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As government weighs studying reparations, some cities are already taking action

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Posted at 3:07 PM, Apr 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-21 15:08:31-04

EVANSTON, Ill. — It stands to be one of the most controversial moves by Congress this year. Two weeks ago, a historic vote by the House Judiciary Committee created a commission that could ultimately result in nationwide reparations for descendants of slaves.

The bill that created the commission to study national reparations is known as House Resolution 40.

But some cities like Evanston, Illinois, haven’t waited for the federal government to act.

“I think a lot of people have misconceptions of what reparations really are,” said Evanston resident Daniel Featherson.

He spends his afternoon hitting the pavement and connecting with his community.

“Things are never perfect when they start, but I want us to know how important it is to keep a positive attitude in the right direction,” he said.

It’s a community he’s passionate about, yet he realizes it’s a community that needed a change.

“A lot of African American’s have moved out of Evanston because they believed that Evanston didn’t care, but I think this will do a 180 on that,” said Featherson.

The Chicago suburb is the first in the nation to create a reparations program for its Black residents in the form of a $25,000 home improvement credit for those who suffered from discriminatory housing policies. The city is attempting to confront the historical wealth and opportunity gaps African Americans here have faced.

“We have a city and city council that is majority white that is taking seriously the intergenerational inequalities,” said Alvin Tillery, a professor at Northwestern University.

He describes the situation in Evanston as a city trying to make amends for redlining its residents.

“Corralling Blacks into a segregated neighborhood, then collaborating with banks and developers to devalue the property in their neighborhood,” said Tillery.

While Evanston has come up with their own plan, there are questions as to whether a national plan like the new commission in Washington, D.C. might draft can realistically work.

“With HR40, you’re going to get a lot of politics and a lot of emotion that is attached to this concept of reparations,” said Tillery.

The federal government has tried reparations before. In 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Act. The government saw it as a way to thank Native Americans for their service in World War II and also make up for forcing them off their homelands. The commission paid out about $1.3 billion by 1978. That was less than $1,000 for each Native American living in the U.S. at the time.

“But that money didn’t go to individuals,” said Doug Flowe, a professor at Washington University. “It was dispersed to different tribal corporations and organizations. The native communities did not get to control how that funding was used.”

In the 1980s, the American government tried again. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 offered $20,000 checks to more than 80,000 people. These checks were accompanied by a letter of apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“They compensated them at what their homes were worth in 1943, not the 250,000 they would have received in San Francisco in 1988,” said Tillery.

But Flowe says he thinks the action was a success.

“There seems to be a bit more of a consensus that it was successful,” he said. “The recipients saw it as a more successful attempt to make reparations for the economic loss but also the emotional loss for such internment.”

Both of these reparations were settled within a century’s time. HR 40 attempts to remedy more than 400 years of enslavement and discrimination.

Tillery says when it comes to slavery reparations, cash payouts just aren’t realistic, but he does have another proposal.

“We could give an income tax holiday to Black Americans that would do an incredible amount of good and stimulate the economy,” said Tillery.

But are checks or tax breaks even the answer? Flowe says maybe not.

“It doesn’t have to take the form of a check,” he said. “We have seen a number of structural government policies that helped particular groups find their way to saving money, creating money, to buying property, to starting businesses, to sending their children and themselves to college.”

No matter what the path forward is, both gentlemen agree the discussion is just beginning and will take time and open minds.

“A lot of people have come to conclude that reparations are black and white, both metaphorically and literally, that is simply about sending checks to people who don’t deserve them,” said Flowe. “That way of thinking has colored the discussions every time they come up, to the point that it has ended before it has even gotten started.”

“We’re closer to racial equity than we’ve ever been before, yet we’re still very far away,” said Tillery. “People should be looking to Evanston on how to have passionate debates without setting the place on fire.”

The 40 in HR40 is a reference to an order issued by Union General William T. Sherman in 1865. It promised 40 acres of land and a mule for freed slaves. But it was revoked months later by President Andrew Johnson.