Posted on July 23, 2023

Activists Split Over Whether Reparations Should Go to Black Immigrants

Emmanuel Felton, Washington Post, July 20, 2023

When this city announced earlier this year that it would consider giving reparations to its Black residents, it was heralded as another victory in a national movement to offer recompense for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

The city had played a key role in financing the slave trade and was the site of fierce resistance to integration. Now, advocates said, it was time to address the lingering damage.

But as the mayor started choosing members for the Boston task force, the city quickly became one of the chief battlegrounds of an adjacent fight playing out within the Black community: Should reparations programs be limited to people who trace their ancestry back to American slavery, or should they include Black immigrants who came to the country by choice?

The debate highlights tension within America’s rapidly changing Black community and risks fracturing a movement that is already struggling to gain mainstream acceptance. It could also shape the reach and ultimate price tag of reparations programs being developed in more than a dozen states and cities across the country.

“There is not going to be some ‘Kumbaya’ moment,” said Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, a Boston-based activist calling for reparations to be limited to descendants of enslaved people. “We’re going to have to fight, and we’re going to have to make the strongest case possible.”

The factions are at odds over what it means to be Black in America at a time when that story is rapidly changing. For most of U.S. history, nearly all Black Americans could trace their ancestry back to American slavery. Immigrants, less than 1 percent of the Black population in 1980s, now make up 10 percent. Between now and 2060, about a third of the growth in the Black population will come from immigration from countries such as Jamaica and Ethiopia, according to the Pew Research Center.

After centuries of a shared history, the Black American community is increasingly heterogeneous. And the division is showing up in attitudes about the need for reparations. According to a 2023 Washington Post-Ipsos survey, 75 percent of Black Americans think the federal government should pay reparations, including 77 percent of native-born Black people compared with 59 percent of foreign-born Black people.

“When we talk about the nation’s Black population, we have to understand it is one that is changing and becoming even more diverse than it already was,” said Mark Lopez, Pew’s director of race and ethnicity research. “Immigrants are a big part of that story, and so the immigrant experience is a growing part of the experience of Black Americans today.”

It is a debate playing out across the country.

A California panel has recommended billions in reparations for its Black residents, but it would exclude anyone who cannot trace their lineage in the United States back to 1900. Smaller reparations programs launched by cities in Rhode Island and Illinois have not made a distinction, and Black immigrants are able to apply.

Under a proposal being debated in San Francisco, descendants of enslaved Americans would be given more points than others in a formula to determine eligibility for up to $5 million in payments.

In Boston, the distinction could drastically impact the reach of the panel’s recommendations. Black residents make up 19 percent of the city’s overall population. But 37 percent of that population is foreign-born, the highest rate of any metropolitan area in the country, according to a recent study by the Boston Foundation.


For decades, activists have been calling on Boston to atone for its history of racial discrimination — from the financing of the slave trade to the bulldozing of Black communities. Boston-based traders and investors were responsible for at least 307 separate slave trade trips, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that traces the history of slavery.

The movement was revived in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, when activists called on local leaders to apologize for the city’s racist history and establish a reparations commission.

City leaders agreed. {snip}

The city soon found itself the target of a loosely organized group of activists, calling themselves Freedmen, waging a nationwide campaign to keep reparations programs limited to descendants of enslaved people.

For the reparations movement to succeed, it can’t be seen as free-for-all for anyone in America who identifies as Black, these activists say. There should be narrowly tailored restitution plans for people whose ancestors’ labor and property were stolen, they say.

Freedmen activists point to data showing that Black immigrants generally fare better than the community overall.

Black immigrant households have a higher median income — $57,200 — than U.S.-born Black households — $42,000 — but one lower than other immigrant-led households, according to a 2022 Pew report. In Boston, the median net worth for nonimmigrant Black families in the Boston area was $8 compared with $12,000 for Caribbean Black families, according to a 2015 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.


Freedmen activists are facing opposition from advocates who say the slave trade and its legacy have affected the lives of every Black person in America, no matter when their ancestors arrived — with some even calling for reparation dollars to be sent to Africa.

“One of the things that actually unites all African people is the right to reparation, because we were all damaged by this transatlantic slave trade and this experience of slavery,” said Amilcar Shabazz, professor of history and Africana studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.


So far, the newly minted commission has not taken a stance on eligibility. {snip}


Freedmen activists say they are not giving up. Robinson-Goodnight has set her sights on legislation introduced in June to establish a statewide reparations commission in Massachusetts.