Let’s Unpack This

An Illinois Town Okays Reparations to Black Residents. Will Your City Follow Suit?

A weed tax provides up to $10 million in payments

Photo: Catherine McQueen/Getty Images

The case for reparations for Black descendants of slavery in America is, for some, a controversial subject. Those who oppose the idea repeatedly question where the money will come from. Now, a Chicago suburb has provided a blueprint, but the question is: can and will other cities do the same?

Evanston, Illinois will likely make history as the first city to pay reparations to its Black residents. Robin Rue Simmons, a 5th Ward Alderman there, is spearheading the charge. Simmons, who is Black, describes her measure as one that will help “burdened” families“get some relief.” Starting this year, payments up to $25,000 will be distributed to eligible residents to increase affordability and a “lack of access to living wage careers here in the city,” she said.

Simmons plans to finance the payouts via the city’s 3% tax on recreational marijuana sales. Through this budget instrument, the city is committing $10 million total over the next 10 years as an attempt to pay Black residents. Simmons told Momentum that the payback to the Black community is therefore “the most appropriate use for that sales tax.”

Evanston is alone in making real strides in this manner.

Asheville, North Carolina passed resolutions to make up for “generations of housing discrimination.” And in Burlington, Vermont officials began a task force to research the effects of slavery, namely in housing discrimination, by looking at racial covenants. (Taskforce members thought they’d find “100 or so” of these covenants. They found more than 20,000.) A report from Durham, North Carolina, on the subject of reparations, explained the state “must name that our housing system is working as it was designed: to create and maintain private white land by controlling the access people of color have to such land.”

Each of the cities described the issue — namely that White residents and White-led local governments robbed Black people of their land or property value — but still many fall short on a plan for direct restitution.

One might question the hyper-focus on housing, land, and correcting the racist history of redlining, as opposed to making direct cash payments. But most experts agree there is a correlation between homeownership and wealth. Now consider that America blocked Black veterans from receiving the GI bill, banks unfairly targeted Black homeowners, and the housing crisis impacted Black people the hardest. Furthermore, it’d be remiss to not mention how America, on all levels, took an active role in destroying Black homeownership.

Redlining and flat-out theft of existing Black-owned homes — via lynching and other terrorist tactics — also pushed us away from homeownership during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

For example, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal work, “The Case for Reparations,” he details a process in Chicago where White people frequently took advantage of potential Black homeowners with unfair contracts. He described it as “a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting — while offering the benefits of neither.”

In contract agreements, potential homeowners paid the seller, instead of the bank. Sellers would keep the deeds until the contract was paid in full. In the case of Clyde Ross, a Mississippi Army veteran who tried to buy a house in Chicago in 1961, and whose story leads Coates’ piece, while holding up his end of the agreement “he’d acquire no equity in the meantime… and if he missed a single payment he’d forfeit his $1,000 down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.”

Redlining and flat-out theft of existing Black-owned homes—via lynching and other terrorist tactics—also pushed us away from homeownership during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Against this historical backdrop, Simmons’ plan in Evanston looks scalable, although all of its funding is coming from taxing recreational marijuana. The tax isn’t available in other states at the moment, however, as many as 12 states are working on legislation to legalize marijuana. If that happens, perhaps it could be redirected into reparations.

In the meantime, I think states can create their own reparations funds by building upon the momentum to reallocate police budgets and funneling the excess funds to pay Black people.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he opposed paying reparations because “none of the currently living are responsible… for America’s original sin.” That might technically be true, but the idea of the branch of government currently known as the police predates back to 1704 in the South. Known as “slave patrols,” the original police primary responsibilities were “chasing down runaways and preventing slave revolts.” They were funded by local government and land owners.

Police brutality has been a never-ending, deadly thorn in the side of Black people. Police budgets across the U.S. total around $100 billion a year, not including another $80 billion spent on incarceration. Police misconduct cost taxpayers more than $300 million in 2019.

A federally backed movement for reparations is probably the most effective way to extend payments to Black people around the country. Taxing weed sales might not work in every state. Meanwhile, cities, governments, courts and politicians routinely weaponize the police against Black people. If reparations is about payment for harm caused, then it’s reasonable to consider police budgets as a good place to start when it comes to financing the debt of racism.

Award-winning TV news journalist. Freelance writer. Mad question asker.

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