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City’s upcoming vote underscores why the debate over reparations for slavery is no longer a fringe issue

“We had to do something radically different to address the racial divide that we had in our city, which includes historic oppression, exclusion and divestment in the Black community,” Simmons told CNN.

A vote is expected on Monday to release the first batch of funds.

Evanston’s plan comes as the national conversation on reparations is evolving. Last week, Amalgamated Bank became the first major American bank to endorse HR 40, a piece of legislation sponsored by US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee that creates a commission to develop reparation proposals for African Americans.

The debate over the feasibility of reparations for Black Americans is no longer a fringe issue. The bank also called for tangible remedies for African Americans and an explicit apology for slavery’s foundation in today’s economy.

Jackson Lee reintroduced the legislation in January — as she has in every congressional session since 1996. It would study and develop proposals for providing reparations to African Americans.

She took up the baton from US Reps. John Conyers and Barbara Jordan, who launched the fight for reparations three decades ago. Jackson Lee says HR40 is “as real and right as the fight we had for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when there was a lot of fear and anger and hatefulness about giving more opportunities for Black Americans to be able to go into hotels and to sit at restaurant.”

Jackson Lee is among those expressing optimism about this latest chapter in the fight because there might be more attentive ears with Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden in office.

The debate over reparations is no longer on the political periphery, said Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“I would certainly say that in my lifetime, I’ve never seen the issue of reparations being taken as seriously as it is now,” Hannah-Jones told CNN. “It has been considered a fringe issue, kind of a radical issue and one that you would not see talked about in kind of middle-of-the-road politics, but that has changed.”

Evanston is just the latest local government to seriously consider how it might compensate the descendants of enslaved African Americans.

Last summer, the City Council in Asheville, North Carolina, voted overwhelmingly in favor of appropriating funds for the benefit of Black residents. Asheville is a predominantly White liberal enclave in an otherwise very red Southern state. Evanston is a historically Black suburb largely comprising descendants of the Great Migration.

In November, Asheville put on hold a vote on how to allocate $1 million in community reparations to Black residents. However, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said at the time that postponing the vote will provide time “to schedule a council work session with the new council, to develop a road map for how to proceed with the implementation of the already adopted reparations resolution.”

Manheimer said the council “remains unanimously supportive” of the reparation resolution passed over the summer and that the funding would be taken up soon.”

In July, the council adopted that resolution, expressing remorse for the city’s role in slavery and systemic racism.

In Evanston and Asheville, experts were called in to help formulate reparations plans.

When Simmons realized that the local racial wealth divide was withstanding multiple equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives, she called upon National African-American Reparations Commission (NAARC) convener and Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW) President Ron Daniels to help Evanston develop an action plan.
A view shows houses in the 5th Ward in Evanston, Illinois, last week.

Together, Simmons, her committee and local stakeholders engaged in what the she calls “the community process” to devise policy that would equip many — though not all — Black families to embark on a path toward equitable homeownership.

Hannah-Jones describes this form of reparations as a “three-pronged approach.”

The first is the transfer of wealth to descendants of American slavery via individual cash payments, followed by “targeted resources into public schools and neighborhoods that have been generationally deprived of the similar types of investments that white neighborhoods have gotten,” along with “the strict enforcement of existing civil rights law.”

Such approaches echo the platforms of groups that have organized Black-empowerment policy resources for decades. Groups like the NAARC and the IBW continue to convene and theorize on reparations policy.

When ideals clash

Still, there are some Black residents in Evanston who question if these policies go far enough, or even if they count as reparations at all.

Kevin Brown, who has lived in the city for over 40 years and is the spokesman for Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations (E3R), said conflating housing equity programs with reparations ideologically diminishes the movement at large.

“I think every African American in our city was very excited about the possibility of addressing reparations at a local level,” Brown told CNN. “However, I think the process has been quite flawed when you look at it next to an HR 40, which involves a really in-depth study of what the issues actually are.”

Kevin Brown is a founding organizer of Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations. The group challenges Evanston City Council's prospective reparations policies.
Members of E3R say that the local taxes appropriated for this initiative would cover loans for less than two dozen Black residents rather than reach the more than 12,000 African Americans who live in Evanston. They fear the limited funds will result in an application process that only high-credit Evanstonians would have access to.

Simmons disagrees — and reiterated that Evanston legislators invested great time and research into identifying the track record of anti-Black housing practices in the city. That history, Simmons said, built the case for the tailored reparations policy now underway.

“We have taken great time to have robust, diverse, various invitations for community engagement; and we’ve done that successfully,” Simmons said. “The fact that something as important as repair and justice for Black residents has turned into a divisive political movement of course is disappointing.”

However, Simmons sees the the critique as an opportunity for more conversations on what reparations could look like for residents.

