How does a city even begin to repair the harms caused by slavery and other forms of racism? The answer entails deeply complex conversations about discrimination, what constitutes appropriate redress, who will be included in any reparations program — and who may be left out.

It's a question Debora Bridges of Amherst is grappling with.

Bridges sits on Amherst’s African Heritage Reparations Assembly panel, a band of seven citizens charged with making recommendations for the city’s forthcoming reparations program, which will be the first of its kind in Massachusetts.

In 2021, the Amherst Town Council approved the creation of a reparations fund. A year later, the council voted to finance the fund through deposits from the city’s certified tax cannabis revenue for the previous year. Now, as the panel prepares to submit its recommendations, its members are struggling to decide exactly who will be eligible for yet-to-be-determined benefits.

The proposal — a system that evaluates eligibility based on lineage, racial identity and residency — comes as the AHRA approaches its June 30 deadline for suggesting how the city should implement a reparations program.

But eligibility has emerged as a point of tension in the panel’s public comment periods, where speakers are frequently heard insisting that reparations should be limited to only Black Americans with ancestry tracing back to Africans enslaved within the United States. Those who take a broader view argue Black immigrants, despite lacking an ancestral connection to slavery in this nation, still struggle against the institution’s residual impacts.

Bridges, who can trace her connection to Amherst back to some of the nation’s first Black soldiers, said she is still deciding whether she agrees with the proposed criteria.

“If you’re a descendant of slaves that lived in Amherst, that should be one of the criteria,” she told GBH News. “If you’re doing local reparations here, I think it just would make sense for that to be the main criteria.”

Bridges conceded knowing few Black Americans with clear ancestry records like her family’s. Requiring documented lineage could prove burdensome for those without the same breadth of ancestral knowledge, or those whose relatives aren't identified in available resources.

'A sticky discourse'

A man with gray lochs and a beard smiles and holds his hands in front of him. He is standing in a room with wall-to-wall bookshelves covered in Black literature.
Amilcar Shabazz, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor within the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, poses for portrait.
Saraya Wintersmith GBH News

Amilcar Shabazz, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor within the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, is another member of the city’s reparations panel and the architect of the eligibility framework the group is considering.

“It’s a sticky discourse,” said Shabazz, who described his approach to reparative justice as an “expansive,” concentric circle-like framework that would prioritize the descendants of those enslaved in the U.S.

“Around that … we wish to expand the fight for justice for other communities,” he said, noting the potential presence of Black Nigerians, Cape Verdeans, Jamaicans and others.

Six percent of Amherst residents are Black, according to the latest U.S. Census data. The Census does not disaggregate demographic data according to nation of origin, or migrant status.

Shabazz’s framework borrows from that of Duke University economist William “Sandy” Darity, who proposed a framework for federal reparations based on documented lineage to people enslaved in the United States and documented self-identification as “Black” for at least 12 years.

Yet Shabazz’s proposal differs somewhat. It would remove the time stipulations for how long as person has identified as Black. It also uses a broader lineage standard, stipulating that those without enslaved ancestry could be eligible.

Robin Rue Simmons, the architect of the nation’s first citywide reparations program for Black residents, said tension over eligibility criteria was absent in Evanston, Illinois, where she led the passage of the local reparations measure as an alderwoman in 2019.

“Personally, I’m pan-African. I believe in repair for everybody Black,” she told GBH News on a recent visit to Amherst.

Robin Rue Simmons, center, shakes hands with a man during an event at Amherst College on March 30, 2023, focused on building local reparations programs.
Saraya Wintersmith GBH News

Rue Simmons has advised other groups, including the one in Amherst, on best practices for building reparations programs, but she generally avoids giving advice about eligibility standards.

“It is not for any one of us to determine what city does what. It’s the business of that city and, more specifically, it’s the business of the Black community in that city,” she said.

Evanston's reparations program began in the form of housing assistance. Every Black resident who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969, and their direct descendants, qualified.

Reparations policy emerges

The question of how to initiate reparations — and how to determine eligibility — is percolating up in dozens of localities across the country.

In California, where a unique statewide task force recently recommended a state apology and billions in reparations, the group proposed restricting eligibility to Black state residents descended from enslaved people or free Black people living in the U.S. prior to the end of the 19th century. The panel's recommendations must now go through state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom for adoption.

Those who support that restrictive framework point to past advocacy and litigation on the subject, which largely have centered on compensating formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants.

“The ADOS Advocacy Foundation and ADOS Boston hold the position that if we are discussing reparations for slavery and its subsequent horrors, it naturally follows that our government must center those directly impacted by the institution of chattel slavery and the unique, multigenerational accrued disadvantage visited upon their descendants,” said Reggie Stewart, a spokesperson for ADOS Boston.

Stewart noted that other historical redress efforts had specific eligibility criteria crafted, including programs for Indigenous tribes, victims of the Jewish Holocaust and their descendants, and victims of Japanese internment.

Descendants of those enslaved in the U.S., he said, “are no less deserving of specific focus and redress for any local, state or federal reparations initiatives.”

The ADOS Advocacy Foundation, Stewart added, is focused primarily on federal reparations advocacy since “states and localities confront enormous budgetary impediments with respect to direct cash payments [which are] the most symbolically and materially significant component of any initiative of repair for past harms.”

Contributing to the divide, said Jemadari Kamara, associate professor of Africana studies at UMass Boston, is the fact that some groups of people of African descent retain a cultural identity “separate from African Americans.”

“The consequences of an unfair criminal justice system [or] educational access and opportunities, those are not delimited because I’m from Detroit and someone else may be from Dakar,” he said, pointing to the reality of race-based discrimination regardless of national, or ethnic origin.

A statewide debate looms

That Amherst has yet to make an official decision on eligibility, some members said, reflects the intensely emotional and maze-like complexity of the issue.

“It’s definitely a challenging feat to try to accomplish,” said Amherst reparations panel member Alexis Reed, pointing to the legal and consensus-building challenges surrounding their local program.

Even though Amherst took the rare step of creating a reparations fund rather than first studying the issue, those familiar with the panel’s discussion indicate a statewide legal fight is on the horizon over technical language to enable cities and towns looking to give reparations in the form of cash benefits.

Reed, who identifies as half Black and half white, said while there’s not enough money in Amherst to finance total repair, it makes sense for the municipality to include Black people of every ethnic origin.

“Only because Amherst isn’t only consisting of folks who have enslaved ancestry in the United States,” she said, arguing that anyone with a Black identity would be a likely “victim of the racism that happens” within the city.

Bridges acknowledged that idea and said she would not be upset if Amherst ends up taking the more expansive view proposed by Shabazz.

A new policy, she said begins with little steps. “If that’s something we can do, then I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Though Shabazz did not offer specific focus area where eligibility criteria might apply, other members pointed to housing and public education as sectors ripe for redress.

“We’re going to lay out a range of possibilities,” Shabazz said of where Amherst might focus its reparations efforts.

“I think we ought to be prepared for potential direct cash benefits,” he added.