Evanston’s Reparations Program Is Pioneering, But Limited

Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

What’s the modern-day equivalent of 40 acres and a mule? The Chicago suburb of Evanston decided that it’s a housing-assistance grant. Evanston’s city council voted Monday to disperse the first $400,000 from a reparations program that it approved in 2019, marking the first time in the history of the country that a municipality has attempted to compensate African Americans for racial injustices of its leaders in the past.

Other cities have passed preliminary resolutions toward reparations, and following the murder of George Floyd last year, the national conversations on the topic have never been more robust. “I would certainly say that in my lifetime, I’ve never seen the issue of reparations being taken as seriously as it is now,” the civil-rights journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones told CNN.

For what, precisely, is this program aiming to atone?

Starting in the 1910s, the Great Migration rapidly expanded the Black population in the north generally and in Chicagoland in particular. By 1940, the city of Evanston had the largest suburban Black population in Illinois, at 6,026. Although there were hundreds of vacant houses in the town, Black tenants weren’t allowed to rent them owing to racial covenants. Instead, they were crowded into unsanitary homes in the city’s Fifth Ward. Evanston’s segregation became official city policy after a 1921 zoning ordinance codified that Black residents were restricted to “largely commercial and light industrial areas along the tracks, and districts so remote from transportation facilities as to be comparatively undesirable,” according to a report from a Northwestern University student at the time. This practice, often referred to as redlining, was of course not specific to Evanston — it occurred all over the country — and because federal policy made homeownership the primary mechanism for building wealth in the United States, it systematically left African Americans behind. They have never come close to catching up: The median Black American family’s wealth in recent years is about one-seventh that of the average white family’s.

Of all the places that could go first, why Evanston?

When a city adopts a trailblazing position, it’s often the work of a trailblazer within that city’s government, and this is no exception. Former Evanston alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste first introduced a reparations resolution in 2002, and getting the resolution passed can be credited, for the most part, to current Fifth Ward alderman Robin Rue Simmons, who was elected in 2017. Following the 8-1 vote on the program this week, Rue Simmons’s fellow aldermen praised her work and vision, and she’s gained national prominence owing to news stories about the program.

How does it work? Who qualifies for reparations?

It’s pretty tightly limited. Evanston’s reparations will go only to current residents who are Black and lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 — that is, between the enactment of exclusionary zoning ordinances and its official ban on housing discrimination — or who are a direct descendent of someone who was. The obvious shortcoming of these qualifications is that discrimination tends to drive people away, and there are undoubtedly thousands of Black residents who would qualify but no longer live in town.

What’s the payout?

Although the program is still in development, the first payments are being dispersed right away as part of what the city calls the Restorative Housing Program. Qualifiers can receive up to $25,000 to assist with down payments, closing costs, mortgage payments, or home improvements to modernize an Evanston property. The city’s 2020 report proposed that housing assistance is the most direct way to address its past sins.

So how many people are we talking about?

The city says it doesn’t know how many people qualify for the program, but as is true of a lot of American welfare programs, it’s almost certain that far more will qualify than will actually get a grant. Evanston’s Black population is about 12,000. It’s hard to drill down to a more precise number from there, but given that mobility is lower among low-income people, and much of the Black population is low-income because of the very injustices this program aims to correct, a very conservative estimate could be 10 percent of the city’s Black population qualifies. That would be 1,200 people, or a few hundred families. The $400,000 disbursement into $25,000 grants means that as few as 16 households could receive a payout from this first stage of the program.

How is Evanston paying for this?

Evanston’s reparations dovetail with another attempt to retroactively correct racial injustices. To fund the program, the city will direct revenue from a recently enacted 3 percent tax on the sale of recreational marijuana, which the state of Illinois legalized in 2020. Given that draconian enforcement of minor drug offenses has imprisoned millions of African Americans, wrecking countless communities and families, there’s a bit of symbolism in funding reparations through a tax on pot. It’s also more palatable politically to introduce a new tax that affects a limited portion of the population than it is to redirect funds from other sources. (And if you truly object to paying it, you can just lay off the weed.)

So this is a historic step. Are most people happy with it?

Of course not. Even if you set aside the right-wing hackery about “government handouts” and “free money” and the like, there are more nuanced criticisms of the program. One alderman lamented that going with housing assistance over direct cash payments reinforces stereotypes that Black people can’t manage their own money. A group calling itself Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations argues the city doesn’t go far enough, also advocating instead for cash payments. It also takes the stance that racial harm was done to African Americans well after the 1969 ban on housing discrimination, and thus that date shouldn’t be the cutoff for the assistance (and indeed, the city’s own report mentions that the real-estate industry was directing Black residents away from white neighborhoods as recently as 1985). The city’s response is that the benefit of housing grants over cash payouts is that they won’t be taxed by the federal government. It also says that this is only the first of many steps.

What other cities are considering reparations?

After George Floyd’s murder last spring, the city council of Asheville, North Carolina, unanimously voted to fund programs and policies that “will establish the creation of generational wealth and address reparations due in the Black community.” By November, the city had dragged its feet on the $1 million in funding that had been promised, and the local news outlet Asheville Watchdog quoted a racial-justice advocate saying, “From my understanding, they’ve done nothing.” Providence, Rhode Island, passed a similar resolution last summer but has yet to lay out specific plans. There’s also a bill in Congress called H.R. 40 — a reference to those promised 40 acres — that has been bouncing around in one version or another since 1989 and has never passed. Originally an educational initiative, it’s been repurposed by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee to fund a commission to develop reparations proposals, which she introduced in her first act in the current 117th Congress. She notes, however, that she is not necessarily proposing direct cash payments. While Evanston’s move is the most significant step toward reparations thus far, the hope is that it’s part of a snowball effect that pushes other municipalities to do the same.

Evanston’s Reparations Program Is Pioneering, But Limited