Evanston, Illinois, a small town just outside of Chicago, has donated money to cover its share of what is owed for hundreds of years of rape, murder and servitude. Evanston City Council voted 8-1 on Monday to launch its own hyperlocal form of reparations to black by agreeing to pay nearly half a million dollars in $25,000 increments to eligible black families. The money would be used to cover home repairs or down payments on the property.
It’s a good gesture and a positive step, but it raises old questions that we haven’t yet answered. How much payback is enough for hundreds of years of abuse? What wage backlog is enough to cover generations of legal and economic segregation, systemic theft of wealth and opportunity? How much is enough to cover America’s huge debt to black American descendants of slaves? Where to start ?
Generations of black Evanstonians spent their lives trapped in neighborhoods that had been demarcated by the US government and denied federally insured housing loans. Kept out of the housing market, black residents have largely been denied access to America’s most effective wealth-building tool: home ownership. This has helped create the vast wealth gap between black and white residents that mirrors the racial wealth gap we see 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 this gap touches almost every aspect of life for black people in America, from access to quality schools to your proximity to a grocery store. It even determines the clean air you breathe and the water you drink.
By putting pen to paper on its reparations plan, Evanston became the first city in the United States to pay reparations to blacks, a welcome economic balm some 155 years after Union General William Tecumseh Sherman intervened. reneged promise of 40 acres and a mule to former slaves. But Evanston’s refund is aimed at healing a specific wound – the housing and wealth gap – in a specific place. Could this type of program be applied nationally? Could it be scaled?
The strongest argument for Evanston’s repair program is the specificity it offers.
It’s hard to say. Professor at Duke University William “Sandy” Darity, one of the leading experts on the economic impact of slavery and reparations, recently told me that if the goal of reparations is to close the wealth gap, it would cost around $12 trillion .
Congress has been locked in a recurring debate over funding the mere study of reparations and the impact of slavery, like stated in HR 40, a bill that has been introduced and defeated in every Congress since it was first introduced in 1989 by U.S. Representative John Conyers. The word alone — REPAIRS! — has been used as a slur by many conservatives in Congress whenever the government considers financial redress for past wrongdoings against black Americans. So it’s hard to imagine, even with a Democratic majority in both houses, that there’s a lot of appetite for this kind of tab.
But aside from the sticker clash, there are important elements of Evanston’s plan that could be part of a national plan. The strongest argument for Evanston’s repair program is the specificity it offers. White supremacy as an organizing principle and slavery as a functional consequence is a difficult concept to grasp for some who were not direct participants. But Evanston focused on housing, where he found “there is ample evidence showing the city’s role in housing discrimination following the city’s first zoning ordinances in effect between 1919 and 1969, when the city outlawed housing discrimination.” He even produced a report outlining harmful housing practices: “Evanston’s Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African-American Community, 1900-1960 (and Today).”
There is not a city in America that is not guilty of engaging in policies and practices that have denied black people access to equal housing. All over this country, black people have been pushed to the less desirable side of the tracks (cities actually build highways to separate blacks) or in cramped, resource-poor neighborhoods. Neighboring Chicago mastered the art of segregation as black people from the South flooded in during the Great Migration, relegating them to the south side of the city. Places like Washington, DC; New York; Saint Louis; and West Hartford, Connecticut, allowed owners of write segregation in the deeds of their houses. Throughout this time, the federal government has not only supported but forced segregation and redlining.
But advocating for reparations across the country, city by city, is different from a nationwide federal program. The funding options available to different communities would likely vary widely and result in more difficult decisions to be made. In 2019, Evanston passed a measure to establish a $10 million reparations fund, from which the first $400,000 approved this week is drawn, funded by a 3% tax on recreational marijuana sales. It’s a revenue stream that didn’t take long, where other communities may have to overcome much bigger hurdles.
Darity and a few others I’ve spoken with say that without a robust federal redress effort, local efforts like these will have little to no impact on the national racial wealth gap. Darity told me he’s not even considering Evanston’s repairs.
“So insofar as the reason for doing this 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 he a few weeks ago. “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 issues we face is the magnitude of the racial wealth differential and the magnitude of the resources available to state and local governments.”
Darity said if you took the combined budgets of all the states and local governments in the United States, that would be about $3.1 trillion, or about $10 trillion less than what it would cost to reduce 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 are committed to racial equity efforts. But I think it’s really, really somewhat dangerous and not entirely naive to call it reparations. It’s not.”
There is great power and efficiency in the specificity of Evanston’s repair plan. The city identified, articulated, and illustrated how local housing policy had denied black residents access to housing and therefore wealth. He went further by identifying a period long after slavery when this happened and showed how the local government was complicit. The city was able to make the case plain without having to once engage in slavery, which, as vile as it may have been, was legal. And God willing, it will do exactly what it was designed to do: fix what was broken at home.
But Evanston tries to bail out an ocean of pain with a bucket. We’re going to need bigger and better tools to make this work.