AMHERST — Whatever model Amherst creates for offering reparations to Black and African heritage residents could set an example for other cities and towns, states and the federal government, according to U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern.
Taking part in the virtual African Heritage Reparation Assembly listening session on Wednesday evening from his office in Washington D.C., McGovern said that the work being done in Amherst, and the input being gathered, could be a spur for the federal bill he is cosponsoring, H.R. 40, that would form a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.
“The structural and systemic impacts of slavery in this country are undeniable,” McGovern said. “The disproportionate number of Black people who have experienced housing discrimination, school segregation, health disparities and mass incarceration is a symptom of this legacy.”
The Worcester Democrat said he hopes the rest of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and its U.S. senators will fully endorse federal efforts to address the continued legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and racism, by actions, and not just through symbolic acts.
“We can do nothing or we can do what’s right, we can do nothing or what’s fair, we can do nothing or we can do what’s decent or we can do nothing or we can live up to the high standard of human rights we claim we want to see as a reality,” McGovern said.
“We need to start fixing things and making things better,” McGovern said.
District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, who co-chairs the reparation group, said the group is developing a robust and inclusive reparative justice plan that will be recommended to the Town Council in June. The listening session is the second held to give an opportunity for diverse voices, and outreach is also being done throughout town and on the college campuses.
During questions directed to McGovern, he said on a national level he would support whatever appropriate remedies are identified by a study commission, including cash to those who need it, similar to how Japanese-Americans held in internment camps during World War II were compensated.
“It’s not just about one payment, and that may be part of it,” McGovern said. “We have to fix our systems, whether it be our health systems, our education systems, our law enforcement systems. Part of this has to be about systemic change.”
Even with Republicans now in charge of the House of Representatives, McGovern said there can be movement on the reparations issue by explaining it’s a moral issue. Faith-based organizations, he said, might help mobilize calls to Congress.
“This bill, even with the make up of the House leadership right now, can be a very powerful education bill,” McGovern said.
McGovern praised the thoughtful process in Amherst to identify needs of communities of color and what the right responses are. That reflects participation of a diverse community and could lead to concepts such as housing vouchers, financial literacy classes, youth programs or cash payments.
“What you have done in Amherst is already quite incredible,” McGovern said. “We need programs and we need vouchers and we need long-lasting resources. To me that is a more appropriate approach to dealing with all of this.”
“Clearly our federal government needs to catch up with a community like Amherst,” McGovern added. “I really do think this is an opportunity to address the systemic challenges that we face in so many sectors in this country.”
Several residents provided feedback at the session.
Longtime resident Carlie Tartakov said she is interested in examining what is hurting people of Black and African descent and making sure they can have better lives.
“Unless we change the systems in place that have created the inequities that we face, nothing is going to change,” Tartakov said.
Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks said she came to Amherst initially in the 1960s from Macon, Georgia, and then set up a haven for Black women in town when she returned in the 1980s.
“Our survival depended on our being complicit in the whole effort to maintain oppression,” Smith-Crooks said of her initial work in town.
But the reparation assembly has given her renewed optimism.
“I go away feeling rejuvenated, revived and centered again because the visibility is acknowledged, and we don’t have to be silent, we don’t have to tiptoe through the tulips.”
Scott Merzbach can be reached at email@example.com.
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