Evanston, Illinois made headlines earlier this year by becoming the first city in the US to authorize "reparations" in the form of payments to compensate Black Americans for abuses done to family members. The Chicago suburb' City Council voted back in March to distribute $400K to eligible black households, with each qualifying family receiving up to $25K for homeownership and or improvement grants, as well as mortgage assistance.
But while proponents on the left praised the move as unprecedented, it turns out that those who designed the proposal were careful to ensure the word "reparations" was nowhere near it. In fact, a lengthy Bloomberg piece telling the story of how the proposal came to be shows that its backers were simply hoping to put new revenue from cannabis legalization to use righting historical wrongs in Evanston.
For starters, only 16 people will initially be eligible for the money (only $400K was approved and it will be doled out in increments of $25K). And what's more, instead of receiving cash payments, the money must go directly to a bank or a contractor to prevent the recipient from incurring a state or federal tax penalty.
In essence, this shows the futility of making 'reparations' a reality via a series of local or municipal movements: there are myriad boundaries at the federal level that make it unrealistic.
Right now, the money can only be used to help qualified Black residents buy homes, fix them up, or stay in them. Right now, the priority is the grants go to any Black resident of Evanston from 1919 to 1969, the year after the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, then any of their direct descendants, then anyone who moved to the city after that and can show that they’ve faced discrimination.
Even supporters of reparations said they were underwhelmed.
“We want cash payments. I want reparations like any Black person” And the big question: How much? They decided on grants of $25,000—not a lot of money in Evanston, where the average home sells for many multiples of that. The $400,000 covers just 16 people to start with. That’s a tough number, another reality check. There are other restrictions: The residents won’t get the cash directly. The city says that would likely require them to pay state and federal taxes on it. Instead, the money will go to the financial institution providing a new mortgage or holding an existing one or to the closing agent handling a down payment. It could go to a contractor making repairs on the recipient’s home or to Cook County to pay property taxes.
At a virtual town meeting held on March 22, Black residents lined up to explain why they supported the program, but didn't support calling it "reparations".
At the March 22 City Council meeting, held virtually, so many people had something to say that the mayor limited them to a minute each. The first speakers were the Duke professor Darity and Kirsten Mullen, co-authors of the 2020 book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. Darity said the program would do little about the equity gap in housing. Mullen challenged the premise. “There are some admirable efforts by municipalities to atone for their own race-based policies,” Mullen said. “However, it is unfortunate when those acts of atonement are confused with reparations.” Cannon said that because she now rents an apartment and at age 73 doesn’t want to take on a mortgage, she wouldn’t benefit, even though she’d qualify. “We want cash payments,” she said. “I want reparations like any Black person.” Kevin Brown, another founder of the Facebook group, said: “The city of Evanston should not willingly mislead our country. … We support the housing program, but we don’t support calling it reparations.”
Now that the program has blown up and become national news, it turns out, everybody in the community has something negative to say about it.
Brown says it wasn’t until earlier this year that some people realized the city was going ahead with reparations. There had been regular public meetings, opportunities to comment, but they’d almost all occurred while the city was locked down, people were struggling, and no one was socializing much. Then there’s the $10 million. It had seemed a smart idea to use the marijuana sales tax to pay for reparations. It’s such a convenient, tidy model that other communities might copy it. That’s the problem, Brown says. “I kind of call it reparations on the cheap. There’s no pain involved. I think it would be a different dynamic if reparations became an element of the city budget—of the core city budget—and the city government was saying, ‘We’re going to allocate a hundred million dollars over this period of time to fund the reparations budget.’ ” The city’s annual budget, for reference, is about $300 million. “This is just not costing anyone anything. So they’re OK.” Percy Berger, 72, a former banker and private equity investor and the owner of a home in Evanston’s Lake Shore Historical District, calls the $10 million inconsequential, arbitrary. A national reparations program would have to calculate African Americans’ economic losses: The lost wages from almost a century of forced labor after America’s independence; or the loss of land, the 40 acres and the mule promised to those formerly enslaved after emancipation. Plus interest. But how, Berger wants to know, were the losses calculated in Evanston? “No one looked at it systematically,” he says. “And if they did and came up with that number it would be even more insulting.”
And with COVID-19 stretching state and local budgets, some are arguing that maybe that money could have been better spent. The community still has another $9 million-plus in weed tax revenue to spend - but it's unlikely it will go to a continuation of this program.
This is an argument about what’s possible and what’s necessary and how far America will go. It’s happening in Evanston, and it will happen elsewhere. “Black folk have to raise their voices and say what reparations are,” Rue Simmons says. Some of the pushback she expected; some of it, she says, is personal and political. There will be plenty more discussion in Evanston about the remaining $9.6 million. The council’s resolution states it should be spent not only on housing but also on economic development and educational initiatives. Everyone hopes the $10 million is just a start and that 10 years won’t be the end.
It's just a reminder that those hoping to fight against economic inequality have many other, better options than whatever Evanston is doing.