Chicago’s suburban plan to pay repairs to black residents could be a national model

EVANSTON, Illinois – Decades ago in the Evanston suburb of Chicago, Cordelia Clark ran a restaurant in her kitchen and parked taxis for her cab company in her backyard because black residents weren’t allowed to own or rent storefronts in town.

Today, Evanston is poised to become the first American city to offer restitution money to black residents whose families have suffered lasting damage due to decades of discriminatory practices.

“It is high time that something came out of the hard work of African Americans in this city, proving that they should be treated like everyone else,” said Clark’s great-granddaughter Delois. Robinson, 58 years old.

Evanston’s initial approach to reparations is narrow and focused. City council, which has already committed $ 10 million over a decade to the effort, will vote Monday to start with a series of payments of $ 400,000. The first phase will provide $ 25,000 to a small number of eligible black residents for home repairs, down payments or mortgage payments in a nod to historically racist housing policies.

Delois Robinson washes the dishes at her home in Evanston, Ill. On March 18, 2021. Robinson’s great-grandmother ran a restaurant and taxi business from her home in the Fifth Ward because she was unable to secure a separate commercial building due to the color of his skin. Eileen T. Meslar / Reuters

The program could become a model for other cities and states grappling with the opportunity to pursue their own reparations programs. The national movement has gained ground amid a racial inequality reckoning after the police murder of George Floyd and other black Americans last year.

In Congress, a bill that would establish a national reparations commission to study the issue has attracted around 170 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, all Democrats. President Joe Biden has not approved the legislation but says he supports a study. Advocates plan to press the White House for executive action if the bill, as expected, fails to pass a divided Senate.

Other cities, including Chicago; Providence, Rhode Island; Burlington, Vermont; Asheville, North Carolina; and Amherst, Massachusetts, have launched initiatives, but none has yet identified specific funding. California passed a bill modeled on federal law, and lawmakers in New York and Maryland introduced similar measures.

Private institutions have also announced campaigns. The Jesuit Order of Catholic Priests last week pledged $ 100 million for the benefit of the descendants of the slaves it once owned.

“Reparations are the public policy prescription that addresses – and fixes – systemic racism,” said Ron Daniels, who oversees the African-American National Reparations Commission, which consulted Evanston on its proposal.

Objections

The practicality of implementing reparations programs, especially at the national level, is still a matter of debate.

Reuters / Ipsos polls in June 2020, at the height of racial justice protests, found just one in five respondents agreed that the United States should pay damages to descendants of people with reduced mobility. slavery.

Some opponents ask if taxpayers can afford to shell out billions or even billions of dollars. Others wonder how eligibility for such programs would be determined, whether based on race, ancestry or evidence of discrimination.

In Evanston, black residents are eligible for the housing program if they, or their ancestors, lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 or if they can prove that they experienced housing discrimination because of the policies. from the city. Recipients will be selected at random if there are more applicants than funds available in the housing program.

Some Black Evanston residents have objected to the scope and size of the plan as being inadequate, pointing to the difficulties inherent in designing a program that everyone believes can never fully improve upon centuries of discrimination. .

“Difficult to catch up”

Evanston, home to Northwestern University, sits between Chicago to the south and the affluent North Shore suburbs along Lake Michigan. About 16 percent of its 75,000 inhabitants are black.

Like everywhere in the United States, blacks in Evanston have been subjected to “redlining,” a practice in which banks have refused to grant housing loans in predominantly black neighborhoods. This prevented black residents from owning homeowners, a key source of wealth.

The impact of historical and systemic discrimination on Evanston’s black community persists. The Fifth Ward, where Robinson’s great-grandmother ran two businesses from her home, is predominantly black and struggling with substandard infrastructure.

“We’re trying to catch up with hundreds of years of oppression, and it’s just hard to catch up without help,” said Vanessa Johnson-McCoy, resident and real estate agent of Evanston, who is black.

The city’s campaign will rely on a new tax on legalized marijuana. Supporters say the funding mechanism is particularly appropriate, given how devastating the criminalization of marijuana in the country has been for black communities.

Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations, an opposition group, noted that the upfront payments would only cover 16 households. The group is also opposed to restricting this money to housing needs.

“Real repairs fix you – you have a chance to say what fixes you,” said band member Rose Cannon, who is black.

National advocates say viewing reparations as just cash payments is far too reductive and there is a need for policies that tackle the institutional racism that created the inequalities in the first place.

“These remnants need to be addressed – or they will continue in the future, regardless of how many equity programs are in place,” said Kamm Howard, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, or N’COBRA. . .

Even in cities with limited resources, local governments can still pay back by updating school curricula, improving business development, providing housing options and apologizing for past racism, Howard said.

Robin Sue Simmons, city councilor for the 5th Ward of Evanston, in Evanston, Illinois, March 16, 2021.Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP – Getty Images

Evanston Alderman Robin Street Simmons, who is black, spearheaded his town’s initiative. She sees upcoming payments as a critical first step.

“This is about our humanity,” she said. “It’s late, and the time has come. “

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