This Illinois City Just Approved the First Reparations Program for Black Residents—Here’s How It Works

Photo: Alderman Robin Sue Simmons, who spearheaded a program for reparations to Black residents in Evanston, Illinois. (Getty Images / Kamil Krzaczynski)
City council members in Evanston, Illinois, approved a $400,000 reparations program for Black residents on Monday in an 8-to-1 vote. The program is the first to come out of a fund established through a November 2019 vote that allocates the city's first $10 million in revenue from the state's 3 percent cannabis tax to reparations. It's the nation's first government reparations program for African Americans.

"This historic vote is the culmination of nearly two years of community input, conversation, and hard work, but it follows decades of harmful policies and practices that impact Black Evanston families to this day," said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, who spearheaded the reparations initiative. "While we acknowledge we have a long way to go to repair all of the damages done by racism, we also know this program will make a real and lasting difference in the lives of some of those harmed by past injustices and will set the stage for additional reparative measures in the future."

In July 2020, the city of Asheville, North Carolina, voted unanimously in favor of reparations for its Black residents. In September, California became the first state government to adopt a law to study and develop proposals for potential reparations to descendants of slaves. Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are also said to be exploring the idea. However, reparations continue to be extremely controversial; only about 10 percent of white Americans and 50 percent of Black Americans are in favor, according to a June 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll.

The Evanston reparations resolution focuses on housing inequality among the city's 75,000 residents. Practices such as redlining, a New Deal-era policy that allowed lenders to refuse mortgages to those living in predominantly-Black neighborhoods, created the segregated communities and wealth inequalities that persist today. The first round of reparations allows $400,000 to be used for $25,000 homeownership and improvement grants as well as mortgage assistance for Black residents. Eligible Black residents include those who can show they are direct descendants of Black people who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 or those who can show they experienced housing discrimination due to the city’s policies or practices after 1969.

"Reparations, and any process for restorative relief, must connect between the harm imposed and the city," read the City of Evanston's website. "The strongest case for reparations by the city of Evanston is in the area of housing, where there is sufficient evidence showing the city’s part in housing discrimination as a result of early city zoning ordinances in place between 1919 and 1969, when the city banned housing discrimination."

By using funds from cannabis taxes (Illinois legalized cannabis for adult use in January 2020), the city allows profit from the white-dominated legal cannabis industry to directly benefit Black communities, who were most impacted by discriminatory policies enacted during the War on Drugs. Simmons says this move is just the beginning.

"It is, alone, not enough," said Simmons, according to the Chicago Tribune. "We all know that the road to repair and justice in the Black community is going to be a generation of work. It’s going to be many programs and initiatives, and more funding."

Some Evanstonians, however, believe that the move to give reparations in the form of restricted grants is limiting and are pushing for cash payments. The city says that cash payments aren't currently possible due to IRS reporting requirements that would leave recipients responsible for paying taxes associated with the award. But Alderman Cicely Fleming, the only councilmember to vote against the resolution, says they need to take more time to ensure what is being given is truly a reparation. The resolution lacks community input and a long-term plan, and that the use of grants is "based on a white paternalistic narrative that Black folks are unable to manage their own monies."

"Let me be clear—I am 100 percent in support of reparations. I come from three legacy Black families in Evanston who have suffered enough," Fleming said at Monday night's city council meeting. "But what is before us tonight is a housing plan dressed up as reparations. We must understand the definition of true reparations and its main goal. To do that, the people dictate its terms to power, not the other way around. Rather, this resolution is dictating to Black residents what they need and how they will receive what they need."

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