000 home grant, great -- but the piece about not having a choice, and that people are going to have cash transferred to banks on their behalf, just felt very much almost contradictory to reparations.”
Fleming added, “Say you don’t want to buy a house in Evanston. Some people who would qualify under the criteria we set up, they live in other places, and why should they move back here to receive the repair that we say we owe them?”
Frederick expressed a similar sentiment about how reparations should be dispersed.
“If we could get past that paternalism, it would make a huge difference,” Frederick told The Skanner.
“Let’s be real clear: the idea was very simply to say, we expect adults to act like adults. If they need to have that money put into a college education or into a small business they want to start or into a house or something for their grandchildren’s education, fine...there’s a whole narrative that African Americans really aren’t able to make those kinds of decisions.”
In the meantime, Frederick and his colleagues issued Senate Joint Memorial 4 to support House Resolution 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.
For now, Frederick is undecided on whether he will re-introduce reparations legislation in an upcoming term that restricts lawmakers to introducing only two bills.
“What really needs to happen now is for there to be significantly more folks lobbying for reparations,” Frederick said. “Not elected officials so much. Not just cheering but instead saying, ‘This is a serious issue, we need to be thinking about it.’”