When aldermen in Evanston, Ill., approved the country’s first municipal reparations program last week, it drew some criticism — and not just from people who hate the principle. “I am 100 percent in support of reparations,” said Cicely Fleming, the lone alderman who voted against the measure, which plans to initially spend $400,000 on housing grants of $25,000 each to cover mortgage costs, down payments and home improvements for Black residents. “But what is before us tonight is a housing plan dressed up as reparations,” said Fleming. Another line of attack on the left holds that a mere housing program will take momentum away from far more sweeping efforts at the federal level. “True reparations only can come from a full-scale program of acknowledgment, redress and closure for a grievous injustice,” argued A. Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity Jr. in a Washington Post op-ed.
It’s true that Evanston’s program won’t correct decades of systemic racism erected by federal, state and local governments, as well as private industry. Slavery, Jim Crow racism, and historic discrimination in housing and criminal justice collectively robbed Black Americans of dignity, opportunity and trillions of dollars. That legacy is clear in the racial wealth gap: The average White family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family.
But the Evanston plan is a form of reparations. In fact, we have recommended similar wealth-building strategies, including housing grants, tuition and school loan repayment, small business grants, as well as direct payments, as forms of reparations. In the case of Evanston, the housing grant program is directly linked to the past wrong of housing discrimination for impacted Black people. Homeownership is important because it is the most common way in America to build wealth. For reparations to close the racial wealth gap, some form of housing subsidy must be included. Homes tend to appreciate over time, which provides an engine for intergenerational accumulation. And housing investments yield other investments, such as those in better schools and infrastructure.
Evanston’s plan can help accomplish this by providing reparations to Black people who can show they were residents or descendants of residents between 1919 and 1969. It directly targets the racial wealth gap by acknowledging the difficulty that Black people have encountered in saving for a down payment or revitalizing their property.
We know about Evanston’s history of redlining and housing discrimination. A report commissioned by city officials found that, as large numbers of Black people settled in the Chicago area as part of the Great Migration in the early 1900s, there was an informal policy of limiting Black homeownership to west Evanston. That segregation led to overcrowding and poor living conditions, and drove up the cost of housing. This was a microcosm of a larger problem: The national homeownership rate for Black families is 44 percent, compared to nearly 74 percent for White families. Housing in Black neighborhoods across the country is collectively undervalued compared to equivalent housing in White neighborhoods to a sum of $156 billion, robbing families and municipalities of the resources that are used to climb social and economic ladders. In the Chicago metro area, where Evanston is located, homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued on average by nearly $37,000. These housing prices are directly linked to property taxes, which are linked to school funding — which is why non-White school districts receive $23 billion less than White districts nationwide.
Still, some of the objections turn on legitimate concerns. Who will receive grants, and who will make the selection? What if a resident owns a home that does not need renovating? Why won’t recipients have the flexibility to use the money as they please, and why did Evanston designate banks to manage the grants instead of simply handing out the cash? Why have aldermen taxed cannabis sales to fund the reparations program? But technical questions like these have been used to derail reparations initiatives in the past. Constructive criticism can shape future innovation without curbing the current program. No single measure will make African Americans whole again; reparations will require many forms in many places. Municipalities, state, corporations, universities and especially the federal government all have a role to play.
One thing that could help this endeavor succeed would be to run the grants through local Black-owned banks or Black-led Community Development Financial Institutions with a track record of working with the Black community. Funds could even be used to establish initial investments in a Black-owned bank; this would be much in line with the Freedmen’s Bureau that followed the end of colonial slavery.
The Freedmen’s Bureau ultimately failed to protect long-term wealth-building for Black Americans because White, Southern politicians pressured the federal government to invest less in the program and dismantle it. This history tells us that unless communities are given control over their own overdue resources, short-term success may lead to long-term failures.
Finally, there is no reason to believe the local reparations effort will impede more comprehensive national ones. Other municipalities and universities are implementing or outlining reparations programs. States such as Virginia and Maryland are also moving in this direction, while some corporations are making sizable financial commitments to racial justice organizations. At the federal level, House reparations measures H.R. 40 and House concurrent resolution 19 have a growing number of co-sponsors and companion bills in the Senate.
Racial disparities didn’t just involve discrimination on the part of the federal government, and the federal government isn’t the only entity that must pay its moral debt to Black people and society. Evanston’s answer is not perfect or final. It’s just the beginning.