“In the conversation, some very valid points have come out. It’s not enough; I completely agree with that. The City Council agrees with that. Everyone involved in the work agrees that the initial housing policy does not come close to full repair. It never was intended to be a settlement.”

Putting a price on promises reneged

When Daniels first consulted on its wording, HR 40 was still very much in its infancy, though its material inspiration was already decades old. Named for Gen. William Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 — a promise of 40 acres and a mule to former slaves at the end of the Civil War — the resolution was introduced by Michigan Democrat Conyers in 1989.

“The initial bill was purely a study bill,” Daniels reflects.

“That is to say it was designed to establish a commission to examine enslavement and other derivative outcomes, essentially to see if reparations were warranted.”

Ron Daniels is the convener of the National African-American Reparations Commission and president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century. Both groups have advised legislators on HR 40 drafts since 1989.
That question dates to the 19th century. From the perspectives of those who had been doing work in the reparations movement, HR 40 was seen as an education bill — an opportunity to raise public awareness to the point of eventual action.

At the time, though, Congress was not ready for the bill. It did, however, gain the endorsement of major civil rights organizations, some local municipalities, and Black celebrities who have continued to follow its development until day.

The bill was reintroduced in every Congressional session until Conyers and his co-sponsor, Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, entrusted HR 40’s legislative future to Jackson Lee.

In her first act of the 117th Congress, Jackson Lee reintroduced legislation that would fund a commission to study and develop proposals for providing reparations to African Americans.

In the over three decades since HR 40 reached the House floor, the case for reparations has only grown more organized and action-oriented. Today, the bill has more than 170 co-sponsors and a Senate companion resolution.

With a small handful of cities setting examples of what reparations can look like, there is more momentum for federal healing initiatives to address what many refer to as America’s original sin.

“Reparations for African Americans are based on paying restitution for 250 years of slavery followed by 100 years of racial apartheid, which we often call Jim Crow. So it’s really an attempt to address both the moral harm, and the crime that slavery and Jim Crow were, but also the wealth gap that was created by both of these institutions,” Hannah-Jones told CNN.

The future of federal-level restitution

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence last year, sparked in part by the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, there is real potential for reparations legislation to be passed in the near future. Less than a month into President Biden’s term, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the President supported a study on the matter.

But while there seems to be growing agreement among HR 40 co-sponsors, cultural experts and the executive branch of government that America has reneged on its promises to African Americans, there’s less accord on what the actual price of human bondage is — and how the government might begin to pay it.

“I think the reality is that we will as Black Americans never gain an entitlement that is commensurate with the suffering we endured.” said Shelby Steele, who has specialized in the study of race relations, multiculturalism, and affirmative action for over five decades.

Steele, a noted conservative scholar who was appointed a Stanford University Hoover fellow in 1994, believes that the argument for reparations detracts from Black people’s self-determination.

“The reality,” Steele argues, “is that Black Americans will get about exactly as far as they take themselves, as they focus on education and develop the skills, the value systems, that enable them to thrive in modernity.”

“Modernity is our challenge, not social justice” Steele said. “No one even knows what that is, what it would look like. We’re focused in the wrong way.”

Meanwhile, proponents of HR 40 would argue that modernity and atonement for past traumas do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This bill, Jackson Lee explains, is not necessarily a proposal for direct monetary settlement to descendants of Black American slaves, although that accounts for a large segment of the pro-reparations community.

US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee speaks at a Congressional Black Caucus press conference on Capitol Hill last summer.

After the Civil War, the federal government saw generations of social equity initiatives to which Black citizens were denied access, despite having built many of the institutions that devised these methods of public investment. The GI Bill, Homestead Act, even some aspects of the New Deal were not as readily available to African Americans as they were to their White counterparts.

The result? Over a century of both legally enforced and de-facto housing discrimination and redlining, blockage from small business loans, and suppression of constitutionally protected civil rights until well into the 1960s, a century after emancipation.
Black farmers never did receive the promised 40 acres or mule that might have prevented the decline of African American agriculturalists from 14% of all farmers in 1920 to roughly 1.3% of US farmers in 2017.

“The reason why this legislation did not move for so many years is because that history was not studied, it was not known. It was not counted. It was not cared about, and it was just viewed through a microscope of the window in which people lived, whether they lived in the 90s or are living in the 21st century.”

Jackson Lee notes that one of the reasons HR 40 is so essential is because of the long history that still is not as widely known as it ought to be. “We are moving forward in this legislation. It is legislation that is duly deserving of its place on the floor of the House and the floor of the United States Senate, she said.

“It should receive a markup. And I’m very grateful to my colleagues, for their openness and willingness to do something unique in the 21st century … “

CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux and Jade Boone contributed to this report.


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