Ashley Brown et al., ABC News, March 1, 2021
Evanston, Illinois, is like a lot of American cities. The city just north of Chicago appears picturesque, updated and grand on one side — but not far away, one can see the signs of economic and racial segregation, despite the city’s proud, diverse and liberal reputation.
What sets Evanston apart from other cities, however, is its groundbreaking plan to address the impact of that segregation and Black disenfranchisement: reparations.
The impetus for the city’s reparations resolution, first passed in 2019 and spearheaded by 5th Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, is rooted partially in Rue Simmons’ experience growing up Black in Evanston.
Visiting a white friend’s neighborhood, she noticed, “the streets were wider. The trees were taller. The homes were bigger and brighter. As a young child, I recognized that difference.”
Rue Simmons still lives in the ward she represents. She says over time, resources were stripped away from her neighborhood. That, she said, coupled with a lack of investment, led to an ever-increasing wealth gap between white and Black residents in the city.
She hopes that her work will help families in her neighborhood that are “burdened … get some relief” via reparations, which will first be distributed this year in increments of up to $25,000 per eligible resident to use for housing.
Today, Evanston is the first city in the U.S. to fund reparations, committing $10 million over the next decade in an attempt to repay Black residents for the wrongs and accumulated losses incurred by generations of racism.
Rue Simmons said she didn’t start her elected career “even discussing reparations. It was not something I had planned to pursue,” she said.
“I was looking at data,” she continued. “I was looking at what we had done, what more we could do, and reparations was the only answer.”
She explained that any more of the status quo would sustain “the oppressed state and the disparity that we have and that we have had for years. That’s all it could do. More of the same.”
“The only legislative response for us to reconcile the damages in the Black community is reparations,” she said.
Rue Simmons and her colleagues had the support of local historian Dino Robinson in building the case for reparations. Robinson is the founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston, an archive dedicated solely to chronicling and celebrating the local Black history that had long gone ignored.
Articles, reports and studies were conducted on the Black community to discuss what should be done, Robinson said. And Evanston, like many cities across the country, embraced the practice of redlining.
“The historic redlining impacts our community today,” Rue Simmons said. “That map still is the map of our concentrated Black community, our disinvestment, our inferior infrastructure.”
Today, white people in Evanston make nearly double the income and have double the home value of their Black neighbors according to the most recent U.S. Census. This racial wealth gap is prevalent nationally, with Black Americans possessing less than 15% of the wealth that White Americans have, according to the Federal Reserve 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances.
Black residents who lived through redlining in Evanston — and their descendants — are eligible for reparations. That includes 98-year-old, Benjamin Gaines Sr. and his son, Benjamin Gaines Jr. The Gaines family moved to Evanston in 1959.
Younger members of Gaines Sr.’s family say that while modern-day Evanston is outwardly progressive, inequality is still a problem.
“Growing up in Evanston for me was definitely good, despite the racism that I faced,” Gaines Sr.’s grand-nephew, Jared Davis said. The father of three said he will apply for reparations, “because it’s owed.”
Davis’ kids, 25-year-old Nic and 16-year-old Myah, have also been involved in their family’s discussion on reparations, expressing fatigue over having to justify why they’re owed, with the city’s history so well-documented at this point.
“I don’t even think it’s my job to justify to you, like, why we need reparations,” said Nic. “Do you not live here? Do you not know? Did you not see the demographics changing throughout the years? Like, we knew it was racist.”
Alderman Rue Simmons has also noted a shrinking Black population in Evanston as a result of historic redlining, modern gentrification and rising property taxes. Black residents currently make up 16% of Evanston’s population, but, Rue Simmons pointed out, “we’ve had much higher in the past.”
Now, according to Rue Simmons, the $25,000 reparations benefit for housing is meant to combat “a lack of affordability, lack of access to living wage careers here in the city, and a lack of sense of place.”
Evanston proposed a novel idea to fund reparations — a 3% tax on newly legal recreational marijuana sales.
“It’s the most appropriate use for that sales tax,” Simmons said. “In our city, 70% of the marijuana arrests were in the Black community. And we are 16% of the community. All studies show that Blacks and white [people] consume cannabis at the same rate.”
Simmons says reparations are broadly supported in Evanston, despite some questions from other city leaders over whether the recreational marijuana sales tax revenue can sustain the fund in the longer-term.
For the Gaines-Davis family, and other Black Evanstonians who proudly support reparations, questions remain about how far $25,000 can go — even as a first step — to fulfill long-broken promises.
“It’s a drop in the bucket… But it’s better than nothing. It’s better than what I have now,” Benjamin Gaines Sr. said. “Hopefully, before I die, I’ll see the world change.”
Rue Simmons acknowledges the concerns of those community members who feel $25,000 is not enough.
“$25,000 is life-saving for some families right now,” she said. “But relative to the injury, it’s not nearly enough. And I get that.”
That’s why she hopes more relief will come from reparations at the state and federal levels, including HR-40.
But Evanston’s leaders are not waiting for Washington. They plan to begin dispersing funds this spring and hope that is just the first reparative step for Evanston, and for other cities across the country.