I would like to thank Walk the Walk Oak Park for bringing the issue of reparations to the village board on Feb. 22. This was a historic meeting and I felt honored to be a part of it. The topic of reparations is important and potentially pivotal for our society, and it was time for Oak Park to start discussing it.
As I’ve said before and deeply believe, Oak Park should be at the forefront of social justice issues because the desire to do the right thing and the political will run deep in this community. The members of Walk the Walk described the events of the early 20th century in which Blacks in Oak Park were denied a permit to build a church and then driven out of their neighborhood near Lake and Harlem. They also reminded us of what has been done since to keep Black people from fully participating in civic society since then, and what might have become of those Black residents in early Oak Park if they had been allowed to thrive.
The issue of reparations got a shot in the arm after the death of George Floyd. The cover of the NYT Sunday magazine of June 30 last year was titled, “What is Owed.” Nicole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project wrote, “If black lives are to truly matter in America, this nation must move beyond slogans and symbolism. Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just. It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations,” which first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 2014 and is referred to repeatedly, wrote, “Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.”
Churches and denominational networks are also discussing reparations. Even the editor of Christianity Today, a right-leaning publication representing evangelical churches, wrote an article last spring on reparations titled, “Justice Too Long Delayed.”
It’s time for the church to make restitution for racial sin. For those who question why a municipal government should concern itself with reparations, Coates writes, “A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.” And that means us. Our own village board. We shouldn’t wait. Evanston has already moved forward on reparations initiatives. Oak Park should lead on this.
Walk the Walk Oak Park proposed three primary ways to address reparations in Oak Park. First, apologize for the village government’s role in the enforcement of segregation and the stifling of Black wealth. Second, create avenues to support the creation of Black wealth in Oak Park, including asking the village manager to establish a process to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community; creating a Reparations Fund from a percentage of the marijuana sales tax (similar to Evanston), plus 40% of our Affordable Housing Fund (which consists of the in-lieu fees from developers under the village’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance); and establishing a low-interest real estate purchasing program for Black residents of Oak Park aimed specifically at increasing Black wealth and land ownership in the village. Finally, Walk the Walk proposed to establish a new Community Reparations Commission empowered to address the creation of generational wealth and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community by making recommendations for the use of the newly established Reparations Fund.
Addressing reparations via funding for housing and the creation of generational wealth is not a new idea. Walk the Walk has done their homework and could advise the village exactly how it could work. I encourage Oak Park residents to open their hearts and minds to the idea and even the necessity of reparations. It would be one small step toward righting the wrongs of the past 400 years. Let’s get started.
Susan Buchanan is an Oak Park village trustee.