Cities put reparation talks into action
A topic that has both been discussed and dismissed over the decades as being too controversial or too difficult to enact — reparation — is being dealt with in Evanston, Ill., and other cities across the U.S.
Evanston is the first city to enact a reparation program. While city officials admit it’s not perfect, they’ve moved from the talking phase into the action phase. Other cities are following with their own programs.
In June 2020, the Asheville, N.C., City Council passed a reparations resolution acknowledging all the ways it believes Black people have been treated unjustly. It specifically named them, including “have been denied housing through racist practices in the private realty market, including redlining, steering, blockbusting, denial of mortgages and gentrification” and “have been forced to reside in, adjacent to, or near Brown Zones and other toxic sites that negatively impact their health and property and whereas Black people have been limited to the confined routes of travel provided by public transportation and whereas Black people have disproportionately suffered from the isolation of food deserts and childcare deserts.” These are just a few items listed in the resolution.
The resolution also states the city council apologizes for and makes amends for all the wrongdoings and directs the city manager to establish a process within the next year to address these issues.
In February 2021, the city manager gave a report to the council spelling out three phases of the process. The first phase was an information and truth-telling phase from May through June 2021, and the second phase was the formation of the commission from May through July 2021. A final report is the third phase, which is expected from January 2022 through April 2023.
In June, the council held a reparation series of speakers to implement the information and truth-telling phase.
Ashley Traynum-Carson, communications specialist for the city of Asheville, reported, “On June 8, 2021, the Asheville City Council appropriated up to $2.1 million in proceeds from the sale of city-owned land at 172 and 174 S. Charlotte St. to fund the community reparations process. A portion of this property includes land the city purchased in the 1970s through Urban Renewal of East End/Valley Street.”
In a blog titled “Asheville Reparations Resolution is Designed to Provide Black Community Access to the Opportunity to Build Wealth” by Nia Davis, Asheville Office of Equity and Inclusion, she explained that urban renewal.
“Despite best intentions,” she wrote, urban renewal “resulted in the displacement of vibrant Black communities and the removal of Black residents and homeowners, many into substandard public housing. Neighborhoods that were 100 years old were impacted, which means the wealth accumulated in those communities was also lost.”
Davis quoted the late Rev. Wesley Grant, who said, “In the East Riverside area, we have lost more than 1,100 homes, six beauty parlors, five barber shops, five filling stations, 14 grocery stores, three laundromats, eight apartment houses, seven churches, three shoe shops, two cabinet shops, two auto body shops, one hotel, five funeral homes, one hospital and three doctor’s offices.”
According to Traynum-Carson, in September 2021, the council selected TEQuity, a woman and minority-owned business, as reparations process project manager. In October, they started the application process for commission members.
They anticipate the commission to consist of 21-25 people. Eleven to 13 should be representatives from the neighborhoods affected, and 10 to 12 representatives should come from the broader community, appointed by the city and county councils.
As to who will be eligible to receive reparations and how it will be disbursed, Traynum-Carson responded, “The Community Reparations Commission will make recommendations to the Asheville City Council on reparations as it pertains to the five Impact Focus Areas — education, economic development, housing, criminal justice and health. The short-term recommendations are expected in the second quarter of 2022, medium-term recommendations on or about the second/third quarter of 2022, with final recommendations in spring 2023. There will be a final report to the Asheville City Council.”
Traynum-Carson said opposition was not a big problem in Asheville. “Reparation is a sensitive and hot topic, and there are those who oppose reparations of any kind. However, a large majority of Asheville residents are supportive of the initiative and want to see the city make amends to Black community members for its role in racial discrimination.”
When asked why the city felt it was important to do this, she referred to Davis’ blog post. Davis writes, “One might ask, ‘Why pay for the sins of our fathers?’ My response would be that reparations are an attempt to atone for our country’s 400-year history of pervasive systemic racism. Council’s reparation resolution is a necessary start, but there is so much work that needs to be done.”
There’s also a coalition of mayors from 11 cities, calling themselves M.O.R.E. — Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity — who’ve joined forces to inspire action on the federal level. M.O.R.E. was founded in June of this year by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler. Other cities and mayors involved include Providence, R.I., Mayor Jorge Elorza; Durham, N.C., Mayor Steve Schewel; Asheville, N.C., Mayor Esther Manheimer; Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas; Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Darrell Steinberg; St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Melvin Carter; Denver, Colo., Mayor Michael Hancock; St. Louis, Mo., Mayor Tishaura Jones; and Tullahassee, Okla., Mayor Keisha Currin.
Members of M.O.R.E. have committed to supporting federal reparation legislation, establishing advisory committees in their respective cities and developing and implementing programs targeted to a pilot group of Black Americans in their cities.
All of these municipal officials have decided the subject of reparation has been talked about long enough, and it’s now time to do something.
Evanston leads the way
Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss quickly stated, “While I’m a huge cheerleader and passionate believer in the project, I don’t want to take credit I don’t deserve. I took office May 10, and this was enacted before I took office. Since I became mayor, I’ve supported the implementation and wish to expand the program, but Robin Rue Simmons deserves credit for the lion’s share of the work creating it.”
He explained reparation in Evanston had been under discussion for 20 years. He said former council member Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste brought it up in 2002 and introduced the first resolution.
“So it’s been an idea for a while, but like most places in the country, an ambitious, bold, controversial future thing,” he said.
