Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Concrete Reparations Are Long Overdue
The time has come for a reckoning. Our colonial and national histories of legally condoned crimes against African humanity require a tectonic course correction. Responsibility for past wrongs must be taken. Programs and laws that can actually lift black and brown communities must be implemented.
Lest not forget that much of the agricultural economy of the United States was built on the backs of African slave labor. Our industrial might in the north is partly due to the exploited toil of "freed" slaves. Not much has changed; the labor has morphed into systems (including mass incarceration in private prisons) that continue to exploit black, brown and ethnic populations across multiple industries. We must recognize and take ownership of these truths.
[Note: In writing on this subject I do not mean to suggest that I, as a white man of some privilege, could ever fully understand the pain and trauma experienced by our black and brown citizens and their ancestors. I do not presume to speak for them. I do not consider myself to be an expert on this subject. I merely express one man’s view.]
What are reparations?
It is safe to say that "reparations" means different things to different people, at least when it comes to the forms that reparations might take. What does it mean in the current context? Generally speaking “reparations” are means of addressing the wealth and opportunity gaps that African Americans currently experience due to systemic and institutional racism and discrimination. It can take multiple forms. The time for taking concrete action has long been, and still is, NOW!
At the federal government level the legislation “HR 40” is a benchmark. First introduced in 1989 by U. S. Representative John Conyers of Michigan, it (and amended versions) articulate the need to address the historical and current institutional mistreatment of African Americans. Rep. Conyers, a revered African American, re-introduced the bill in every legislative session until his departure from Congress in 2018. Even though there are no "action items" connected to it (beyond the creation of an exploratory commission) the bill has not become law. Many jurisdictions have adopted resolutions supporting HR 40 in concept. All talk, little or no governmental action, until . . .
. . . Enter the City of Evanston, Illinois
The City of Evanston, Illinois is a satellite city bordering Chicago to its south. It is approximately 8 square miles in size with a population of approximately 73,000 . Evanston is home to the esteemed Northwestern University, and is idyllically situated on the shores of Lake Michigan where parks and small sandy beaches are enjoyed. It is progressive politically (which is notable given its history of "redlining" segregation and housing discrimination).
Thanks to the efforts and leadership of Alderman Robin Rue Simmons and others, the city recently took formal action that moved reparations beyond the realm of discussion and hand-wringing. In November, 2019 a Reparations Fund was adopted as part of the city’s 2020 budget. The City Council has committed to use a percentage of tax revenue collected from legalized sales of recreational cannabis to support reparations-related programs.
A reparations subcommittee of the City Council was formed. It is the commitment of funding ($10M over a 10 year period) that makes the initiative unique. Additional funding sources could materialize over time. The program is regarded as being the first of its kind in the United States.
The subcommittee is now in the process of working with city staff and experts to identify programs, opportunities and processes by which the revenue will be spent. As currently conceived, the funds will likely be used to: improve access to quality healthcare, advance workforce development and black entrepreneurship, advance education, increase home ownership and fund infrastructure improvements. All of Evanston stands to benefit from this. I believe this to be a critical point - that reparations stands to improve the health and well-being of all of society.
Alderman Simmons has been lauded far and wide for her leadership. She's been referred to as “the Rosa Parks of Reparations”. My sense is that she deflects this, preferring to focus on the mission. To her, reparations represents “the hope that we will have a fair opportunity to live to our highest and best potential, and enjoy the same livability as the average white resident in Evanston. It means that there is an opportunity coming for us to bridge the gap of discrimination that has and continues to keep black residents oppressed.”
In December, 2019 I had the pleasure of attending a seminal town hall meeting on reparations in Evanston. The venue, the First Church of God, was packed. The keynote address was eloquently given by Danny Glover, the well-respected activist and motion picture actor. Mr. Glover is the Ambassador for the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent.
The dais included luminaries who are steeped in knowledge of the reparations movement. Representatives from the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), and the Institute of the Black World 21st Century participated. Among the speakers was Cook County circuit court judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste – a former Evanston alderman who had pushed for reparations years earlier. The local chapter of the NAACP also participated.
The speakers were articulate and informative. They displayed emotion and pent up frustrations in a respectful and constructive manner. I was deeply moved by them and by the audience who spoke into the open mike. I learned a lot and realized that I have much more to learn. At the conclusion I briefed the Chief of Staff of the mayor of the City of Oakland, California, where I reside.
Segments of the event can be viewed on YouTube and the use of search engines can lead to multiple articles about the event.
I was disappointed that, apart from the media crews, there seemed to be few white citizens in attendance. In my humble opinion it is the American Caucasian population that needs to be educated about the intricacies of the movement, the elements that might comprise it, and its benefits to the society at large. That said, I’ve learned that the Evanston City Council's effort has received broad, cross-racial support from the community. There is cautious optimism that true, concrete change is afoot.
The aforementioned National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), National African- American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and Institute of the Black World 21st Century are three of the key organizations that educate and explain reparations and promote its advancement. These organizations provide detailed models and processes for jurisdictions to consider, debate and adopt as appropriate for their communities. More can be learned at:
www.ncobraonline.org and https://ibw21.org