It's not enough to not be racist: County Commissioner Stephanie Moore shares her thoughts on slavery reparations

“We have a lot of people in the community that say, ‘I don’t see race, I don't see color,’ but I’m here, and I'm colored. If you acknowledge me, and the experience that Black people have had historically, then that's a big start of how we can work together; sit at the table, and get some real work done.” - Stephanie Moore, Kalamazoo County Commissioner

Since before 1609, slavery has followed America through every step of its history. In one breath, founding fathers dubbed America ‘the home of the free,’ while defending slavery in the very next. 

The United States is home to the American Dream, a promise of freedom and opportunity. Yet even today, over 150 years after emancipation, Black Americans are kept from this so-called dream. Systemic racism continues to play a role in public policy nationwide, ensuring that Black Americans continue to receive the short end of the stick. In 2020, however, local governments are finally looking for solutions. 

Kalamazoo joined the ranks of cities like Chicago; Asheville, North Carolina and Burlington, Vermont after the Kalamazoo County government committed to making reparations for slavery. On August 18, The Board of Commissioners voted 7-4 to create the Kalamazoo County Commission on Economic Reparations and Opportunity for Descendants of Enslaved Africans and Indigenous Blacks. Its creator was County Commissioner Stephanie Moore. 

Across the United States, politicians and private citizens have joined the conversation about making amends for slavery. Confusion leaves many people without a clear idea of exactly what ‘reparations’ means. When talk of economic reparations comes up, many people mistakenly imagine that means cutting a check, said Moore. This, however, is not the intention of Kalamazoo government officials. 

“For me, (reparations) looks a little bit different,” Moore said. “It looks at policies and processes that would allow access, opportunity, affordability and a real way for people to obtain support that will get them to the resources and the payout that they are trying to get to.” 

Moore says correcting unfair public policies is a more effective way to support the Black community. The reparations committee’s purpose is to provide dedicated resources towards identifying and eliminating racial barriers. Moore says to eliminate barriers, the committee will need to view public policy through an equity lense.

Four-hundred years of oppression cannot be fixed overnight, so the resolution states the necessity for long-term and short-term solutions. Moore’s intention is for the committee to be long-standing, and to continue working towards reparation into the foreseeable future.

The reparations committee will address barriers present in housing, business, education, health care and criminal justice. In the past, these barriers were more straightforward. Housing segregation was easily visible on deeds which forbade African Americans from residing in specific neighborhoods. Today, barriers facing the Black community may be harder to find because they are hidden between lines of public policy, rather than being written outright. 

Moore illustrated this point by using the example of infant mortality in the Black community. Infant mortality for a Black woman’s child is just over 10 percent, more than twice that of white, Asian and Hispanic women. To find out why, Moore says you have to look at the entire system.

“You cannot talk about infant mortality and not talk about how county government is structured, its policies, and who is at the table and how they got to the table,” Moore said.

Thinking systemically, Moore says, you have to follow the woman’s entire journey: healthcare coverage, resources, experience with her medical provider, daily microaggressions, access to fruit and vegetables, decent housing. 

Eliminating barriers to suitable housing, healthcare, and quality food are part of the solution, and infant mortality is only one example. Moore’s resolution asks to make amends for historic misrepresentations of Black people, segregated housing, harmful urban ‘revitalization’ programs, and unfair allocation of business aid. 

Before amends can be made for these injustices, Moore says an apology on behalf of the county government, acknowledging their role in the harm done, is an important first step. 

“We have a lot of people in the community that say, ‘I don’t see race, I don't see color.’ But I’m here, and I'm colored,” Moore said. “If you acknowledge me, and the experience that Black people have had historically, then that's a big start of how we can work together; sit at the table, and get some real work done.” 

Other members of the county commission praised Moore’s work on the resolution. Commissioner Meredith Place said white community leaders need to “pass the mic” to make way for more voices. Though Moore agrees with the need for diverse voices, she warns that this is not an excuse for white government officials to step away from the conversation. 

“An inclusive group of people is needed at the table to push this group forward. Everyone needs to be intentional about anti-racism work,” Moore said.

Despite wanting white county commissioners to be included, Moore says that not everyone is ready to come to the table. The current county government is not racially or culturally diverse and has little experience in equity work, said Moore. Fear and trepidation over the unknown leaves many commissioners reluctant to get started. Moore says this is the committee's biggest hurdle to overcome. 

While some county leaders are held back by lack of experience, Moore says others are held back by lack of interest. For some county officials, participating in equity discussions was never their reason for being a community official. 

“For those individuals I would say you need to move out the way all together,” Moore said. “If you don’t love all people, if you're not intentional about really addressing their quality of life along with everyone else's, then you don’t belong here.”

While Moore waits for her fellow county officials to commit to reparation work, she is glad to see an increasing number of white allies get intentional about anti-racism. 

“They understand that diversity and inclusion works for all of us, and believe that having adequate representation for the most vulnerable people, is also a benefit to them and not a threat,” Moore said.

Local governments across the nation are beginning an intentional effort to seek reparations for slavery. Individual people can participate in this effort as well, by being a part of the solution rather than the problem. Many think that they aren’t part of the problem because they aren’t racist, but Moore says that not being racist isn’t good enough. Moore challenges everyone to be intentional about practicing anti-racism by joining the conversation. 

“It is important to be able to come together and have professional dialogue rooted in truth and racial healings,” Moore said.

The goal of reparations may seem huge and insurmountable. Centuries of suffering endured by Black people in the United States can never truly be rectified. However, Moore would agree that being an active part of the solution is a good place to start.