Chicago suburb's reparations proposal divides Black community

Marquise Francis
·National Reporter & Producer
·12-min read

On Monday, Evanston, Ill., is set to become the first American city to provide reparations to some of its Black residents, marking a historic step toward restitution to African Americans who have been historically disenfranchised and discriminated against in the U.S. following over two centuries of slavery.

While the idea of reparations for African Americans has long been met with some skepticism about its need and overall execution, leaders on the local city council say that this is the first step toward a “full repair” of racial injustices.

“This is a first step in Evanston — one that I’m really proud of,” Alderman Robin Simmons, who presented the initial reparations plan more than two years ago in February 2019, told Yahoo News. “And I hope that we have continued to support.”

Under the proposed Restorative Housing Reparations program, the city of Evanston would distribute $10 million over the next 10 years to Black residents or their descendants who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 who suffered from anti-Black housing practices put in place by local government or banks.

Robin Sue Simmons
Robin Sue Simmons, alderman of Evanston's 5th Ward (Kamil Krzacynski/AFP via Getty Images)

The first installment of $400,000 would be dispersed in $25,000 allotments for residents to use towards home improvements or mortgage assistance, meaning a maximum of 16 Black families could participate in the first round. The money for the plan would be raised from a fund established from a 3 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales.

While local leadership praises the plan, many Black residents across the city, who make up just over 18 percent of the population, are divided on how the final program has taken shape.

“I love reparations, but I do not love this version that Evanston is trying to pass as reparations,” Rose Cannon, a life-long Evanston resident, told Yahoo News. “Somewhere along the line it changed from, [city officials saying] ‘I want cash money’ to ‘We're going to offer you this housing program.’ … It’s broken the community apart.”

Cannon, 73, is a founding member of the group Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations, which formed in early March and contends that the measure before the City Council does not go far enough.

“We reject racist reparations and demand a better, more responsive, more complete program that provides access to reparations acts of actual repair to Black folks,” the group said in a statement on its Facebook page.

Evanston Public Library
Kamil Krzacynski/AFP via Getty Images

Other opponents of the measure say it goes way too far. Conservative activist Edward Blum, president of the Austin, Texas, nonprofit Project on Fair Representation said Evanston’s “past discrimination cannot be remedied by new discrimination” and that the plan unconstitutional.

“If discrimination can be quantified and identified in the recent past then the law presents a narrowly tailored racial remedy,” Blum, who is white, told Yahoo News on Friday. “But to say something that began in 1919 to 1969, targeting African American residents, and we are going to provide a remedy to current African American residents because of that remedy? The law does not permit [that].”

Blum, who brought forward the 2015 federal complaints against Harvard University's alleged discriminatory admission practices against Asian Americans, plans to provide legal counsel to those who don’t qualify for Evanston’s program.

“The past can never be forgotten,” he added. “It should be remembered … but we cannot use religion and race and sexual identity to advantage ourselves and our life’s endeavors.”

Evanston was once home to a thriving African American population. Evanston’s first Black residents arrived in the 1850s and by 1910 Black citizens numbered 1,100. The number grew to more than 6,000 by 1940 and exceeded 9,000 by 1960, according to Morris Robinson, a historian and founder and executive director of Shorefront Legacy Center.

community gardens
Getty Images

But as the Black population continued to swell, real estate brokers began to informally zone those residents into the less developed and less desired neighborhood of West Evanston and exclude them purchasing property in other parts of town, historian Andrew Wiese noted in an article published in the Journal of Social History in 1999.

Banks in Evanston also discriminated against Black residents, refusing to give loans to buy homes that were deemed desirable. The few Black residents who owned lots were also refused loans to build on their land and eventually were compelled to sell.

Simmons knows the measure isn’t a perfect solution, but bristles at the criticism.

“No one believes that this alone is full repair [nor] that this alone is sufficient or it’s adequate or it is justice, but it is the first step and a first step must be taken,” Simmons told Yahoo News in a video interview, adding that the city has listened closely to concerns brought forward by residents. “We have monthly meetings. We have ward meetings. We have City Council meetings. We’ve had town halls that have included experts, local stakeholders as well.”

Sebastian Nalls, a former Evanston mayoral candidate, notes the importance of getting this plan done correctly on the first iteration because it has national implications.

Already several cities and states across the country — including Providence, R.I., Asheville, N.C., Burlington, Vt., and California — have taken steps to introduce reparations to combat systemic racism in their communities. In other words, what happens in Evanston, whether intentional or not, will likely be a blueprint for other places.

A Black Lives Matter sign
Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

“The promise of the larger national debate is that there will be plenty of municipalities that will look at the housing program and assume that they can replicate a program such as that in their own municipality — where they can allocate $400,000 to help out 10 to 20 Black families and say that they have repaired the damage done,” Nalls, 20, told Yahoo News. Nalls is another founding member of Evanson Rejects Racist Reparations group and has been vocal about his disdain of the current city reparations proposal.

“Reparations has to repair the damage that’s been done and ensure that that damage will never happen again,” he said.

