Feb 27, 2023

Slavery is a shameful fact of American history, but the legacy of slavery is an ongoing injustice with present-day implications for the economic and social well being of Black Americans.

For many, this is an unpaid debt that must be acknowledged and addressed as a critical next step to achieve equal justice in the civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights of African Americans.

MAMH Governing Board member Joseph D. Feaster, Jr. recently was appointed by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu to chair a new Boston Task Force on Reparations. The 10-member Task Force is charged with conducting research to better understand the legacy of slavery in Boston and its impact on descendants today, engaging the community throughout the process, and providing recommendations for reparative justice solutions.

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Joseph D. Feaster, Jr.

Feaster, an attorney who also serves as chair of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts Board of Directors and member of the city’s Black Men & Boys Commission, describes a litany of issues facing Black Americans today as a direct result of slavery and historical discrimination. For example: lack of access to home ownership through “red-lining” and deed restrictions; unequal access to financial loans, even VA loans for qualified veterans who served during wars; and vast disparities in savings rates as compared to white Americans as a result of these practices.

Critics of reparations efforts often acknowledge the role that white ancestors may have played in supporting or allowing slavery, but they argue that they should not be held responsible for events that occurred before they were born. Feaster uses financial loans as an analogy to take that argument head on. “If a person borrows money to buy a home, for example, that person owes a debt to the bank. But what if the original buyer passes away? I have yet to see a bank say the loan is forgiven,” says Feaster. Instead, the descendants of the original debtor, who continue to profit from the loan, become the debtor and are obligated to pay.

Several cities across the country have made commitments and taken action to begin the process of paying back these past and ongoing injustices. Feaster said he is humbled to be part of such efforts here in Boston. “It was courageous and refreshing to have Boston’s city council and mayor Michelle Wu take up this mantle of talking about reparations,” he said.

When considering reparations, Feaster asks four questions – in succession: What is the debt? Who are the debtors? Who pays? When? Many of these questions have multiple levels of complexity.

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Boston Task Force on Reparations (photo by Matthew J. Lee, Boston Globe)

As outlined in the 2022 city ordinance that created the Task Force, reparations can come in many forms, including: rehabilitation, restitution, compensation, and a guarantee of non-repetition. The National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC) describes a Preliminary Reparations Program, which includes recommendations in 10 domains such as health and wellness resources, land, information and communications infrastructure, and criminal legal system reforms.

Feaster, who describes himself as a “direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement,” is the first to admit that the task he and his team members have been presented with is not an easy one. The Task Force will hold listening sessions, engage a broad range of perspectives on reparative justice, and consult with NAARC and other cities doing similar work. “It is going to be intentional: It is going to be deliberative; It is going to be inclusive,” he said.

The Task Force report is due to be submitted to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu in December 2024.

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