Evanston’s reparations ‘balloons’ are now tethered to a real-life program.

Discussions about reparations for African Americans have long been like balloons dancing in the wind, never tethered to the ground of real-life reparations programs.

Because there were no programs — until now. The balloons and discussions will now be grounded by the experience of Evanston, home to the first publicly funded reparations program in the entire country. Last month, two members of the Evanston Reparations Committee, and two journalists who covered the initiative, shared the story of their pilot program and the lessons they learned at two Oak Park forums sponsored by First United Church of Oak Park.

The first major revelation was that Evanston has no intention of compensating its Black residents for the most heinous acts from centuries ago (the often-deadly passage on African slaving ships and enslavement) or discriminatory actions of the federal government (military segregation and refusal of mortgage guarantees).

Instead, Evanston decided to own its historical discriminatory behavior and repay Blacks for one of the suburb’s longstanding local practices — residential housing regulations that confined Blacks to the least desirable ward.

Peter Braithwaite, past chairman of the Reparations Committee of the Evanston City Council, reported that his goal was to lower the decibel level of any public controversy by addressing a tangible and easily recognized problem. Namely, local Blacks had lost considerable value in their homes over decades because of actions taken by the local government between 1919 and 1969.

Who would qualify for a reparations payment was established in a generous fashion. Any Black resident became eligible if able to demonstrate that he had resided in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 and had been at least 18 years old at the time or was the child of a now-deceased parent who satisfied the residency test. Over 600 residents were certified by providing evidence of residence with birth or death certificates, tax or utility bills. In the final step, the village conducted a random lottery to select 16 recipients to receive the first payments. No one denies that this was a modest first step for a community with 11,000 Black residents, but no other community in the country has yet taken it.

Evanston has pledged $10 million over 10 years. Of course, the sticking point for most government initiatives is funding. Where would the money come from? Given that the reparations program was unfolding just as recreational cannabis became legal in Illinois, the city council committed revenues from a local 5% tax on cannabis sales to fund reparations. This seemed appropriate because Blacks have long contended that they were unintended victims of federal and state drug wars. But because Evanston has only one dispensary, the modest sum generated by cannabis taxes has constrained the rollout of reparations.

The end goal was to put money in the hands of Black residents adversely affected by local racial housing policies. In January 2022, each of first 16 Black citizens received $25,000. But this was not a blank check, and some have questioned why the recipients were compelled to use it only for housing purposes — home repair, mortgage payment or down payment on a home purchase.

Claire Barber, an attorney and citizen member of the Reparations Committee, explained that Evanston’s legal team was determined to deter legal contests. Namely, opponents of reparations might sue to block unrestricted cash payments if they were not closely tied to the harm done to Blacks (loss of housing value due to restrictive zoning). For those counting, the total reparations payments in 2022 were $400,000, from a local government with a $400 million budget.

This reparations program is the culmination of a long, painstaking community initiative. After the city council first implicitly blessed the concept of reparations in 2002 (yes, 2002), there followed two decades of historical research to document the damage done to the Black population, community discussion after community discussion to collect diverse views, and a willingness to start modestly.

No moss is growing on this program. A year after the start-up, the city council and its Reparations Committee are working to endorse “cash payments” (for any purpose, including but not limited to home expenses) and have found an additional revenue source in the transfer taxes imposed on the sale of homes over $1.5 million.

Evanston’s reparations program is a rich resource of information for other communities interested in reparations. Admittedly, Evanston is hardly a representative community, given the wealth and decidedly liberal persuasion of its citizens. But only fools will rush in without at least paying attention to what the citizens on the North Shore did.

Dale Sorenson is a 40-year resident of Oak Park and a member of First United Church of Oak Park.

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