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Denver Mayor Michael Hancock during a press conference about lifting the city's COVID-19 restrictions in May 2021. 

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is leading a national effort to establish pilot projects that will provide reparations to African American citizens in several cities around the country.

The group behind this effort, Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity (MORE), is headed by Hancock and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. It includes over a dozen other mayors from California, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Texas.

Last month, the group pledged its commitment to developing reparation pilot projects in its members' cities to set an example for the federal government on how national reparations could work.

“We’re 400, 500 years late with this conversation around reparations,” Hancock said. “We’ve got to be committed to moving towards action at this point in time.”

Reparations for African Americans have been debated in a national conversation since the end of the Civil War.

The idea is that African Americans would be given some kind of payments to help address inequalities created by over 300 years of slavery, followed by segregation, redlining and other forms of racial discrimination.

In the wake of the George Floyd killing, the conversation has picked up again, and this year a U.S. House committee for the first time advanced legislation to study reparations. The legislation has been introduced in Congress every year for 30 years, but it has yet to reach a floor vote as Congressional critics question a causal link between slavery, discrimination and today's racial inequities, saying it's unfair to make current citizens pay for decades-old grievances.

In the United State in 2019, the median income of non-Hispanic white households was $76,057. For Black households, it was $45,438, according to Census data. That same year, white households had a median accumulated wealth of $188,200, while Black households had $24,100 — 7.8 times less, according to the Brookings Institution.

Many experts say these racial wealth gaps originated from African Americans’ long history of oppression and persist due to discrimination and disparities in inherited wealth.

“It’s amazing to me that people expect that African Americans would just be there and be more competitive when, in essence, a lot of the current situation that we’re dealing with was set without the proper protocols, rules and mechanisms to help African Americans assimilate 400 years ago,” Hancock said.

However, not everyone agrees that reparations are the answer. Though support has increased in recent years, a national 2021 poll found that 62% of respondents still disapproved of providing reparations to descendants of slaves, according to a survey by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Of those opposed, 38% said descendants do not deserve reparations for their ancestors’ struggles and 18% said reparations should not be paid because African Americans are treated equally in society today.

Douglas Groothuis, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, aligns with the former, saying current reparations efforts are “unjust.” 

“In this case, reparations would fail to be made by the offending parties, who are long dead. Nor would reparations be received by the offended parties, who are several generations removed from slavery and a generation removed from Jim Crow,” Groothuis said. 

“There are far better means to help the Black community than reparations, such as school choice (charter schools), religious faith, and the restoration of the nuclear family,” he said. Other arguments against reparations include that it would be too expensive or unfair to other racial groups.

However, Harold Fields, leader of the Denver Black Reparations Council, disagrees.

Fields grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the '50s and '60s with the survivors of the 1921 race massacre, in which white mobs attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, also known as Black Wall Street.

Exact numbers are unknown, but many experts estimate hundreds of people were killed and around 35 square blocks of the neighborhood were burnt and destroyed during the massacre. No one was ever prosecuted for the deaths and very few insurance claims were paid because they didn't cover "riot damage."

Though his community rebuilt, Fields said he watched first-hand the effects of people being left to struggle, rather than being compensated for the wrongs they’ve suffered.

"The country cannot go forward if it’s going to take a large part of the population and try to keep them at a disadvantage,” Fields said. “If we want to move forward as a country, we have got to value everybody and do what’s necessary to bring everybody along.”

In addition, Fields said reparations would be a step towards creating a community of interconnection and interdependence, rather than hierarchy and control, which would open the door for providing support to other groups or society at large.

Hancock said he has been involved in Denver’s reparations conversation since 1998 and now, during his last term as mayor, his efforts are finally coming to fruition.

There aren’t yet many details about what these reparation pilot projects would look like. The MORE group has not released any information about how much it would cost, who would pay for it or how recipients would be chosen.

In Denver, though, Hancock said it would be more than just handing people a check.

Hancock said he wants his reparation project to address the barriers of the economic systems that have held African Americans and other people of color back, though it could possibly include a form of direct payments to Black residents.

“Whatever we do about reparations, we ought to be system impacting,” Hancock said. “I don’t want to miss this moment, we have the collective attention of America and people are willing to lean in and have these conversations. Let’s not miss this opportunity.”

Hancock said helping Black residents own a home, own a business, pay for education and access quality healthcare are some of his goals to “give not only a lift, but a sustainable rise to a more level playing field for decades to come.”

But at the end of the day, the real goal of the MORE group is to inspire national action and demonstrate efforts that could be replicated on a larger scale.

Hancock also said his system-based approach to reparations could be opened to other groups like Native Americans.

Fields said he has been fighting for reparations in Denver for 23 years. Last year, he founded the Black Reparations Fund at the Denver Foundation, which collects reparation donations to be distributed to Black residents.

Fields and the rest of the Denver Black Reparations Council manage applications and make decisions about how to distribute donations. So far, the fund has raised over $200,000, he said.

“We want to help rebuild institutions, languages, religions and traditions in the Black community in Denver that were destroyed,” Fields said. “And we want to help facilitate the development of Black institutions that were prevented from coming into existence in the first place.”

Fields said he supports government reparations efforts, but believes reparations cannot only come from the top down because politicians are term limited and rarely driven by the generational perspective that communities are.

Regarding Hancock’s reparation pilot project, Fields said it’s too soon to tell if it’ll work, but he is most concerned that city leaders won’t involve the community in the decision-making process.

The details of Denver’s reparation pilot project will begin to be worked out by a local commission comprised of representatives from Black-led organizations. Hancock said the group will engage the community on a large scale during its work.

There isn't any timeline for rolling out the project but even when it begins, Hancock emphasized it will take time to see results.

“It took us 450 years to create this disparity that we see today. It’s not going to take a year or two to correct it,” Hancock said. “What we can do as mayors is have deep, honest, candid conversations and build models for national-level leaders to see that we not only must do this, but how we should do it.”

And to the 62% who don’t support reparations, Hancock had this to say:

"I want to take you to a racetrack. We’re going to run a 100-meter sprint, but I’m going to give you 10 seconds late start. Every second represents 50 years of being held back in this society. The reality is, it’s not very possible for you to catch up. That’s what’s happened here to African Americans. We were held back from fully participating in the economic mainstream of this nation for hundreds of years. Yet, people ask ‘why aren’t you doing better?’ It’s just an unfair situation and expectation. The systems are not designed for you to catch up.”