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Chicago suburb to become first city to give Black residents reparations

Evanston, Illinois, approved the measure in 2019 to financially compensate its Black residents to address wealth and opportunity gaps from historical racism and discrimination.

CHICAGO — A suburb of Chicago is setting a precedent for racial equality as it moves forward in becoming the first city in the country to fund reparations for its Black residents — but some residents say it doesn't go far enough to truly be called reparations.

Evanston, just north of Chicago, voted to approve a groundbreaking measure in 2019 in which the city would financially compensate its Black residents to address the wealth and opportunity gaps they have experienced because of historical racism and discrimination.

Using community donations and revenue from a 3 percent tax collected on the sale of recreational cannabis, the city adopted a reparations fund and pledged to distribute $10 million over 10 years.

Since then, Evanston officials have been putting together a plan to disburse the money, eventually deciding that the first $400,000 will be dedicated to address housing needs.

The City Council is expected to vote March 22.

But as officials prepare to move forward with a vote on the first phase of disbursements, some residents say more work is needed before the measure can be classified as true reparations.

"Reparations is the most appropriate legislative response to the historic practices and the contemporary conditions of the Black community. And although many of the anti-Black policies have been outlawed, many remain embedded in policy, including zoning and other government practices," said Robin Rue Simmons, an alderman in Evanston's 5th Ward, who introduced the legislation.

"We are in a time in history where this nation more broadly has not only the will and awareness of why reparations is due, but the heart to advance it," Simmons said.

Evanston, Ill., Alderman Robin Rue Simmons proposed a reparations fund that the City Council approved in November 2019.Genevieve Bookwalter / Pioneer Press / TNS via Getty Images file

Under the program's first phase, qualifying residents would get $25,000 to use toward homeownership, home improvement and mortgage assistance, Simmons said. To qualify, residents must either have lived in or been a direct descendant of a Black person who lived in Evanston between 1919 to 1969 who suffered discrimination in housing because of city ordinances, policies or practices.

While Evanston passed a fair housing ordinance in 1969, redlining and overt discriminatory housing practices were sharply evident for years afterward.

Real estate brokers developed a practice of informal racial zoning by treating a section of west Evanston as open to African Americans while excluding them from the rest of town, historian Morris "Dino" Robinson, founder and executive director of the Shorefront Legacy Center, told the Evanston Roundtable.

In addition, many Evanston banks refused to lend money to Black people to buy homes on blocks that were not viewed as "acceptable" for them. White homeowners also recorded racially restrictive covenants that provided that their homes "shall not be conveyed, leased to, or occupied by anyone not a Caucasian," he said.

If the housing reparations are approved, residents could have reparations benefits as soon as early summer, Simmons said.

But a faction within the city that has recently formally formed says it opposes the program in its current iteration and has been pushing back against the vote.

The group, called Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations, said in a Facebook post that the "current bill proposed by the city of Evanston never went through a racial equality, anti-capitalist process. As a result, historically racist financial institutions like banks, corporations and various individuals, will profit from this proposal. Reparations should not be monetized."

It added: "We are demanding a name change to the current proposal. The current proposal is inherently anti-Black, and we reject this bill as any form or reparations."

An organizer with the group, Sebastian Nalls, a former mayoral candidate, said that while no one in the group opposes the idea of reparations, they do take issue with this particular program.

"This is not fully in scope and fully beneficial to the Black community," he said. "Reparations is not just payment towards individuals that have been targeted by inequalities, but it's also proving the harm that took place will not take place again and ensuring that more harm will not be caused."

Nalls, 20, said the group wants officials to pause voting and to keep working on the program until it addresses the group's concerns. If the vote does move forward, Nalls said, the measure should change its name so it does not use the word "reparations."

"We need to change the name of the current program, because just having a housing program is not reparations," he said, adding that residents should just get direct payments so they can choose however they want to use the money.

Nalls, who was unable to give an exact number of members in the group, said he has heard from many community members.

But Simmons rebutted the group's claims, saying the process has been fair, inclusive and methodical.

"It certainly is reparation. It is redress. It is compensation for recovery of wealth loss due to housing policies specifically," she said, adding that the subcommittee has engaged with hundreds of residents since 2019.

"We're doing what we can within our purview as a municipal government," she said. "We don't govern the banking industry. We do advocate that the banking industry does more to improve their practices and create fair products, but we thought it appropriate that we take the first tangible step as a city within our purview."

The program has been certified by the National African American Reparations Commission, a nonprofit civil rights organization, as a model for the country.

"We see it as a positive development when people are engaged in democratic process, but it is also important to be correct in terms of the analysis and assessment of what's actually happening," said Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission.

"This is reparations," he said. "The city of Evanston is in the process of making repairs for this special category of harm, but moving forward, I'm sure that the City Council and key people in the community will be looking for opportunities for these new voices who have legitimate interests and legitimate concerns to become involved in the process looking at the next round of reparation proposals."