Evanston's Housing-Based Reparations Program : Consider This from NPR The city of Evanston, Ill., authorized spending on a reparation program this week — believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Here's the report on Evanston's racial history we mention in this episode.

Alderwoman Cecily Fleming — an African American resident of Evanston — tells NPR why she voted against the plan.

And Dreisen Heath, researcher at the Human Rights Watch, argues that reparations can take many forms.

In participating regions, you'll also hear from local journalists about what's happening in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
NPR logo

First-In-The-Nation Effort Advances Debate Over What Form Reparations Should Take

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/979254225/981745359" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
First-In-The-Nation Effort Advances Debate Over What Form Reparations Should Take

First-In-The-Nation Effort Advances Debate Over What Form Reparations Should Take

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/979254225/981745359" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On Monday of this week, the City Council of Evanston, Ill., voted to do something that no other American city has ever done.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Alderman Fiske.

JUDY FISKE: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Alderman Braithwaite.

PETER BRAITHWAITE: Aye.

CORNISH: The council's nine representatives...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Aye.

CORNISH: ...Voted to begin spending $10 million over the next 10 years on reparations...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Alderman Revelle.

(LAUGHTER)

ELEANOR REVELLE: Aye.

CORNISH: ...Making money available to the city's Black residents and their descendants to compensate for the lingering effects of slavery and discrimination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE HAGERTY: On a 8-to-1 vote, the Evanston City Council approved...

CORNISH: Mayor Steve Hagerty announced the final vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAGERTY: ...Authorizing the implementation of the Evanston Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program.

CORNISH: A little later in the meeting, one representative noted their vote was already national news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My 28-year-old son texted me a screenshot within a minute of when we voted from The Washington Post that we had just passed reparations. So it was the vote that's being heard across the country.

CORNISH: But you may have noticed that vote was 8 to 1. One person voted against the plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CICELY FLEMING: It's another way, I feel like, to manage Black folk - right? - to say for Black people, we know what's best for you. We're going to do this on your behalf.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS. Reparations for Black Americans are not a new idea. In one city, they are a new reality. But not everyone agrees about what just compensation really looks like. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, March 26.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. Before Evanston City Council passed its reparations program, it commissioned a report on city policies directly affecting the African American community over the last 120 years. It's 77 pages, and we'll link to it in our episode notes if you want to check it out. It's a report that could be written about thousands of cities in America, detailing decades of segregationist and discriminatory practices in housing, employment, education and policing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALZO SLADE: Banks approved nearly 1,500 mortgages to homebuyers in Evanston in 2019. Fewer than 100 of those went to Black applicants.

CORNISH: Now, this 2020 story from Vice News features a Black Evanstonian named Jasmine Edwards, who's desperate to own a home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASMINE EDWARDS: I would like to be a homeowner. I would like to get something consistent for me and my children to the point where we're not moving every year.

CORNISH: But Edwards, like many other Black residents of Evanston, was on the verge of being priced out of the city where white residents make nearly double the income and have double the home valuations of their Black neighbors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDWARDS: I just need a push. Like, you know how you get on a bike and your mom got to push you?

SLADE: Yeah, and then they push you down.

EDWARDS: Yeah. Like, I just need one of those.

SLADE: You can peddle on your own, but you need a push.

EDWARDS: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. And that's what reparation means to me. It's just a little push.

CORNISH: But there's still a debate in Evanston about the nature of that push.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FLEMING: And I think for us to call that reparations falls really short from probably, you know, what many people are thinking and are hoping reparations might one day be for the Black community.

CORNISH: Alderwoman Cicely Fleming was the lone vote against the city's reparations program, which she says is more of a housing program than one for reparations. The program, paid for by taxes on marijuana, would give qualifying households up to $25,000 for down payments, mortgage payments or home repairs. And Fleming says if you have no plans to buy a home or maybe you just used to live in Evanston but don't anymore, this program probably isn't going to do very much for you. She spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ARI SHAPIRO: This program focuses on victims of housing discrimination from 1919 to the year 1969 and their descendants. Tell us what life is like for Black people in Evanston today. I mean, how does the harm from that time trickle down?

FLEMING: Well, lots of Black families like mine, who have been here for a long time - you know, they still live in the same area. So, you know, I'm really I think the only family member who lives in Evanston who does not live in the 5th Ward, which was our highly red-lined community, right? Our schools are still heavily reliant on the busing system that we started 40 years ago. It is the reason I don't live in the 5th Ward now. I did not want my children to experience school via busing.

And so we have a lot of these kind of racial tensions that still exist because we do have families that have been here for so long, and they remember. And it's a little bit difficult even for me because as a city, we profess a lot of, like, racial harmony and integration and diversity and all these things, but that is not always the life experience of Black folks here in town.

SHAPIRO: Now, you say this program is a misuse of the word reparations. What would you like to see a real reparations program look like?

FLEMING: Because we are kind of repairing the harm or identifying the harm of redlining and housing discrimination does not mean that is exactly where the repair goes. And so this has kind of been termed as reparations in the sense of, you know, we did a harm as a city, and so we're going to repair the harm in this way. That's taking any choice out for African American people.

