Posted on January 13, 2023

A Chicago Suburb Promised Black Residents Reparations. Few Have Been Paid.

Emmanuel Felton, Washington Post, January 9, 2023

Inside a chandelier-lit hotel ballroom, dozens of government officials and nonprofit leaders from across the country gathered recently to trade strategies for a once fringe idea: paying reparations to compensate Black Americans for slavery and decades of racist government policies.

The stars of the evening were local leaders of this Chicago suburb credited with launching the country’s first government-funded reparations program for Black Americans. Some attendees at the conference called Evanston the new Montgomery, Ala., the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and Robin Rue Simmons, who championed the local effort, a modern day Rosa Parks.

Evanston is the “epicenter” of the movement’s success, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who has been calling for a federal study of reparations for years, told assembled local leaders. “What’s happening here captures the reality that reparations is not an evil word. It is not a dangerous word. It’s not a word that will divide us,” said Lee.

But outside that ballroom, the program is failing to meet many of its initial promises. So far, the city has only spent $400,000 of the $10 million promised in 2019. Out of hundreds of Black residents who applied, 16 have received money. Another 106 are on a waiting list, with hundreds more behind them. At least five people have died before their promised reparations could be dispersed, the program’s leaders acknowledge.

City officials say these early stumbles don’t diminish their ambitions for the program, which is aimed at addressing decades of housing discrimination rather than slavery. And it’s just a starting point, they say.

“The moral urgency of the issue does not allow us to just keep on talking,” said Mayor Daniel Biss (D). {snip}

Rue Simmons told the crowd packed into a reparations conference that Evanston’s Restorative Housing Program, which local leaders call the first phase of their reparations efforts, had already changed lives. Some recipients used their $25,000 grant to help pay down mortgages, others gave it to their kids to do the same, she said, and one “balled out” and upgraded their bathroom with marble.

“All of them have expressed how much hope they have for their future generations’ life circumstances in Evanston,” said Rue Simmons.

Evanston, a town of 78,000, is at the forefront of a movement that has turned reparations for Black Americans from a purely academic discussion into a national political debate. Later this year, a California task force is expected to release a report laying out how much state reparations would cost. Illinois is on the verge of setting up its own reparations committee, and New York and New Jersey are considering it.

Despite the growing reparations movement in some liberal cities — President Biden endorsed studying the issue during the 2020 Democratic primary — the idea remains widely unpopular, particularly among White voters and Republicans. Lee has repeatedly introduced legislation calling for a reparations study, but it has languished in the House and failed to gain support in the Senate.


Meanwhile, some longtime reparations advocates worry the current spate of disparate efforts exemplified by Evanston will take pressure off national leaders to develop a federal program that could offer Black Americans more benefits.

“All of these piecemeal local, state and private efforts that people are calling reparations are just a detour,” said William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University, who has been advocating reparations for more than three decades.

Evanston began debating reparations for its more than 12,000 Black residents in 2019, more than a year before George Floyd’s murder would inspire many to examine the country’s racial divides.

Longtime residents say the city has a clear problem: In the socially liberal town, the median White household income is $108,000, nearly double that of Black households, at $55,000. Nearly half of Black households, about 16 percent of the population, make less than $50,000 a year, compared with 27 percent of White households, which make up 57 percent of the population. About 34 percent of Latinos, who make up 11 percent of the population, make less than $50,000 a year while it’s 37 percent for Asian Americans, 10 percent of the population.


The effort got a jump-start in June 2019, after Illinois’s legislature legalized recreational use of marijuana. The city council voted to establish a reparations program and pledged the first $10 million in cannabis tax dollars it received to the effort. The marijuana tax would bring in $500,000 and $750,000 per year, they predicted.

In hours of council meetings, there was virtually no public pushback against the idea of reparations, including among White residents, in this city where former president Donald Trump received around 7 percent of the town’s vote in 2016 and 2020.

Nearly every critic who spoke at the city council meetings complained that the program wasn’t generous enough, said Bliss, the mayor.

Many wanted Black residents to be given direct unrestricted cash payments, but officials decided against it, arguing the money could be taxed.

Early in the process “the conversation went to, ‘Oh, people can’t get cash.’ So I was like, well I’m out,” said former alderwoman Cicely Fleming, who is Black. “What’s happening is people are starting to call any policy that might benefit Black people, reparations. I heard from one city where they were repairing streets and infrastructure in a Black community and they were calling that reparations. That’s not reparations, that’s just good government.”

Fleming was the only member of the council, which consisted of six White and three Black members, to vote against the plan.

The council settled on a $25,000 housing voucher program they estimated would help about 400 of its thousands of Black residents. To qualify, Black residents must show that they or their ancestors lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969, when the city enforced segregation. The money can only be used for buying or repairing a home, leaving out the majority of Black Evanston residents, who are renters. {snip}


The program quickly ran into problems. Instead of the three marijuana dispensaries the city was expecting, only one opened, bringing in a trickle of the tax money initially forecast. A year after the reparations effort launched, few were receiving housing vouchers.


Acknowledging the program’s slow start, the council voted in December to set aside an additional $10 million over ten years, this time from a tax on real estate sales over $1.5 million.

That hasn’t been enough to convince some Black residents, who are holding out for unrestricted cash payments and other efforts to address the city’s racist history.

“This is not reparations, but the city has attached on to it in order to make themselves famous across the United States,” said Cannon, noting that 33 Black city employees recently called on the city to investigate racial discrimination by supervisors and White co-workers. “This is all about getting good press, when in reality, our city is in shambles.” Cannon has not applied for the reparations program, though she qualifies.