What We Can Learn From Evanston's Reparations Program  

Opinion by Jami McElrea.

A close-up on a pile of one-dollar bills.


There are many unpaid social and economic debts that continue to plague our communities. Slavery, Jim Crow-era discrimination such as segregated public spaces and discriminatory voting practices were mechanisms that transferred or diverted income and wealth from Black people to white people [4]. In an attempt to repay this debt, the city of Evanston, Illinois will make “reparations” available to eligible Black residents for harm caused by discriminatory housing policies and racist inaction [1]. Robin Rue Simmons, an alderwoman and architect of the reparations program, said that the plan aimed to solve a pair of problems facing the community: Black residents being disproportionately arrested for infractions involving marijuana possession, as well as being priced out of their homes [1]. Unfortunately, reparations are often paid with empty acknowledgements of pain and suffering or, at best, come with some targeted efforts that compensate only a fraction of what is owed. Something beyond empty promises must be offered in restitution for historical wrongdoing to positively shape policy choices in education, housing, and employment [5]. This approach forms the basis of Evanston’s “reparations” program. 


The concept of reparations provides a public policy framework to respond to the massive systematic exploitation that produced wrongful disparities that continue to this day [4]. This policy framework allows for targeted income and wealth redistribution practices. Demands for economic reparations for debts owed have become a more common feature of modern domestic and international politics: African Americans for chattel slavery, Indigenous peoples in North America, Australia and New Zealand seeking compensation for wrongful dispossession of their land, and former colonies for the economic and cultural injustices of colonialism are examples of communities seeking reparations [5].  There is popular political rhetoric that rejects the existence of systematic racism and inequality. This rhetoric is driven by ignorance, but also the explicit desire to prevent a federal system from accomplishing the redistributive justice that is being demanded [4]. Prioritizing justice means that tax and budget priorities should be informed by the concept of unjust enrichment. While taxes affect overall efficiency and resource allocation, they can also be used to produce and maintain equity and are a legitimate tool for redistributive justice [4]. If a holistic approach is not taken to reparations, it risks being piece-meal and not actually effectively repaying the debt that is owed. Evanston's “reparations” will be funded by the first $400 000 from the $10 million in revenue from the city’s tax on recreational marijuana [1]. It will grant qualifying households up to $25 000 towards down payments and home repairs. Officials also commissioned a historical report on city policies and practices affecting Black residents from 1900 to 1960 and to present day [1]. The 77-page report detailed decades of segregationist and discriminatory practices in areas including housing, employment, education, and policing. This report provided the necessary evidence showing that the city’s policies dictated the occupations, wealth, education, and property of thousands of the city’s residents for generations.   There are three categories in which applicants can qualify. In the ancestor category, applicants must show they lived in Evanston as Black adult between 1919 and 1969. For direct descendants they must show that their parent, grandparent, or great grandparent lived in Evanston in that time as an adult. Applicants that fit neither can still qualify if they demonstrate they have experienced housing discrimination after 1969 as a direct result of city policy [2]. This is a positive policy, however there is controversy on how the language of reparations is being applied. The city council voted 8-1 to approve the local reparations restorative housing program [2]. The dissenting vote on city council came from Cicely Fleming, a Black Alderwoman whose lineage in Evanston traces back to the early 1900’s. Fleming says she is in support of reparations but denounced the initiative as a “housing plan dressed up”, as it only allows limited participation and gave limited autonomy to those harmed [2]. She also explained that the proposal rushed to vote without enough time for community members' concerns to be voiced and resolved. In response to her claims that this does not amount to reparations, it has been contended that this is only the first part of the reparations project.  In an article for the Washington Post, Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity, Jr. also objected to the reparations by saying “True reparations only can come from a full-scale program of acknowledgment, redress and closure for a grievous injustice” [3]. While Evanston has made some work to acknowledge systematic racism, true reparations need to be systematic and applied holistically to accept and repay the full debt that is owed [3]. Time will tell if the next steps in Evanston's reparation project address these concerns, or if it is more accurately a partial repayment for the debt that is owed. 



1. Treisman, Rachel. 2021. “In Likely First, Chicago Suburb of Evanston Approves Reparations for Black Residents.” NPR.org. March 23, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/03/23/980277688/in-likely-first-chicago-suburb-of-evanston-approves-reparations-for-black-reside.

2. Harrison, Alex. 2021. “Evanston Restorative Housing Program Opens Applications.” The Daily Northwestern. September 22, 2021. https://dailynorthwestern.com/2021/09/21/city/city-opens-application-for-first-reparations-payments/.

3. Mullen, A. Kirsten, and William A. Darity, Jr. "Evanston, Ill., approved 'reparations.' Except it isn't reparations." Washington Post, March 28, 2021, NA. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed February 27, 2022). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A656640023/AONE?u=ocul_carleton&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=87bfba69.

4. Kumar, Rahul, and Kok-Chor Tan. 2006. “Introduction.” Journal of Social Philosophy 37 (3): 323–29. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2006.00339.x.

5. America, Richard F., Linda Loubert, Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, Sue Headlee, George W. Dowdall, Jonathan Taylor, Darrell J. Gaskin, et al. 2005. "Reparations." Review of Black Political Economy 32 (3-4) (01): 11-148. https://proxy.library.carleton.ca/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Freparations%2Fdocview%2F37728982%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D9894.