- Dec 9, 2012
- The Deep State
A Chicago suburb promised Black residents reparations. Few have been paid.
Lifelong Evanston resident Jo-Ann Cromer parks outside her 5th Ward Evanston, Ill., home, where she has been living since the early 70s. (Shafkat Anowar/AP)
EVANSTON, Ill. — Inside a chandelier-lit hotel ballroom, dozens of government officials and nonprofit leaders from across the country gathered recently to trade strategies for a once fringe idea: paying reparations to compensate Black Americans for slavery and decades of racist government policies.
The stars of the evening were local leaders of this Chicago suburb credited with launching the country’s first government-funded reparations program for Black Americans. Some attendees at the conference called Evanston the new Montgomery, Ala., the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and Robin Rue Simmons, who championed the local effort, a modern day Rosa Parks.
Evanston is the “epicenter” of the movement’s success, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who has been calling for a federal study of reparations for years, told assembled local leaders. “What’s happening here captures the reality that reparations is not an evil word. It is not a dangerous word. It’s not a word that will divide us,” said Lee.
But outside that ballroom, the program is failing to meet many of its initial promises. So far, the city has only spent $400,000 of the $10 million promised in 2019. Out of hundreds of Black residents who applied, 16 have received money. Another 106 are on a waiting list, with hundreds more behind them. At least five people have died before their promised reparations could be dispersed, the program’s leaders acknowledge.
City officials say these early stumbles don’t diminish their ambitions for the program, which is aimed at addressing decades of housing discrimination rather than slavery. And it’s just a starting point, they say.
“The moral urgency of the issue does not allow us to just keep on talking,” said Mayor Daniel Biss (D). “It was long past time to act. And it can be scary to go first. It can feel risky to go first. It can be controversial to go first. But someone’s got to go first.”
Rue Simmons told the crowd packed into a reparations conference that Evanston’s Restorative Housing Program, which local leaders call the first phase of their reparations efforts, had already changed lives. Some recipients used their $25,000 grant to help pay down mortgages, others gave it to their kids to do the same, she said, and one “balled out” and upgraded their bathroom with marble.
“All of them have expressed how much hope they have for their future generations’ life circumstances in Evanston,” said Rue Simmons.
Evanston, a town of 78,000, is at the forefront of a movement that has turned reparations for Black Americans from a purely academic discussion into a national political debate. Later this year, a California task force is expected to release a report laying out how much state reparations would cost. Illinois is on the verge of setting up its own reparations committee, and New York and New Jersey are considering it.
Despite the growing reparations movement in some liberal cities — President Biden endorsed studying the issue during the 2020 Democratic primary — the idea remains widely unpopular, particularly among White voters and Republicans. Lee has repeatedly introduced legislation calling for a reparations study, but it has languished in the House and failed to gain support in the Senate.
The harm caused by slavery is far in the past and there’s no way to recompense the descendants of enslaved people fairly, opponents argue. Some Republicans have also argued it’s unfair to have citizens who have no family ties to slavery or were not involved in racist government policies pay for the misdeeds of others.
The desire for reparations is understandable, said Richard A. Epstein, a law professor and senior fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution. But nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the relationship between Black and White America has changed significantly, he said.
“The danger of seeking reparations is that you are going to have some down on their luck White families that are in real trouble” saddled with the costs of such efforts, said Epstein.
Meanwhile, some longtime reparations advocates worry the current spate of disparate efforts exemplified by Evanston will take pressure off national leaders to develop a federal program that could offer Black Americans more benefits.
“All of these piecemeal local, state and private efforts that people are calling reparations are just a detour,” said William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University, who has been advocating reparations for more than three decades.
Evanston began debating reparations for its more than 12,000 Black residents in 2019, more than a year before George Floyd’s murder would inspire many to examine the country’s racial divides.
