Reparations Committee amends pre-existing reparations program, removing rules dictating how reparation money should be spent

Tarek Anthony, Staff Writer

On Thursday, March 16, in a historic vote, Evanston’s Reparations Committee unanimously approved an amendment to Evanston’s pre-existing reparation program, allowing for $25,000 cash reparation payments for eligible Evanston residents. This means that each individual who receives the reparation money will be able to spend it however they see fit.

The initial program, which distributed $25,000 to eligible Black Evanston residents, mandated that the money be put towards housing costs, such as down payments on home buying, mortgage payments, or home improvement projects. Founders of the program argued that having guidelines in place for how residents could repay money, such as housing, would ensure the money was spent responsibly and would help towards closing the generational wealth gap caused by a long history of redlining practices in Evanston.

Evanston’s groundbreaking reparations program; funded by tax money from the legalization of marijuana in Illinois, was the first reparations program in the entire United States. It came at a time when many U.S. cities continued to ponder how to begin rectifying the injustices Black Americans have faced over the past 400+ years.

To be eligible for reparations in Evanston, you must have lived in the city between 1919 and 1969. This was when Evanston’s redlining practices segregated Black residents south of Emerson Ave in Evanston’s Fifth Ward, causing a detrimental impact to Black residents and their opportunity to purchase homes. 

The initial reparations program, however, was met with quick criticism from its inception by Black Evanston residents; who formed Facebook groups such as ‘Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations,’ arguing that a ‘true’ reparation would allow reparation recipients to spend the money as they saw fit. They deemed the built-in financial oversight from the City dictating how residents spend their money as ‘racist,’ furthering the labeling of Evanston’s attempt at reparations as ‘fake reparations.’

The debate over the requirements was further advanced in February when the expiration date on the reparation money distributed during the first round of reparations was nearing for the only two residents who had yet to use their money. Siblings Kenneth (77 years old) and Sheila (75 years old) Wideman who were selected, via a lottery system, in the first round of reparations and had sat on their money for numerous months, arguing that because they were renters and they had no interest at their age of using the money towards home acquisition, they should be able to use the money toward rental assistance or receive a cash payment. 

In a February hearing, Mr. Wideman presented his argument to the Reparations Committee, asking to use the money for rental assistance. The committee, however, rejected Wideman’s appeal, arguing that putting money towards rental assistance would benefit the overall wealth of the landlord and not the reparation recipient. However, in a secondary meeting on March 3, the committee approved a $25,000 cash payment for the two siblings, prompting a larger debate over the City’s financial oversight. This eventually led to the historic vote on March 16. 

“[Cash payments] are something that should have happened from the beginning, but I’m very glad that they listened to Black people’s voices and concerns and made modifications accordingly,” said African American junior Alyssa Williams. “[Reparations] are a repayment of the racism that has been going on for centuries, and so it really should be up to Black people to use their reparations as they see fit… if they [ever] feel the need to put restrictions [back in place] on how people use their money, at least give people more options on how they can use it. You can never repair what has been done, but this is a strong start.”

The recent approval of cash payment was not celebrated by all, with some residents calling for programs for financial literacy and education for reparation recipients who want it.

“You have to teach [recipients] how to keep the money. $25,000 is a lot of money, it is simply along the same lines as the saying, ‘you give a man fish he eats for a day, you teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime,’” said African American senior Douglas Wood. “If you know how to save money the right way, you will have exponentially more money over time. Expenses will never stop accumulating, but if you’re taught to build streams of income to counter those expenses you will have a substantial amount more money leftover in general.”

Although already voted upon by the Reparations Committee, it remains unclear whether or not cash payments will be voted on by City Council. The Committee will meet again on April 6 to further discuss and finalize plans for the new cash payment program.

The full virtual Reparations Committee Meeting from March 16 can be found here.