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August 08, 2022

Slavery reparations enacted by U.S. city: Here’s how

The question of how to make amends for the damage done to enslaved people in America is a continuing debate in the United States. However, Evanston, Illinois, has moved from debate to action as the first United States city to make reparations available to its Black residents — and providing an example for others to follow.

Evanston was the focus of a panel at the program “The Next Steps in Restorative Justice —Reparations,” presented at the American Bar Association 2022 Annual Meeting in Chicago.

“Political will is the most important aspect” of creating a reparations program, said panel moderator Nicholas Cummings, corporation counsel for Evanston. The city is in the first phase of its plan, which has awarded 16 residents $25,000 each to use for mortgage payments, down payment on a home or home repairs. Black people who lived in the city from 1919 to 1969 and their descendants are eligible for reparations. The money must be used for housing in Evanston and nowhere else.

The first payments, totaling $400,000, are part of $10 million Evanston has pledged over a decade to begin repairing the damage caused by official city policies. The housing program, which is just the foundation of a larger reparations plan, is funded by a tax on legalized marijuana sold in the city.

“It’s slow, almost glacial” to do the work of moving along the plan, said Peter Braithwaite, former Evanston city councilman who chaired the reparations committee. He said the committee had to first get buy-in to the program, which focused on decades of housing discrimination and disparities, from city council members, the community and even some Black residents who had opposed reparations.

Looking at the history of redlining — which discouraged mortgage lending in areas populated by Black people and other ethnic groups in Evanston — Braithwaite pointed out how an Evanston neighborhood school closure impacted the area years later: Businesses closed, loans were difficult to obtain, crime increased, and life spans, incomes and educational opportunities all decreased. Those outcomes “laid the foundation of how we moved forward with the local repair” to residents in the form of reparations, he said.

“It wasn’t an emotional conversation. It was all fact-based,” backed up by numbers and historical facts, Braithwaite said. It took several conversations to educate people about what occurred in slavery and how it connects to what’s happening today, and present evidence of the harm done by the city regarding housing disparities over the years. “As a community we understand that by helping the least of us, helps all of us.”

Braithwaite said he has started to see more support nationwide of the reparations movement, especially from legal experts. Reparation initiatives are underway in Asheville, North Carolina, and Providence, Rhode Island, and inquiries have come from institutions such as Georgetown University.

Cummings said a “saving grace” for the Evanston program is that a race-neutral component is part of the city policy. Anyone, regardless of race, who can show discrimination or harm after 1969 is eligible for the housing reparations funds. “As a city it is harder to craft policy that is race-conscious, so we added an aspect to the policy that is race-neutral as well.”

However, the Rev. Janette Wilson, national director of PUSH for Excellence in Chicago, rejected race-neutral reparations. “This whole idea of reparations cannot be race-neutral,” she said. “Just as in many instances when women fight, it is not gender-neutral. The whole abortion ‘right to choose’ is not gender-neutral. In the same manner, these decisions by local governments are not race-neutral. … Banks are still redlining African Americans and people of color,” Wilson said, adding that Native Americans deserve reparations, too, because land was taken from them.

Also, the “scavenger sales” of mostly Black- and Latino-owned land that was lost through delinquent taxes and seized by the city continues today. “A lot of seniors are losing property that they worked a lifetime to acquire because they failed to pay the property taxes and they don’t know they’re on the tax rolls,” Wilson said. “We need to look at how this property has been transferred.”

The program was sponsored by the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law.