Nalls and others also take issue with banks, who took part in discriminating against Black residents at the height of Jim Crow, being a part of the plan to introduce reparations to the community.

“It doesn't make sense that financial institutions that were benefiting from the harm caused by red lining are now benefiting from the repair,” he said.

Similar conversations are also taking place at a national level.

On Jan. 4, two days before Trump supporters and white supremacists stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, reintroduced H.R.40, which was named in reference to the broken Civil War-era promise that former slaves would receive 40 acres and a mule. The bill called for a thorough examination of “slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”

Following his inauguration, President Biden expressed support for the study.

“He understands we don’t need a study to take action right now on systemic racism, so he wants to take action within his own government in the meantime,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing last month.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
President Biden with Vice President Kamala Harris.(Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images)

But Republicans in Congress haven’t shown the same support. In response to Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., equated the bill’s $5 billion fund for Black farmers to “reparations.”

“In this bill, if you’re a farmer, your loan will be forgiven up to 120% of your loan,” Graham said in an interview on Fox News earlier this month. “But if you’re [a] white person, if you’re a white woman, no forgiveness. That’s reparations.”

A Reuters/Ipsos poll from June 2020 further illustrates the divide among Americans. The poll found that only 1 in 5 Americans support reparations in the form of “taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States.” Of that number, nearly 80 percent of Republicans polled said they did not support offering reparations, while one-third of Democrats did.

Evanston currently has a population of about 75,000, and more than 44,000, or 60 percent, are white. About 16 percent, or about 12,000, are Black, according to Data USA. The median household income is about $80,000 per year.

But just 20 years ago the city looked very different. In 2000, 22.5 percent of residents were Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The percentage declined to 18.1% in the 2010 census.

“Black residents are moving because of lack of affordability and access to living-wage jobs,” Simmons said in 2019.

It’s a big reason why she began pushing for a reparations program in the first place.

“I introduced reparations as a way to advance tangible, measurable redress in the Black community, which had historically been disinvested and disenfranchised like in every other city in America,” she said.

One factor for the Black migration out of the city has to do with Northwestern University, a private research university founded in 1851 that is ranked amongst the top universities in the country. The tuition for the school has risen to more than $56,000 a year and many graduates often choose to live in the community after graduation, raising housing rates and displacing the most vulnerable residents year after year. Still, one Northwestern professor sees the reparations program as a positive way to address inequity in the community past and present.

The Segal Visitors Center
The Segal Visitors Center at Northwestern University in Evanston. (Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“I was cautiously optimistic about the potential to get the reparations ordinance passed through the City Council because of Evanston’s progressive political environment,” Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, told Yahoo News.

“At the same time, I know that racial equity programs are often harder to implement as they come closer to fruition,” he added. “So far, I have been very impressed by how the council and the committee has approached their work.”

Surveys, from the city, have been sent out to Black Evanston residents on several occasions by to get their opinion on parts of the program’s execution and gauge overall interest. While Simmons said there are no tangible numbers to report on the program’s support, she points to Mayor-elect Daniel Biss, who supports the program, and his recent city-wide win with 73 percent of the vote.

According to Simmons, who provided a racial equity training to the city council as they were debating the reparations ordinance, the views by those who oppose on the program are “about political maneuvering” and “personal agendas,” not about doing what is right.

“We have an opportunity to bring repair and justice to the Black community, and in my opinion it is an emergency,” she said.

Ultimately, Simmons, herself, added that while Evanston’s plan won’t work for every city, it can certainly work as a model.

“It is an inspiration for our congresspeople to advance with urgency, H.R. 40, whether it be through a complete legislative process or executive order. But it is my belief that this should be an inspiration,” she said. “There is no blueprint because every city and history is going to be different.”

Tillery of Northwestern questions the core critique of the program.

“Would it be better to live in a city with no redress program at all or a city with a nascent program that has the potential to grow into something more robust?” he said. “As for the issue with the banks, reparations in the most classic sense means that the persons who actually created the harms should be the ones repairing the damage. So, not only should the banks be involved, but they should take a large role in providing the kinds of funds that will make the program more robust.”

Tillery added that he stressed creating a plan that was “narrowly tailored to survive legal challenges from conservative groups.”

The U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

For Cannon, the issue of reparations is about more than a handout. With Simmons slated to leave her post in less than two months to join the National African American Reparations Commission, Cannon believes the vote on Monday should be delayed until the next council is in place to decide what they want to do.

“[I say] do not take this to a vote on March 22 to become law, using a lame-duck sitting City Council, which will be totally replaced in May,” Cannon said. “We’re asking them to back down from that. It's not true reparations. … Take the name off of it.”

As someone who would be the beneficiary of this first installment, Cannon is willing to sacrifice her portion for the cause.

“I will not take this money unless it’s done right. ... But every time we push on that, it seems to go someplace else. It's like, we're not heard, we're not heard,” she said. “I’m an old lady. I want to see reparations before I die here. And I intend to see it. I intend to see it done exactly like it should be done.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images, Manny Ceneta/Getty Images

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