On Wednesday the House Judiciary approved H.R. 40 — a reparations bill written more than 30 years ago. It's a long-overdue but history-making step. The bill, which will form a commission to study the possibility of federal reparations, heads to the House floor as states, universities and private organizations across the country push for reparative action.
Below is one of three columns USA TODAY Opinion is publishing as part of an exploration of the national fight for reparations addressing systemic discrimination faced by the Black community.
EVANSTON, ILL. — I'm a Black woman and a fifth-generation Evanston resident. I was also the only council member to vote against our city's "historic" reparations plan.
Last month, Evanston became the first metropolis in the U.S. to call a housing program a “reparations program.” The city council is being credited with precedent-setting action — a model for the nation.
But this program is not a guiding light.
It offers housing assistance to only a few Evanston residents — 16 families as compared with the thousands who suffered under the city’s blatantly racist policies over the past 100 years.
It promises $9.6 million more over the next 10 years, but provides no specifics for what further repair will look like. Black people know all about governments’ empty promises.
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Most significant, it does not give those harmed autonomy and self-determination, most often represented by cash payments. Instead, the plan places myriad restrictions on how, when and where the so-called reparations can be used.
That said, I applaud my colleagues on the city council for at least making a start, and I applaud municipal leaders in other cities who are wrestling with reparations.
Nonetheless, responsibility for reparations should not lie primarily with the nation’s municipalities, or even its states. It must lie with the federal government, and the federal government, which has caused great harm to Black America for hundreds of years, must act now to move real reparations forward.
It’s way past time.
Freed slaves were promised 40 acres in January 1865. The order redistributed 400,000 acres of Southern plantation land, but President Andrew Johnson returned all of it to plantation owners. The horrors that befell Black families living on the land after the program was revoked are unspeakable. Many became sharecroppers, returning to conditions similar to the miseries of slavery.
The Freedman’s Savings Bank, another Reconstruction program designed to increase wealth among freed slaves, collected millions of dollars worth of deposits from Blacks across the country, but was so poorly managed that it failed in just over a decade. The people who were financially ruined were the Black depositors, not the white bankers.
The New Deal’s Home Owners' Loan Corporation, established in 1933 to help Americans either stave off foreclosure or buy homes, invented “redlining,” the practice of drawing red lines on maps around majority-Black neighborhoods to mark them as undesirable to lenders. This practice drove down Black home values, and many of those redlined neighborhoods are still disenfranchised and disparately impacted. Evanston’s majority Black neighborhoods are among them.
History gives us one example of federal legislation that qualifies as true reparations relative to the enslavement of Black Americans, even though it was not defined as such.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, a bill ending slavery in Washington. It gave all slaveholders $300 per slave. By contrast, emancipated slaves were given $100 if they left the country.
If the federal government could repair economic damage done to slaveholders, it can finally attempt to repair the generational damage done through the racism baked into our nation’s educational, financial, health care, housing and justice systems since its founding.
Germany offers a possible model to follow. The national government has awarded hundreds of millions to victims of the Holocaust.
But leaving the task to a patchwork of municipalities taking their cues from Evanston’s modest housing program is woefully inadequate to the monumental task of attempting to alleviate the harm done.
I urge municipalities considering reparations to — at the very least — provide cash payments to those harmed. And I urge the federal government to truly take the lead in the U.S. reparations movement by repairing the monumental damage done with a monumental, cash-based reparations plan.
Cicely L. Fleming is beginning her second term as 9th Ward alderwoman on Evanston's city council. She is also a founding member of OPAL, a political advocacy group pushing for racial equity in government.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Here's why Evanston's reparations aren't reparations