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In Chicago, the city council is discussing a measure that would create a group to investigate ways the city could redress systemic racism.
Amid the calls for police reform and investment in black communities that have echoed throughout the country, the city council in one municipality is quietly resurrecting a different kind of proposal that activists have sought for decades.
The Chicago City Council is considering a resolution that would create the “Chicago Citizens of African Descent Reparations Commission,” a group tasked with investigating how the city could make amends for slavery, housing segregation, and other racist policies that inflicted harm on the city’s black residents.
The measure, authored by Alderman Roderick Sawyer, was originally proposed in September 2019, but didn’t get much traction at that time. Protests surrounding the death of George Floyd have once again brought the proposal to the forefront—but Sawyer says these new conversations are just the beginning. “We didn’t get here overnight,” he said at a committee hearing on the proposal. “I’m sure we’re not gonna get out of it overnight.”
The measure states that the commission should “ensure equity, equality, and parity for citizens of African descent in Chicago who are mired in poverty” by holding public meetings. The idea is to come up with appropriate forms of reparations, which it suggests could include “closing the racial gaps in homeownership, educational funding, healthcare, government contracts, etc.”
When the council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations considered the measure last week, they heard from Cecile Johnson, the CEO of the African Development Plan, an organization that researches issues impacting African descendants in the U.S. Johnson presented on the city’s history of segregation and said that Chicago needs “more than a conversation” about reparations. “As we see from some of these things that have happened in recent days, there is such a despair,” she said. “The youth are crying out.”
Alderman Andre Vasquez said that the recent protests show the passion for change—but that many in the city may still need to be convinced about the need for reparations, particularly those who live in predominantly white enclaves. "We can all be here in this room saying how much we are in support and how it touches our emotions, but ultimately … I would love the opportunity [to work] in the parts of towns that have not been ravaged like the rest of the town has,” he said. “To really make this case now in the moment before two weeks from now, it's just George Floyd window signs and no one doing anything.”
The measure would create a 16-member commission that would remain in place for 20 years and include the mayor, five members of the city council, and 10 members from the public, including at least eight people who would have to be from an “eligible impacted community.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot proposed an alternative last week that would encourage the city to discuss systemic racism, but would not establish a commission. “The economic, health and social disparities that plague African Americans are the result of decades of discrimination, segregation and systemic racism,” a spokesperson for Lightfoot said. “Mayor Lightfoot is committed to and supports examination of the state of equity in Chicago to begin to right the wrongs of the past in order to overcome the many obstacles to employment, education, housing, justice, due process, health care and more facing African Americans.”
But Sawyer expressed disappointment in the mayor’s proposal, which he said eliminated the most important part of the resolution—the commission. Sawyer’s measure is set to be considered by the full council on June 17.
If it passes, it won’t be the first step Chicago has taken to engage in a reparations process. In 2015, the city council passed a resolution recognizing the history of police torture in the city tied to Jon Burge, the former commander in the Chicago Police Department who was fired in 1993 for torturing a confession out a suspect. More than 100 black residents of the city claimed that they were tortured by Burge or police officers working under his command between 1972 and 1991—to those victims (and sometimes their immediate family and grandchildren), the city offered free tuition at city colleges, specialized counseling services, prioritized access to social services like housing assistance, and other benefits. The city also made the Burge case a mandatory addition to history curriculums for Chicago Public Schools.
What reparations would look like in Chicago for the broader issues of slavery and segregation is still up for debate. But city leaders don’t have to look far for inspiration—last year, Evanston, a suburb just north of the city, became the first municipality in the U.S. to create a tax-revenue-funded system for reparations.
There, the city created a reparations fund using the first $10 million raised from the local taxes on the sale of recreational marijuana—a move that the Evanston city council said would lessen the burden on taxpayers because it avoided raising an existing tax. The city expects to take in about $750,000 each year in taxes on cannabis, which started being sold legally in dispensaries in January, and says the programs funded by the money will begin in late 2020 or early 2021. As they consider what to spend the money on, the city council won’t be short on ideas—two weeks after the measure passed over 600 people showed up to a town hall to offer recommendations, such as grant programs to help black residents with housing, business startups, and health care access.
Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, the sponsor of the Evanston proposal, said that Chicago should take the same approach in listening and prioritizing community feedback as they make decisions. “This work has to be done by the community. The injured party—in this case the black community—has to be the ones who determine the remedy,” she said. “It won’t look the same in every place, but the impact of the transatlantic slave trade, the terror and the trauma, the rape and oppression, needs to be addressed at every level of government—municipal, state, and federal.”
Alvin Tillery, Jr., the director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University in Evanston, said that the efforts in Evanston and Chicago are “commendable” and “capture the spirit of what activists in the black community have long argued for.” But Tillery also noted that they “run the risk of political backlash.”
“If this isn’t done carefully in ways that are narrowly tailored with immediate impacts, they will be challenged and struck down by the same white conservative forces that have spent millions of dollars to dismantle affirmative action programs at colleges across the country,” he said.
As calls for reparations gain steam in other cities, state legislatures, and in Congress, Tillery said that lawmakers will have to consider these likely challenges—and at the local level, they have to think frankly about the scale of their impact. “I don’t think any local program will be able to substantially address the harm caused by racist policies because they lack the financial scope of a program run through the federal or state government,” he said. “Citywide ordinances are not going to help enough people. It took massive governmental intervention to get us to the racial inequalities we have today and it will take massive intervention to fix them.”
“But, is it better than the alternative of doing nothing and letting black communities mire in inequalities that they have to suffer through by no fault of their own?” he continued. “Absolutely. I'll take reparations anyday.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.