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Question Everything: What are reparations and why are they so important?

Question Everything: What are reparations? Why is the issue so urgent and important?
Question Everything: What are reparations? Why is the issue so urgent and important? 03:43

By Chris Tanaka, WBZ-TV

BOSTON - Recently, the Boston City Council voted unanimously to form a commission to study the possibility of reparations for the Black community in Boston. There is a lot that is unknown: will Mayor Wu form the commission? If she does, what will it find? WBZ is asking what ARE reparations? And why is the issue so urgent and important?

"At the human level when you harm somebody, the first thing that you do, typically, if you care and you desire for that relationship to continue, is to apologize," Na'Tisha Mills from Embrace Boston, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on equity work, breaks it down succinctly.

"It's a process of healing," she continued. "It's a process of reconciling and acknowledging that there has been a harm that has taken place and there's work to not only say that out loud, but there's work to undo the harm."

That's what reparation is at its core. In this case, the proposal to form the committee is now before Mayor Wu. If and when convened, it will have two years to submit a report on its findings of the harms done to Black Bostonians and what some appropriate outcomes could be. The committee would have a lot of work. The history of harms is lengthy, dating back hundreds of years, even to the Boston Tea Party.

"There were enslaved people in ships right next to the ships that they were throwing tea over and we don't talk about that," said Imari Paris Jeffries, Executive Director of Embrace Boston. In addition to slavery, he points to Jim Crow laws, red lining, bussing riots, overt racism and daily micro-aggressions that have caused intergenerational harm to the Black community.

"This long history of injustice that is intimately a part of our country is hard to admit," he added.

Down the street in Roxbury, Leonard Egerton and Clarissa Cropper Egerton are busy moving new inventory around their inviting, successful business.

"Frugal is this business that we've been trying to establish over the last 17 years," said Leonard.

When the couple opened Frugal bookstore in Nubian Square, it was the only Black-owned bookstore in the city.

"It's our livelihood, it's hopefully going to be part of our generational wealth," Leonard said.

Seventeen years later, they say it's STILL the only Black-owned bookstore in Boston. Make no mistake, they are outliers-both in owning the business and building intergenerational wealth. An infamous report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 2015 found the median net worth of U.S. Black households in Boston was eight dollars. For white households, it was almost $250,000.

"There's just not that opportunity where there are in wealthier and more affluent communities," Clarissa said.

Jeffries agrees.

"Our city has struggled for so long with this poverty of empathy," Jeffries said. "We don't feel right about other people being made whole."

Reparations aren't new. Other racial and religious groups have received them. Select Native American tribes were monetarily compensated for their land seized by the U.S. government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs continues to work with hundreds of tribes, albeit with questionable results. Germany paid more than $800 million in restitution to Holocaust victims and their heirs. Even the Reagan Administration partook, dispersing more than a billion dollars to victims of Japanese internment during World War II.

These are huge sums of money, but Mills says it's not just about that.

"Whether it be more businesses that are established or the local cities or the state creates new policies and legislation that holds these anchor institutions these corporations accountable," Mills said.

Adds Cropper-Egerton, "It's definitely a step in the right direction. You can't make up for years and years and centuries for being marginalized and systemic racism. But it is a step in the right direction." 

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