Clarence Page

News that a conservative nonprofit legal group is challenging Evanston, Illinois’ groundbreaking reparations program got me thinking about the many attempts to redress the wrongs of systemic racism through monetary compensation.

Americans have a long tradition of offering reparations for slavery, only to see them clawed back.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act bill on April 16, 1862, which freed enslaved people in the nation’s capital and paid their former owners who were loyal to the Union up to $300 in compensation for every individual freed.

But little was offered to the freed individuals except their freedom, which was no small matter. Lincoln’s bill signing continues to be celebrated with an annual holiday and parades in Washington, D.C., on April 16.

The issue of reparations for slavery endures, especially among African Americans, with such questions as, what happened to our “40 acres and a mule?”

That’s a phrase that grew out of Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s order to reserve tillable land seized from the Confederates and give it to the formerly enslaved. But Lincoln was assassinated before that was implemented, and Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson worked to reverse the initiative.

Advertisement

Fast forward. As a descendant of freed American slaves, I have long felt the chances of anything like reparations actually happening for me and my family were too remote to care much about. But in more recent years, the reparations movement has lowered its sights to local actions.

Evanston’s City Council approved a program in 2021 which already has disbursed more than $3 million and has plans to distribute at least $11 million more. It’s aimed at compensating Black descendants of people who lived in the North Shore suburb between 1919 and 1969, when racial discrimination and neighborhood segregation were rampant.

Now, in a self-styled blow against what’s often called “reverse discrimination,” Judicial Watch, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based legal foundation, in a lawsuit accuses the anti-discrimination program of discriminating against non-Blacks by providing money only to African American households. It’s filed suit against the city, arguing the program is discriminatory. Against non-Blacks.

Under the program, qualified recipients must have forebears who identified as Black and lived in Evanston during the specified half century. Of course, those who are Black and lived in Evanston as adults during that period qualify. And Black adults who lived in Evanston after 1969 and can show they were victims of housing discrimination also qualify. Judicial Watch calls the program “nothing more than a ploy to redistribute tax dollars to individuals based on race.”

The city government set up the program, using mainly funds from legalized marijuana, to help atone for what the city said was a system that prevented Black residents from building wealth through homeownership and segregated Black families in a small enclave on the city’s western edge.

Judicial Watch’s lawsuit, filed last Thursday in federal court, names as plaintiffs six people whose relatives once lived in Evanston during that 50-year period. None of the plaintiffs or their relatives identify as Black, the lawsuit says. Plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that the program awards applicants up to $25,000 based on their race, without having to prove they or their relatives faced housing discrimination. It’s a purported class-action suit that, among other things, demands $25,000 for non-Black Evanstonians who are members of the class Judicial Watch defines.

Advertisement

The city declined to comment on the suit, but Kamm Howard, national co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, expressed confidence in an interview that the program will survive this legal challenge if judged not as a discrimination case but as a human rights case, using international standards for crimes against humanity.

“We do not take these avenues of redress because of discrimination but because human rights have been abused,” said Howard, who has worked with Evanston. Therefore, he argued, the legality of reparations should be subject to international standards that outlaw apartheid, slavery and other crimes against humanity.

We’ll see. Howard has spoken at international conferences about a “new paradigm of reparations activism.” This may be an example of it. But international standards of human rights have had limited impact in the United States.

Other local governments across the nation are watching to see what happens in Evanston. But, judging by similar civil rights cases in the past — for example, affirmative action litigation — the more narrowly they can tailor the remedies the better their chances of success.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.