Despite Excitement, Some Experts Eye Pitfalls In Evanston Reparations Program

Evanston recently approved the first $400,000 distribution of what ultimately will be a $10 million reparations fund. iStock / Getty Images Plus
Evanston recently approved the first $400,000 distribution of what ultimately will be a $10 million reparations fund. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Despite Excitement, Some Experts Eye Pitfalls In Evanston Reparations Program

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Last month, Evanston catapulted to the forefront of national discussions around what role localities can play in reparations to Black Americans. The North Shore suburb approved the first $400,000 distribution of what ultimately will be a $10 million reparations fund, mainly sourcing from a cannabis sales tax, to help redress historical housing inequities over the next 10 years. 

Eligible Black Evanstonians may receive up to $25,000 to assist with purchasing, paying for or repairing a home.

For experts in the field of reparations, racial justice and equity, there will be much to monitor about how Evanston’s efforts unfold. Despite the city’s reputation as a progressive stronghold, and the council’s resolution to “end structural racism and achieve racial equity,” pitfalls could derail efforts to enact meaningful, transformative change for the city’s roughly 12,000 Black residents.

WBEZ spoke with four experts about how they are setting their own expectations for Evanston’s initiative, and what they’ll be keeping an eye on.

Who will benefit from the housing reparations initiative?

“Evanston is a small suburb that is trying to take a big first step in the area of reparations, and I think housing is a good place to start,” said Mary Pattillo, chair of the African American Studies Department at Northwestern University.

“Many of the recipients of these kind of reparation payments will be middle-class Black people. But … these are not super affluent families who have lots of intergenerational wealth,” Pattillo said. “The Black middle class is disproportionately fragile, disproportionately downwardly mobile across generations, and generally has little to no wealth. This kind of assistance is what can stop the trends that we see in intergenerational downward mobility.”

The relatively small amount of money in the initial allocation means that Evanston may be designating as few as 16 Black residents to receive funds through the housing initiative.

The money is targeted to descendants of Evanstonians who experienced racist housing zoning policies between 1919 and 1969. Black residents can also apply if they experienced housing discrimination after 1969. Kamm Howard is with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and believes the number of indirect beneficiaries, however, could be much greater.

“I understand that many [prospective applicants for the funds] want to use it for housing repair,” said Howard. “If they use Black contractors, then that’s a second layer of repair. Not just to the homeowners, but to the business community in Evanston.”

Howard said N’COBRA recently started a chapter in Evanston to effect such a change. “It is a multiplier effect,” he said. “That’s going to be our initial push … to organize Black contractors. We’re going to have a campaign around how this money benefits more than just the 16 initial homeowners.”

What experts are closely monitoring

“I’m going to be looking to see what tactics the challengers take in terms of trying to sue Evanston in order to shut down this program,” said Northwestern political science professor Alvin Tillery. “Let’s just be explicit — affirmative action is a very weak racial redress program. How many hundreds of millions of dollars have conservative white groups spent to knock down this program, which has probably helped no more than a million people in 35 years or 40 years? And so you can imagine that such a direct program [as Evanston’s] is going to be challenged by the same people that challenge all these other programs.”

Tillery said he is also interested to see how the politics evolve around Evanston’s program over the next decade.

“Evanston’s a progressive city, which is why this was done, but the devil is always in the details,” he said. “Keeping together the narrative of progressive racial politics on the left side of this equation — that’s going to be an interesting feature to watch as well.”

For some activists who’ve been fighting for reparations for many decades, their excitement around Evanston’s undertaking is tempered by the reality of lived history.

“Evanston has been at this place before, and by that I mean Evanston has made unprecedented public efforts to engage in implementation in the ‘desegregation’ process of public education,” said the Rev. Dr. Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a network of African-American clergy and lay leaders that work to advance issues of human rights and social justice.

Carruthers was a graduate student at Northwestern University in the late 1960s when Evanston was considering a plan to voluntarily integrate its schools.

“And it has really been somewhat of deja vu for me,” she said. “I went before [Evanston] city council and I went before the school board around those issues, and I understood the power of Northwestern University sitting there having agency, and not necessarily using its full agency to make a difference. One of the things I’m looking at is what is Northwestern University doing in relationship to this issue today.”

Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.