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Evanston is the first U.S. city to issue slavery reparations. Experts say it's a noble start.

Critics said a plan by Evanston, Illinois, to give housing grants to Black residents isn't enough. But experts say this could be just the beginning.
Image: U.S. city poised to become the first to pay reparations to Black residents
Miles Henry, 11, waits with his father, Shawn, at the Church Street Barber Shop in the Fifth Ward, known as the historic Black community, in Evanston, Ill., on March 17, 2021.Eileen T. Meslar / Reuters

The historic plan by Evanston, Illinois, to make reparations to its Black residents — including housing grants for a fraction of the city’s families — has prompted questions about whether funding such programs, as opposed to direct payments, can be considered reparations for slavery and racial discrimination at all.

The first phase involves giving 16 residents $25,000 each, for home repairs or property costs. This plan, however, is far from the direct payments that have come to characterize reparations — redress for slavery and the subsequent racial discrimination in the United States. But experts say Evanston's plan is a noble start to a complicated process.

“I certainly would like for money to go directly in the hands of individuals. But I don’t think, in this regard, that should prevent an initiative like this from starting,” Andre Perry, author and scholar-in-residence at American University, said. “You know that saying, ‘perfection is the enemy of the good.’ That somewhat applies to this. You would like to see direct payments in some form to enable those who qualify to spend as they would like. But when you’re talking about historic discrimination, housing subsidies was a significant part of that. Discrimination occurred at many different levels, it was not just the federal government. So municipalities have a moral obligation.”

The housing program is the first initiative in a historic plan to distribute $10 million in reparations to Black residents of Evanston, according to the resolution. The effort is to directly acknowledge and address the “historical harm” done to Evanston residents through “discriminatory housing policies and practices and inaction by the City.” The effort would prioritize descendants of Evanston residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 or suffered housing discrimination after 1969.

A historical report on the city's policies identified housing as the "strongest case for reparations" by the city, finding "sufficient evidence" of housing discrimination in Evanston as a result of city zoning ordinances in place between 1919 and 1969, according to city officials.

A Black Lives Matter sign sits in front of a home on March 23, 2021 in Evanston, Ill.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Alderman Cicely Fleming called the resolution “a housing plan dressed up as reparations,” and said “true reparations” would be defined and dictated by the people rather than city leaders. Critics have even noted that simply funding homeownership does not adequately address the systemic racism that makes it difficult for Black people to build wealth through the practice.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Nalls, a college student who unsuccessfully ran for Evanston mayor, told The New York Times that “Giving $400,000 to 16 Black people in a town of 12,000 Black residents is not reparation.”

The columnist Dahleen Glantondescribed the resolution in the Chicago Tribune as "mostly a symbolic gesture with little of the substance the reparations movement hoped for," adding that "African Americans won’t get a dime in their pockets."

"It will have little, if any, impact on the lives of the other approximately 12,000 Black Evanston residents," Glanton's column reads. "It probably won’t even make a dent in addressing the economic disparities resulting from decades of neglect."

Fleming tweeted about the column.

Evanston officials have said they aren’t able to give direct payments to residents without subjecting them to a tax burden. In the resolution, officials said the city decided to prioritize housing first as a result of community feedback. The $10 million project is funded by donations and revenue from the city's sales tax on recreational marijuana. The City Council established its reparations fund in 2019 and will administer funds for the housing grants.

“We should honor what happened in Evanston as historic,” Dreisen Heath, a racial justice researcher with Human Rights Watch, said. “The city of Evanston’s remedy plan was always centered around the localized harm that Black residents in Evanston faced. That means looking at the local policies, laws, practices that were anti-Black and discriminatory and how they impacted the Black residents there. These reparative housing measures were specific to harms that happened between 1919 and 1969 in Evanston, Illinois, and therefore specific harms require specific remedies. That’s why this first phase of the program seems to be designed to address that directly. We need local governments to assume their culpability in creating these harms so that we have a more holistic response to the level of pain and suffering that continues to impact Black people on all economic and social corners.”

A mural is displayed on Litehouse Whole Food Grill on Dodge Avenue in the Fifth Ward, known as the historic Black community, in Evanston, Ill., on March 18, 2021.Eileen T. Meslar / Reuters

Similar efforts elsewhere have drawn the same criticism. In Asheville, North Carolina, leaders have vowed to give reparations by funding housing, business and career programs for Black people. Religious education institutions such as the Virginia Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary promised to atone for their historic ties to slavery by setting up scholarships.

The author and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom highlighted the issue in a 2014 Washington Post Op-Ed, in which she unpacked claims that better access to higher education is adequate redress for inequality. “Reparations can do what education cannot do,” she wrote then, adding that such access “is an opportunity vehicle that works best when coupled with justice and not confused for justice.”

Reparations have gone in and out of headlines in recent years, and the summer’s protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have only thrust the topic into the spotlight again. As government leadersdeeply consider reparations, Perry said “different programs will do different things. And we need to make room for that.”

“I think a lot of the criticisms of the program are a bit premature,” Perry said of the Evanston initiative. “It’s a good sign that a municipality recognizes its role in the racism that has robbed millions of Black Americans of trillions of dollars collectively over time. Once we get locked into one form of reparations, we miss how multifaceted discrimination actually is. There should be cash payments, housing grants, scholarships and there should be other forms created at multiple levels because that’s how discrimination occurred.”

He added that he believes this initiative won’t hinder or distract from the larger reparations movement, but will “motivate” it instead. “This should be seen as encouragement, not as a consolation prize,” he said.

National leaders are talking about reparations too. Earlier this year, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, reintroduced bill H.R. 40, which would create a commission to examine reparations for the African American descendants of slavery. President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed his support for studying reparations.

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