Chicago suburb shapes reparations for black residents: ‘It is the start’

A sign in support of the reparations program is displayed in the Fifth Ward of Evanston, Ill., on Monday, March 22, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
EVANSTON, Ill. — The proposal in Evanston, a lakefront suburb of Chicago, was both pioneering and rare: a blueprint to begin distributing $10 million in reparations to Black residents of the city in the form of housing grants.اضافة اعلان

“It is the start,” said Robin Rue Simmons, an alderman and an architect of the measure. “It is the reckoning. We’re really proud as a city to be leading the nation toward repair and justice.”

In Evanston, a city of 73,000 people that is home to Northwestern University and known for its liberal politics, members of the City Council said they were taking concrete steps that go beyond proposals that have emerged in American cities in recent years, committing funds to a city reparations program intended to address historical racism and discrimination.

But as the details of how the money would be distributed are beginning to take shape, elected officials, residents and activists for racial equity in the city say they are far from united on the specifics.

When the City Council overwhelmingly agreed in 2019 to create a reparations fund, it planned to use private donations and tax revenue from the sales of recreational marijuana, now legal in Illinois. The first phase of spending from the reparations fund will begin with $400,000 in housing grants toward home repairs, mortgage assistance or down payments toward a new home.

The grants take a different approach from the common view of reparations as cash payments to a wider group of Black Americans who have suffered from discrimination rooted in slavery.

In Evanston, the housing grants are more narrowly targeted to residents who can show that they or their ancestors were victims of redlining and other discriminatory 20th-century housing practices in the city that limited the neighborhoods where Black people could live. Eligible applicants could be descendants of an Evanston resident who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969; or they could have experienced housing discrimination because of city policies after 1969.

It is not clear how many people in Evanston would qualify, city officials said, and the number of available grants — of up to $25,000 each — is small. The population of Evanston is 17 percent Black, 59 percent white and 12 percent Latino, according to census data.

The choice to provide housing grants rather than cash payments has raised concern among some Evanston residents, including one member of the City Council, Cicely L. Fleming, who voted against the first phase of spending on the reparations plan in a vote Monday night.

“I want to be clear, I 100 percent support reparations,” she said in an interview. “What I can’t support is a housing program being termed as reparations. We are potentially setting precedent.”

The resolution passed 8-1, and dozens of residents spoke at the meeting, with most in favor of the measure.

City officials say they do not have the authority to give direct payments to residents without leaving them with a tax burden; under the housing program, grants are paid directly to banks or businesses. And the officials said they hoped the reparations fund would be complemented by larger efforts from the federal government and other entities.

In Washington, Congress has debated a bill that would create a commission to study the reparations issue more closely.

The bill, HR 40, was last considered in 2019, and it refers to the Civil War-era broken promise to give former slaves “402m and a mule.” Under the bill, $12 million would be spent to establish a commission to study the history of slavery and discrimination and create a proposal for remedies.

At a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties last month, Herschel Walker, a former football star who is Black, argued against reparations, saying they are divisive.

“Reparations teach separation,” Walker said. “Slavery ended over 130 years ago. How can a father ask his son to spend prison time for a crime he committed?”

Leaders of the Jesuit conference of priests said last week that they would pledge $100 million to benefit the descendants of the enslaved people the order once owned, the largest effort toward reparations by the Catholic Church yet.

In Evanston, the remainder of the $10 million fund has yet to be determined, but the process is expected to unfold in a series of public meetings this year.

Many residents, in a city where signs in front yards promoting racial justice and equity are commonplace, say they are watching the reparations debate closely, whether or not they will personally receive money from it.

Sebastian Nalls, a 20-year-old junior at Purdue University who ran unsuccessfully for Evanston mayor, said he worried that the current plan was not expansive enough and that other cities would mimic the housing program and refer to it as reparations.

“It’s detrimental to the larger movement of reparations,” he said. “Because media and municipalities will take this program at face value and they will use it as a blueprint. Giving $400,000 to 16 Black people in a town of 12,000 Black residents is not reparation.”

Mark Christian, 51, an operations manager from Evanston, said that he was in favor of the city’s efforts on reparations, as he walked through a park in the city Monday afternoon.

He is a native of Milwaukee, and his family had not lived in Evanston long enough to be eligible under the housing program that was debated. But he was supportive of its goals.

“I think anything to help Black people get what they’ve lost due to slavery and systemic racism — every little bit helps,” he said.