And I know people have talked about, this is going to help us retain or get back some of our African American residents that we lost. This is going to help with generational wealth. And all those things are fine if this is our housing program, but we're taking away any right for you to decide what's best for your family. It's another way, I feel like, to manage Black folk - right? - to say for Black people, we know what's best for you. We're going to do this on your behalf.

SHAPIRO: I think many people who support this program might agree with you that there's more that could be done but say this program is still a good step in the right direction. What would you say to those people?

FLEMING: I would say this program is a good housing program, and I think there's more to be done. I mean, we don't have a feasibility study. I have no idea even using the parameters that are available now, how many people we're talking about. I had a couple of older people call me yesterday, and they were super excited about it. They live out of state. So once I told them they could not use this funding unless they were to move back here and buy a primary residence here, they were, you know, so frustrated.

CORNISH: Cicely Fleming of the Evanston City Council.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The idea of compensation related to discrimination or slavery - as we said, it's not new. In fact, one program dates to the mid-19th century, but it provided a different kind of compensation.

CR GIBBS: They brought in a slave dealer from Baltimore, and they would appraise the individual persons based on what that person would be worth.

CORNISH: Historian C.R. Gibbs says this was called compensated emancipation, a program created by President Abraham Lincoln that predated the Emancipation Proclamation. The compensation went to the slave owners, not the slaves. They were paid on the appraised value of the slave who would be set free.

GIBBS: And the average amount was going to come up about $300.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Now, that's something you find repeatedly when you look at the history of reparations in America - efforts that were either fundamentally wrong or fell short. There was the Indian Claims Commission of the mid-20th century, which paid the equivalent of a thousand dollars to each Native American in the United States. There was the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 that offered compensation to Japanese Americans for personal property they had lost while being held in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. It wasn't until 40 years later that Congress offered living survivors of internment a formal apology and $20,000 each, among other benefits.

These days, C.R. Gibbs says it's not Congress but states, institutions and municipalities where there might be the most potential for future reparation efforts.

GIBBS: I think we will see similar reparations styled from institutions as well as municipalities. I think that's what's going to happen.

CORNISH: That gets at a larger question - one advance by reparation efforts at institutions, colleges, churches and now the city of Evanston - is there one single model for reparations? Can it mean different things in different places?

DREISEN HEATH: I mean, the Evanston model speaks directly to what you can do at the local level, specifically for a localized harm.

CORNISH: Dreisen Heath is a researcher at Human Rights Watch. She says Evanston could be a model for other cities and municipalities to tailor reparations to their needs.

HEATH: Reparation can come in many different forms, and that includes financial compensation. Other forms of reparation may consist of return of land. We know the Homestead Acts doled out over 270 million acres of land to mostly white people, virtually for free. Another important remedy is what we call guarantees of nonrepetition, and that may include institutional and legal reforms. We know that the criminal legal system and policing systems, for instance, do not function to serve and protect Black people, but it's important to know that in order to be proportional to the harms that have been committed, there needs to be holistic forms of remedy, which require various forms to take place.

CORNISH: Do local remedies like this, are they the path forward to widespread adoption of this idea? Or does it need to come from the federal government?

HEATH: I think we need action on all levels. We are seeing institutions - religious institutions, education institutions. We need the federal government to follow suit. They cannot continue to stall on progress.

CORNISH: But we know they're not just stalling, right? I mean, the House lawmakers, Black lawmakers, have introduced reparations bills every session - right? - for...

HEATH: Absolutely.

CORNISH: ...Dozens of years. And just in 2019, Senator Mitch McConnell said outright, I don't think we should be compensating for the original sin of slavery. He said, we tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war and by passing landmark civil rights legislation. So is there something to be said for things happening outside of the federal government?

HEATH: Yes. I mean, regardless of what one political figure says, the federal institution has to account for these harms. You know, local governments and other institutions should continue to lead the way, but that is not a replacement for federal actions because we're still dealing with the millions of people that have been impacted by ongoing racial discrimination.

CORNISH: Do you think that people have been receptive to the Evanston program because of the nature of its funding, that it's funded from a new source of money in marijuana taxes and that the perception is not that it's, quote-unquote, "taking away" from people or taking away from white people and taxpayer dollars?

HEATH: I think people need to open their minds on what taking looks like. And I think that there's other measures that should be on the table so that we can break down these perceptions and attitudes towards taking because that's also a lack of education that we haven't had about the legacy of slavery. We deal out money all the time for government needs, for specific corporations and for specific entities, and most of those are benefiting white people.

CORNISH: The U.S. has provided reparations before - Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II, 9/11 victims. Is there anything to be learned from those past programs?

HEATH: I absolutely think there's something to be learned. There was a commission set up, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, that recommended remedies that Japanese Americans received. And I think we can learn from that because we can't treat a problem before fully diagnosing it. And that model of having an investigative commission, the fact that we've done it before means that we can do it again, so long as we deem Black people worthy of repair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Dreisen Heath, researcher at the Human Rights Watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.