Local reparations initiatives can lead to national policy remedying racial injustice
Something remarkable happened just before Thanksgiving last year in a small city outside of Chicago called Evanston. As the state of Illinois voted to legalize recreational marijuana, Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons had the foresight and courage to propose a municipal tax on the sales of marijuana products in the name of racial justice. The 3 percent tax proposed would create a dedicated fund, capped at $10 million, to provide reparations for African Americans in the city of Evanston. The proposal passed with a vote of 8-1 on November 25, 2019, a date that should be celebrated in history marking the moment reparations were made real in one small community.
The idea of reparations has lived in the shadows of American policy discussions since General Sherman offered 40 acres and a mule to emancipated slaves upon the end of the Civil War in 1865. At the federal level, the idea has been realized only in the form of a bill that would create a commission to study reparations. The bill was sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and failed to even secure a committee hearing in Congress for 22 years. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus picked it up after his death in 2019.
Given that a commission to study the issue has little chance of passage, I have little hope that a funded reparations policy will emerge anytime soon at the federal level. Our national government is, at the present moment, barely governing. Less controversial initiatives are unlikely to get past the stalemate in Congress, and we have a dysfunctional executive branch riddled with corruption and nepotism.
As we work to change these dynamics, however, we can lay the groundwork for a strong federal reparations policy to emerge. We can do this by studying the kinds of policy initiatives, often passed under pressure from local activists and a lot of difficult discussion, taken by localities. With such concrete reparative actions, Americans will begin the very slow process of freeing ourselves from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and entrenched discriminatory economic policies.
Reparations need not be understood only as direct responses to slavery as such. The historical fact of chattel slavery warrants a massive outpouring of compensatory cultural and economic resources. It is also the impact of policies that followed upon chattel slavery and perpetuated white supremacy and privilege, right up to the current moment, that require repair. Therefore, reparations will be a massive and complex policy correction at the federal level. However, we can see the connections between the historical fact of chattel slavery, the legal impacts of Jim Crow and the effects of institutionalized economic discrimination in the Evanston policy. The analysis can be scaled up to the federal level.
The Evanston ordinance explicitly recognizes that African Americans, while 16 percent of the population in Evanston, were 71 percent of those arrested for marijuana charges. It is not only disproportionate marijuana arrests that Evanston is beginning to correct. Over-policing in black communities, red-lining (denial of mortgages to black families wishing to live in “white” communities) and discrimination has led not only to a drop in the black population in Evanston as they are priced out of the housing market, but to ingrained inequalities in wealth accumulation that reflect the numbers nationally between African Americans and white people.
Taxing marijuana sales and dedicating the funds to repair these historical injustices in one city is an excellent plan on symbolic and material levels. Thus, the Evanston policy makes the connections among social justice issues of repairing the harm of slavery, addressing ongoing discrimination and undoing white supremacy as a cultural artifact that will render federal initiatives meaningful in the contemporary moment.
Other diverse and very local examples of reparative initiatives can be studied starting with reparations for Burge torture victims in Chicago in 2015 and reparations for descendants of slaves sold by Georgetown University in 1838.
Those who think reparations are “unworkable” or “undeserved” or “just another hand-out” should watch Evanston and the other localities taking reparative steps. All of these local and differentiated efforts are ground-breaking moves toward repairing the effects of America’s original sin of slavery and remedying ongoing racial injustice. They should be studied and taken into account as we work toward an effective form of national reparations policy.
Renee Heberle, Ph.D. is professor of political science at The University of Toledo.