It was then-Council Member Simmons, who, according to Biss, “had the boldness to say this issue is so complicated — morally, legally, technically and politically — that we can talk about it forever, and those conversations are valuable and needed, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start taking tangible steps, and we can keep having those conversations. She was able to persuade the council that was the right path.”
A reparations resolution first passed in 2019, spearheaded by Simmons, who grew up in the Fifth Ward and had reportedly noticed the differences in her neighborhood compared to the homes in her friend’s all-white neighborhood.
Biss spoke about why the city felt this was important. “A significant amount of research was done into the history that showed between the years 1919-1969 the city, as a corporate body — city government — took a variety of actions toward purposeful segregation, which, as is very well known, exacerbated the racial wealth gap. Our view is because we caused this harm, we have a moral responsibility to repair that harm.”
He said this program was not a general statement about slavery or reparation. “This is an effort to repair the harm that we, as a city government, perpetrated against the African Americans. That’s why we believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Redlining in the Fifth Ward
Historian Dino Robinson prepared a 70-page report documenting discrimination in Evanston. Robinson said there were articles and studies on what to do about the Black community, and city officials embraced redlining — reportedly a federal project to determine the market value of areas and neighborhoods. In Evanston, all Black neighborhoods were given a rating of “D” — the lowest.
Black families were moved into a triangular-shaped area that became the Fifth Ward. It was bordered by a sewage canal on one side and was far removed from public transportation and the downtown. The Fifth Ward had smaller lots and, at one time, had no electricity, sewer or water. The only option for Black families to buy a home was in the Fifth Ward. Banks would not loan money to Black families for housing, and real estate agents only showed properties in the Fifth Ward. In the 1940s, the city also demolished Black-owned homes outside the Fifth Ward or physically moved them into it.
Biss said at the same time the reparations resolution was passed, the city also passed a law allowing for the use of recreational cannabis.
“That created a new revenue stream for the city, and since the war on drugs has racist roots, it seemed the best use of the money,” he said.
Evanston committed 3% of the cannabis tax, and the first $10 million will go toward reparations. He said the program authorized the first $400,000 — the first 4% — be paid in $25,000 chunks toward housing, either for a down payment to purchase a home or renovate an existing home.
He explained this was the first rollout. “The other 96% is still up in the air as to how it’ll be allocated.”
As to who is eligible for reparations, he said there were three tiers of applicants. The first are ancestors or African American Evanston residents who lived in the city during 1919-1969. If there are more than 16 applicants, there’ll be a lottery for the top 16.
If there are fewer than 16 applicants, the second tier would be descendants of someone who lived there from 1919-1969 and whose family’s ability to garner wealth was impaired by the city’s actions.
If there are not 16 eligible applicants between those two categories, then tier three would go to anyone else who can prove the city’s racist actions have impaired their financial situation. However, Biss said they’d already received more than 16 applicants the first week of the application process, which opened Sept. 21 and closed Nov. 5.
“Given how many have come in, I doubt we’ll get there,” he said, adding, “Those not eligible in the first round may be in subsequent rounds.”
The committee in charge of reparations comprises three members from the city council, representing the areas most affected by these practices and four mayoral appointees. Biss said since this committee was being formed during the transition period, he and his predecessor made those appointments together.
Rue Simmons chose not to run for reelection but is a member of the committee.
When asked if there was any opposition to the reparation program, Biss replied, “It’s so interesting when I talk to others outside of Evanston, everyone thinks we had those in support of reparation and others against it, but that’s not been the case.
“The controversy here has been between those who support this version of the plan and others who think it doesn’t go far enough. Because it’s such an emotional issue, those have been intense debates.”
He noted, “My goal as mayor is for the folks who don’t feel great about the initial rollout to still have a seat at the table moving forward to ensure that all the allocations are done within the views of people who were dissenters of the first go-round.
“There are those who say, ‘Do you really want to only help homeowners? What if they don’t need renovations?’ I say come back because there will be serious considerations about what the next part looks like.”
But as far as people opposed to the city making reparations, Biss said, “I can’t think of a single person who made public comments, (saying), ‘I don’t think we should do this.’”
He admitted some council members shared that as they were doing door-to-door campaigning, some people expressed skepticism about it. “But folks with that view are a relatively small minority so they don’t push that point of view too strongly.”
When asked about the timing of the next round, he said it depended on three things — the rate in which the first phase is completed, the rate that tax revenues come in and the rate of the committee’s ability to do the work.
Advice to other municipalities
Meanwhile, in Asheville, Traynum-Carson offered this advice, “Do the background work on other’s processes (like Evanston, for example), set up time to discuss any lessons learned to date and realize this is a new process for all.”
Biss offered this advice: “Be very inclusive. It’s such an intense and emotional issue for obvious good reason. The community has to know this is being done collaboratively as opposed to being dictated to them.”
Biss added reparation is “very exciting and powerful. Work with partnerships — there are a lot of people who want to see these efforts succeed. Learn from one another and adopt best practices.”
And his other piece of advice is, “Go for it. Don’t be sloppy or rushed but don’t accept (the tendency) to push it down the road.”
For his city, the Evanston mayor said, “There’s a strong interest to do this as fast as we can, but there’s a special responsibility that comes with being the first. You’ve got to do it right — people are watching. If something is unsuccessful, it creates challenges for the movement.”
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