One small US city, one giant leap for reparations in America

Robin Sue Simmons, alderman of Evanston's 5th Ward and a driving force behind the city's move to award reparations to its Black residents
Robin Sue Simmons, alderman of Evanston's 5th Ward and a driving force behind the city's move to award reparations to its Black residents KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI AFP
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Evanston (United States) (AFP)

A Chicago suburb is set to become the first city in the United States to offer reparations to its Black residents, with a plan to distribute $10 million over the next decade.

If the plan goes ahead it will be a first step by the residents of Evanston, Illinois towards answering the longstanding, massive and complex question of what the United States owes to African Americans -- from the descendants of slaves whose unpaid labor helped turn the country into a superpower, to later generations held back by decades of discriminatory practices.

Evanston -- a town of 75,000 people which is home to Northwestern University, and which lies just north of the Windy City along the shores of Lake Michigan -- does not pretend to give a definitive response to that question, which has been a matter of thorny debate in the US almost since slavery ended more than 150 years ago.

But it aims to break the issue down into smaller parts it can begin to resolve.

It has already received wide community support for the plan using funds generated through a tax on marijuana sales, and will begin to implement it with a city council vote on March 22 on using the first $400,000 for housing needs.

Under the plan, residents who qualify will receive $25,000 to use towards home improvements or mortgage assistance.

To qualify, they must have either been or be descended from a Black person who lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 who suffered from discriminatory housing practices, such as redlining from government and banks, one of the biggest drivers of a racial wealth gap nationwide.

That means the Evanston plan is not focused on the almost unfathomable wrongs of slavery -- but on just one specific wrong of the many other historic wrongs suffered by the Black population in America, according to Dr Ron Daniels, conveyer of the National African American Reparations Commission, a nonprofit established in 2015.

"It's not just about enslavement, it's beyond that," Simmons said.

"It includes the Homestead Act, which Black people were excluded from. It includes the Federal Housing Authority building homes after WWII for people in the suburbs, the GI Bill where Black folks were excluded; the systematic disinvestment in Black communities because of redlining; and it includes the war on drugs. All these areas warrant repair," Daniels said.

- Building wealth through housing -

Focusing sharply on discriminatory housing practices allows Evanston to aim the money at "building wealth through housing," said Robin Sue Simmons, an alderman representing the town's historically Black fifth ward -- where she grew up and still lives -- and who spearheaded the plan.

Both Daniels and Simmons said the Evanston initiative was not meant to be a substitute for federal reparations, currently before Congress in the form of HR40.

The bill seeks a commission to "examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies."

"This is in no way to replace or postpone HR40," Simmons said.

"This is a small, first step toward repair and justice for the Black community in our city of Evanston, but we will not get to full repair without HR40 and the federal resources that should follow with that legislation."

- 'Start now' -

The 1861-65 Civil War which led to the emancipation of African American slaves was followed by Reconstruction -- the reintegration of the southern states into the union, and of Black people into American society.

Any gains for African Americans under Reconstruction were short-lived, however, and were largely reversed during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation which lasted until the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s.

The policies of former president Donald Trump combined with massive Black Lives Matter protests last year have ignited a new reckoning on modern racism in the United States, and the topic of reparations in particular featured prominently in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contest.

But it's a topic that has always been delicate: even if Americans can move past the polarisation, deep anger and resentment, how would reparations be implemented? Who gets the money, and how much?

There is precedent for reparations in America: for example, the millions paid out to Japanese-Americans interned in concentration camps during World War II.

But in that case the time period was limited and defined, the hurt was clear and measurable, and those who deserved redress were easily identifiable -- unlike with the sprawling centuries of repression caused by slavery, segregation and discrimination.

For Simmons, however, there is no need to wait for an answer to that bigger question.

Evanston may be a pioneer among American cities when it comes to reparations, but it is not unique, she said -- and other cities, including its much larger neighbor Chicago, are already taking note.

Last week she spoke at a Chicago City Council committee meeting to offer her advice, which she said goes for any legislator around the country thinking of putting together a reparations plan for its Black residents.

"Start now," she said.

"There's no need to study it. There's no need to wait to do any more data reports.

"Say yes to repair and justice for the Black community."