Evanston’s Reparations Program Is Pioneering, But Limited

Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP via Getty Images

What is the modern equivalent of 40 acres and a mule? The Chicago suburb of Evanston decided it was a housing assistance grant. Evanston City Council voted on Monday to disperse the first $ 400,000 of a reparations program it approved in 2019, marking the first time in the country’s history that a municipality has attempted to compensate Afro-Americans -Americans for the racial injustices of its leaders in the past. Other cities have passed draft reparations resolutions, and after the murder of George Floyd last year, national conversations on the subject have never been stronger. “I would certainly say that in my lifetime I never saw the issue of reparations taken as seriously as it is today,” said civil rights reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. told CNN.

For what, precisely, does this program aim to atone?

Beginning in the 1910s, the Great Migration rapidly expanded the black population in the north in general and in Chicagoland in particular. In 1940, the town of Evanston had the largest black suburban population in Illinois, with 6,026 residents. Even if there were hundreds of vacant houses in the city, Black tenants were not allowed to rent them due to racial alliances. Instead, they were crammed into unsanitary homes in the city’s Fifth Quarter. Evanston’s segregation became official city policy after a 1921 zoning ordinance codified that black residents were limited to “largely commercial and light industrial areas along the tracks, and neighborhoods so remote from the streets. transportation facilities they were comparatively undesirable, ”according to a report from Northwestern. University student at the time. This practice, often referred to as redlining, was of course not specific to Evanston – it occurred across the country – and because federal policy made homeownership the primary mechanism for wealth creation in the United States. , she consistently left African Americans behind. They have never managed to catch up: the median wealth of the black American family in recent years is around A seventh that of the average white family.

Of all the places that could go first, why Evanston?

When a city takes a pioneering position, it is often the work of a pioneer in the government of that city, and this is no exception. Former Evanston town councilor Lionel Jean-Baptiste first introduced a resolution on repairs in 2002, and the passage of the resolution can be traced, for the most part, to the current town councilor of the fifth constituency, Robin Street Simmons, who was elected in 2017. Following the 8-1 vote on the program this week, Aldermen on Simmons Street praised his work and vision, and gained national notoriety through reporting on the program.

How it works? Who is entitled to reparations?

It’s pretty tightly limited. Evanston’s reparations will only go to current residents who are black and lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 – that is, between the enactment of the exclusion zoning ordinances and its formal ban on discrimination in housing – or who are the direct descendants of someone who was. The obvious flaw in these qualifications is that discrimination tends to alienate people, and there are undoubtedly thousands of black residents who would qualify but no longer live in cities.

What is the payment?

While the program is still under development, the first payments are immediately distributed under what the city calls the Restorative Housing Program. Qualified individuals can receive up to $ 25,000 for down payments, closing costs, mortgage payments or home improvements to modernize an Evanston property. The city’s 2020 report suggested that housing assistance be the most direct way to remedy past sins.

So how many people are we talking about?

City says it doesn’t know how many people qualify for the program, but as with many U.S. welfare programs, it’s almost certain that many more people will qualify than actually receive a grant. . Evanston’s black population is approximately 12,000. It is difficult to get a more precise figure from there, but given that mobility is lower among those with low incomes and that a large part of the black population is in low income due to the very injustices that this program aims to correct, a very conservative estimate could represent 10% of the city’s black population. It would be 1,200 people, or a few hundred families. The disbursement of $ 400,000 in grants of $ 25,000 means that only 16 households could receive a payment from this first stage of the program.

How does Evanston pay for it?

Evanston’s reparations go hand in hand with another attempt to retroactively correct racial injustices. To fund the program, the city will direct revenues from a recently enacted 3% tax on the sale of recreational marijuana, which the state of Illinois legalized in 2020. Since the draconian enforcement of minor offenses drug-related imprisonment millions of African Americans, destroying countless communities and families, there is a bit of symbolism in funding reparations through a tax on marijuana. It is also more politically acceptable to introduce a new tax that affects a limited part of the population than to redirect funds from other sources. (And if you really object to paying it, you can just leave the weed.)

It is therefore a historic step. Are most people happy with it?

Of course not. Even if you put aside the right-wing hack on “government donations” and “free money” etc., there are more nuanced critiques of the program. One alderman lamented that using housing assistance rather than direct cash payments reinforces stereotypes that blacks cannot manage their own money. A group calling themselves Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations argues the city is not going far enough, also advocating cash payments instead. He also argues that racial damage was done to African Americans long after the 1969 ban on housing discrimination, and that therefore should not be the deadline for aid (and indeed, the city’s own report mentions that the real estate sector was driving black residents away from white neighborhoods as recently as 1985). The city’s response is that the advantage of housing subsidies over cash payments is that they will not be imposed by the federal government. He also says this is just the first of many steps.

What other cities are considering repairs?

After the murder of George Floyd last spring, Asheville, North Carolina City Council voted unanimously to fund programs and policies that “will build generational wealth creation and address reparations owed in the black community”. In November, the city dragged its feet on pledged $ 1 million in funding, and local media Asheville Watchdog quoted a racial justice advocate saying, “From what I understand, they didn’t do anything.” Providence, Rhode Island, passed a similar resolution last summer, but has yet to make specific plans. There’s also a bill in Congress called HR 40 – a reference to that promised 40 acres – which has been bouncing around in one version or another since 1989 and never passed. Initially an educational initiative, it was reused by Rep Sheila Jackson Lee to finance a commission charged with drawing up reparations proposals, which it introduced in its first act during the current 117th Congress. It notes, however, that it does not necessarily offer direct cash payments. While Evanston’s decision is the most important step towards repairs to date, the hope is that it is part of a snowball effect that is pushing other municipalities to follow suit.

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