St. Paul has created a Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission, as a result of unanimous St. Paul City Council action Jan. 4. Approval was greeted with applause in the council chambers as several supporters braved winter weather for the vote.
Ward Seven Council Member Jane Prince, who led efforts to work with community members and have the city study reparations, said that St. Paul must “never go backwards” in trying to right past wrongs. She said the work on reparations moves the city toward true racial justice.
The commission will serve as an advisory group to the mayor and city council. It will look at issues of systemic racism in the city, which have resulted in racial disparities in generational wealth, homeownership, health care, education, employment and pay, and fairness within the criminal justice system among the American descendants of chattel slavery.
The commission will make short-term and long-term recommendations on policies, program and budget issues. It will look at city expenditures with an eye on racial equity and prepare an annual report.
It will also look at how to pay for reparations. Sources including philanthropic donations and even taxes on sale of marijuana if that is legalized in Minnesota have been suggested.
The commission will have 11 members, to be appointed by the city council in the weeks ahead. The first members will have staggered terms, with all commission members eventually serving three-year terms. Membership is open to city residents, with the goal of having diversity in neighborhoods, races, cultures, ages, abilities, incomes and sexual orientations consistent with city’s diversity and equity goals.
The commission staff will be housed in city council offices. The commission will meet monthly.
A focus on reparations moved to the forefront after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Reparations have been discussed in St. Paul for the past few years, with the city council taking its first steps in 2021 with a formal apology to those affect by institutional racism. Those steps included forming an exploratory task force. The task force also recommended direct cash payments as a form of reparations.
St. Paul officials haven’t indicated what reparations could look like here. In other communities reparations have taken different forms, from cash payouts to making changes in public policy.
Although efforts to provide reparations have stalled at the federal level, several states are studying reparations. Cities including Detroit, Mich., Amherst, Mass. and Evanston, Ill. have also acted or are studying the issue. Evanston was the first city to pass a reparations measure, providing $25,000 to direct descendants of Black residents impacted by discriminatory city housing policies between 1919 and 1969. Evanston leaders acted in 2021. Evanston uses a tax on sales of legal cannabis to pay its costs.
More than two dozen people attended a December public hearing on the reparations commission. More than a dozen others sent written comments, most in support of the commission. Opponents questioned potential costs in light of high property taxes, and whether other groups including Native Americans are also entitled to reparations.
Trahern Crews, who is credited with bringing the reparations issue forward in St. Paul, told the city Council, “You guys are setting an example for the rest of the country with what you’re doing here.”
Rev. Carl Walker was among public hearing speakers whose families lost their homes when interstate 94 was built through the old Rondo neighborhood. Loss of homes and businesses, and what is cited as inadequate compensation, has long been raised as an issue.
Walker’s family and others lost their homes as well as the equity they had built up. “We wanted stability … We were told we had to move,” Walker said.
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