Longtime residents say the city has a clear problem: In the socially liberal town, the median White household income is $108,000, nearly double that of Black households, at $55,000. Nearly half of Black households, about 16 percent of the population, make less than $50,000 a year, compared with 27 percent of White households, which make up 57 percent of the population. About 34 percent of Latinos, who make up 11 percent of the population, make less than $50,000 a year while it’s 37 percent for Asian Americans, 10 percent of the population.
Evanston, the home of Northwestern University, is among the affluent suburbs that line Lake Michigan north of Chicago, an area collectively called the North Shore — one of the wealthiest stretches of America.
It also has a long history of racist policies.
Yes, Black Americans are entitled to reparations. We’ve earned them.
Black people began settling in the area in the 1850s, after Illinois outlawed slavery, and working in the homes of rich White residents. As more flooded north during the Great Migration, Evanston began a decades-long effort to keep its Black and White residents separated.
Black people were allowed to live in the city, but local covenants kept them confined to one neighborhood, the 5th Ward. Packed into overpriced homes, they struggled to find economic stability in what is now one of the city’s poorest areas and the only ward without its own elementary school or major grocery store.
“We spent decades enforcing segregation,” said Biss, who is White. “And we are suffering from the consequences of those unjust acts at this very minute here in December 2022.”
Evanston is really two cities, local residents say. One is prosperous and politically powerful and, like the rest of the North Shore, overwhelmingly White. The other is a more diverse, lower-income city where residents often feel their needs are overlooked.
“As much as Evanston is celebrated for being this diverse place, we are a really segregated community,” said Rue Simmons, whose family has lived in the town for four generations.
Rose Cannon’s family moved to Evanston in 1919, when her father and his family arrived from Tennessee and settled in the 5th Ward. As her family prospered, in the early 1960s, when Cannon was in high school, they moved into their dream home, a brand new house in the historically White 2nd Ward neighborhood. They were unable to secure a conventional mortgage and resorted to a contract for deed, she said, referring to a predatory financial agreement commonly required for Black people in the 1960s.
When a family member’s business collapsed, they began to financially struggle and missed a payment, Cannon said. They lost the home and moved back to the 5th Ward.
“My mother spent a lot of sleepless nights crying over it and feeling that they were disgraced and people would needle them if they saw them in public, ‘Oh, you’re back, what happened to that lovely house,’” said Cannon. “I still love the 5th Ward, but when I could move, I did. … We all felt like crabs in a bucket.”
When Rue Simmons was elected to the city council in 2017 to represent the 5th Ward she began pushing her colleagues to consider reparations. The council formed the Evanston Reparations Committee in 2019. And she found a powerful ally in Chuck Lewis, a White retired investment banker, who is one of the city’s wealthiest residents and served on former president Barack Obama’s campaign finance committees.
“When I moved here in 1969, Evanston was just coming out of Jim Crow,” Lewis said in an interview. “We had a Black hospital. We had an all-Black school and we had a Black branch of the YMCA. This is not ancient history. That’s why we’re so interested in local reparations, not slavery reparations, because it’s proximate, it’s close by in terms of geography and time.”
The effort got a jump-start in June 2019, after Illinois’s legislature legalized recreational use of marijuana. The city council voted to establish a reparations program and pledged the first $10 million in cannabis tax dollars it received to the effort. The marijuana tax would bring in $500,000 and $750,000 per year, they predicted.
In hours of council meetings, there was virtually no public pushback against the idea of reparations, including among White residents, in this city where former president Donald Trump received around 7 percent of the town’s vote in 2016 and 2020.
Nearly every critic who spoke at the city council meetings complained that the program wasn’t generous enough, said Bliss, the mayor.
Many wanted Black residents to be given direct unrestricted cash payments, but officials decided against it, arguing the money could be taxed.
Early in the process “the conversation went to, ‘Oh, people can’t get cash.’ So I was like, well I’m out,” said former alderwoman Cicely Fleming, who is Black. “What’s happening is people are starting to call any policy that might benefit Black people, reparations. I heard from one city where they were repairing streets and infrastructure in a Black community and they were calling that reparations. That’s not reparations, that’s just good government.”