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Evanston's $400,000 down payment for national Black reparations

Is Evanston's plan a good start? Or just too little to make a dent in the backpay owed to Black Americans?
Image: Photographs at the Ebony Barber Shop in the Fifth Ward, a historic Black community, in Evanston, Illinois, on March 17, 2021.
Can Evanston's plan to provide justice to its Black citizens go nationwide?Eileen T. Meslar / Reuters file

Evanston, Illinois, a small city just outside of Chicago, has chipped in some cash to cover its part of what’s owed for hundreds of years of rape, murder and bondage. The Evanston City Council on Monday voted 8-1 to begin its own hyperlocal form of reparations to Black folks by agreeing to pay out nearly a half-million dollars in $25,000 increments to eligible Black families. The money would go to covering home repairs or down payments on property.

It’s a good gesture, and a positive step, but it raises old questions that we’ve still yet to answer. How much repayment is enough for hundreds of years of violence? How much backpay is sufficient to cover generations of legal and economic segregation, systemic theft of wealth and opportunity? How much is enough to cover America’s vast debt to Black American descendants of enslaved people? Where do we even begin?

Generations of Black Evanstonians spent their lives trapped in neighborhoods that had been redlined by the U.S. government and denied federally insured housing loans. Kept out of the housing market, Black residents were largely denied access to America’s most effective wealth-building tool: homeownership. This helped create the vast wealth gap among Black and white residents that mirrors the racial wealth gap we see all across the country.

The average white family has about 10 times the wealth of the average Black family, leaving that same Black family with about $840,000 less in net worth than their white counterparts. The lasting impact of that gap touches almost every aspect of Black life in America, from access to quality schools to your proximity to a grocery store. It even determines the cleanliness of the air you breathe and the water you drink.

In putting pen to paper on its reparations plan, Evanston became the first city in the U.S. to pay reparations to Black people, a welcomed economic salve some 155 years after Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s reneged promise of 40 acres and a mule to formerly enslaved people. But Evanston’s repayment is aimed at healing a specific injury — housing and the wealth gap — in a specific place. Could this kind of program be applied nationwide? Could it be scaled up?

The strongest case for Evanston’s reparations scheme is the specificity it provides.

It’s hard to say. Duke University professor William “Sandy” Darity, one of the foremost experts on the economic impact of slavery and reparations, recently told me that if the goal of reparations is to shrink the wealth gap, it would cost about $12 trillion.

Congress has been locked in an on-again-off-again debate over funding the mere study of reparations and the impact of slavery, as spelled out in H.R. 40, a bill that has been introduced and knocked down in every Congress since it was first introduced in 1989 by U.S. Rep. John Conyers. The word alone — REPARATIONS! — has been used as a slur by many conservatives in Congress any time the government considers making financial amends for past misdeeds against Black Americans. So it’s hard to imagine, even with a Democratic majority in both houses, that there’s much of an appetite for that kind of tab.

But, sticker shock aside, there are important pieces of the Evanston plan that could become part of a national plan. The strongest case for Evanston’s reparations scheme is the specificity it provides. White supremacy as an organizing principle and slavery as a functional outgrowth is a hard concept for some who were not direct participants to get their mind around. But Evanston zeroed in on housing, where it found “there is sufficient evidence showing the City’s part in housing discrimination as a result of early City zoning ordinances in place between 1919 and 1969, when the City banned housing discrimination.” It even produced a report that outlined harmful housing practices: “Evanston Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African American Community, 1900-1960 (and Present).”

There isn’t a city in America that is not guilty of having engaged in policies and practices that denied Black people access to equal housing. All across this country, Black folks had been pushed to the least desirable side of the tracks (cities actually built highways to keep Blacks separate) or into cramped, resource-starved neighborhoods. Nearby Chicago mastered the art of segregation as Southern Blacks poured in during the Great Migration, relegating them to the South Side of the city. Places like Washington, D.C.; New York; St. Louis; and West Hartford, Connecticut, allowed homeowners to write segregation into the deeds of their homes. All the while, the federal government not only supported but enforced segregation and redlining.

But making a case for reparations across the nation, city by city, is different than a federal, nationwide program. The funding options available to different communities would likely vary widely and come with tougher decisions to make. Back in 2019, Evanston passed a measure to establish a $10 million reparations fund, from which the first $400,000 approved this week is being drawn, funded by a 3 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales. That’s a revenue stream that didn’t take a lot of hand-wringing, where other communities may have to overcome much bigger obstacles.

Darity and some others I spoke with say that without a robust federal reparations effort, local efforts like these will have little if any impact in the national racial wealth gap. Darity told me he doesn’t even consider what Evanston is doing reparations.

“So insofar as the reason for doing that is because there has been a long history of housing discrimination in Evanston, then essentially, this is a policy that should be undertaken,” Darity said a few weeks back. “But I don't think they should call it reparations.”

“Housing subsidies are not going to eliminate the racial wealth gap,” he said. “One of the problems that we're confronted with is the magnitude of the racial wealth differential and the magnitude of the resources that state and local governments have.”

Darity said if you took the combined budgets of all state and local governments in the United States, it would amount to about $3.1 trillion, about $10 trillion short of what it would cost to shrink the racial wealth gap.

“I think this notion of local or municipal reparations or even state-level reparations is really quite misleading,” he said. “And I would prefer those communities to refer to something like — they're engaged in racial equity efforts. But I think it's really, really somewhat dangerous and not entirely ingenuous to call this reparations. It's not.”

There’s great power and effectiveness in the specificity of Evanston’s reparations plan. The city identified, articulated and illustrated how local housing policy had denied Black residents access to housing and thus wealth. It took it a step further by identifying a time frame long after slavery in which this occurred and showed how local government was complicit. The city was able to clearly lay out the case without having to once engage with slavery, which, as vile as it may have been, was legal. And God willing, it’ll do exactly what it was designed to do: repair what’d been broken right there at home.

But Evanston is attempting to bail out an ocean’s worth of pain with a bucket. We’re going to need bigger, better tools for this to work.