In the raging debate over compensation in the United States, the daunting task facing those fighting for compensation for black Americans is twofold.
Their first challenge is to justify to those opposed to reparations what has already been documented throughout history time and time again: that the enduring legacy of slavery, and its related racism and discrimination, stretches back centuries after the Emancipation Proclamation and continues to harm black Americans even today. .
The second is to demonstrate that the messy and complex process of making that reimbursement, whether in cash or through politics—an endeavor that some economists have estimated could result in tens of millions of dollars in payments to millions of black Americans—is even possible. .
In The Big Payback, a PBS documentary premiering on Martin Luther King Day, co-directors Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow set out to confront these two challenges head-on. The filmmakers begin with a quick introduction to all the salient points made over and over again about how existing systems support the legacy of slavery and why reparations are necessary: Jim Crow, rewriting discriminatory housing policies, the division of racial poverty, the criminal justice system, oppressive voting laws, shootings by the police.
The film then moves on to follow two attempts at reparations: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s efforts at the federal level to get out of the Judiciary Committee with a bill calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations proposals, and Reuben’s landmark work. Roo Simmons, former alderoman in Evanston, Illinois.
In 2019, Evanston became the first city in the country to guarantee funding—up to $10 million—for compensation for African American residents. What happened next was more than a year of public meetings, discussions, expert testimony, and legal review to determine not only what form this money would take, but who would be eligible to receive it.
“When we first started, [the film] “It could just be a case for damages because it wasn’t done,” Alexander told the Guardian. “But then, all of a sudden, in those few months, that young woman did something that had never happened in American history, and we were able to catch it. It was like being with Rosa Parks on the bus.”
Interviews with members of the community shed light on how complex and intricate the process was to gauging the breadth of historical injustices suffered by the descendants of slavery, and how difficult it was to put a monetary value on that suffering. One of the men, Mark Dykes, spoke of the traumatic long-term effect of having to modify behaviors to avoid racial violence or discrimination.
“Considering what my father had to go through in the South during Jim Crow,” he said, “you could literally get beaten and killed because you stood up for yourself.” “It took me a long time to realize that my father was protecting me by moving his feet and skinning and smiling in front of the white man.”
Simmons said, “There is no single form of reform that can satisfy the totality of the damage done to black people and crimes against the humanity of black people in this nation.”
But she said that wasn’t the point of getting caught. What she hopes viewers will learn from watching her fight for reparations in this documentary is that what matters is where she starts – and the time to start is now.
Simmons ran into opposition when she and other stakeholders proposed that the first part of the compensation take the form of a $400,000 housing grant program. The documentary captured some of Simmons’ critics within Evanston’s Black community, who claimed that the program was not reparations, but just another social programme. Some have said that black Americans deserve cash payments without strings attached. Alderman Cecily Fleming, who single-handedly voted against the measure, said the program did not allow people to “dictate the terms of how they get fixed.”
The decision to focus compensation first on housing came after several community meetings, where “the consensus came overwhelmingly with housing as the area of greatest harm and most in demand,” Simmons said. A big part of the process was making sure that those damages had legal standing – so that they couldn’t be challenged in court – and local historian Dino Robinson Jr. was able to piece together a number of discriminatory zoning laws in Evanston from 1919 to 1969 that showed how damage the city’s black community.
The Housing Grant gives qualified residents up to $25,000 to use for a down payment on a home or inner-city closing cost assistance, or to help pay for repairs, mortgage principal, interest, or late penalties on Evanston property. This means that if each applicant receives a maximum of $25,000 in scholarships, only 16 families or individuals—in a city with a black population of 12,000—will receive a check. Last year, the city selected 16 applicants out of 122 applicants in a random lottery. The program originally received over 600 applicants, but only 122 made it through to those who lived in, or are descendants of, those who lived under Evanston’s discriminatory housing laws.
Simmons heard all the criticisms of the program — that its scope is too narrow, that the black community deserves more — but she emphasized that when it comes to reparations, you have to start somewhere. And this is only the beginning.
“Wanting cash and not housing benefit is not wrong. The challenge I would give someone is: How do we have both?” she said. “How do we have everything? How do we have money, housing, education and so on? This is what we do and this is what we are looking for as reform. But we have to realize that we have to start somewhere. We have to take the first step. We cannot be crippled.”
Simmons said Evanston has since agreed to an additional $10 million in compensation fund. Meanwhile, FirstRepair—the not-for-profit Simmons started post-term organization—is working with communities across the country looking to start their own reparations process.
And with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee’s efforts to push forward HR40, a compensation bill first introduced in 30 years, will likely prove futile. However, Simmons and the filmmakers are calling for Joe Biden to set up a compensation commission via executive order.
Because like the compensation debate, the issue here is twofold. Yes, the main focus of compensation is on black Americans getting the compensation they are entitled to. But the other side of the coin is for the institutions that have committed the wrongdoing – whether they are local municipalities or the federal government – to acknowledge the harm they have caused. While it can start at the local level, the federal government must also take responsibility and provide reparations to Black Americans.
“Religion is in the very fabric of America,” Alexander said. “If you see how it lies within the DNA within the systems of government, the financial systems, the education, the criminal justice system, everything that surrounds this earth, there is no excuse. It is the religion of the government.”
And despite the uphill battle they faced, Simmons remains optimistic.
“We’re already seeing that, in big cities like San Francisco and small towns like Amherst, Massachusetts,” Simmons said. “I hope they take away from my experience that it is possible to pass what some believe is a compensatory, radical justice policy in their communities. Passing HR40 is also possible.”