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Illinois City's First-In-The-Nation Reparations Program Draws Complicated Reactions

NOEL KING, HOST:

What counts as reparations for slavery and the years of discrimination that followed? Evanston, Ill., just outside of Chicago, recently passed a reparations initiative that centers on housing assistance. But some Black residents there say this is not reparations. Here's Araceli Gomez-Aldana from member station WBEZ.

ARACELI GOMEZ-ALDANA, BYLINE: Evanston made news last week when it passed the local reparations housing program aimed at providing compensation to Black residents for slavery, segregation and housing discrimination. It will provide $25,000 in home ownership, improvement grants and mortgage assistance to qualifying Black residents. Alderman Robin Rue Simmons serves on the National African American Reparations Commission and says the housing program is only the first step of a larger reparations plan.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: This initiative alone is insufficient for reparations, but this is only the first 4% of the program. But we have to start somewhere, and we started with housing in the form of $25,000 benefits.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: The Evanston Reparations Subcommittee allocated $400,000 so far, a small portion of the larger $10 million reparations package, money coming from annual cannabis taxes for at least the next 10 years. But not everyone is excited about the details. Lesley Williams has lived in Evanston for 30 years.

LESLEY WILLIAMS: I think it's a fundamental mistake in the way the entire program is being framed. It's a misstatement of what reparations actually is.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: She says reparations should include acknowledgement and apology for harm and action to stop the systemic practices causing the harm. Davarian Baldwin teaches history at Trinity College. He says reparations is now a popular term following last summer's social unrest. But he says focusing on housing could lead to reparations benefiting institutions that had a hand in creating racial disparities.

DAVARIAN BALDWIN: So we had to be very careful when talking about reparations and singularly locating it within kind of home repair and home ownership strategies. The issue in the spirit of reparations is about a collective transformation.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: Baldwin stresses that reparations should be what he calls an act of repair.

BALDWIN: This program at Evanston went forward with very little counsel to its own kind of institutional level history. And so if we continue to do these top-down approaches to reparations and not include the communities and the people, we're actually exacerbating the problem. We're not solving it.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: Resident Lesley Williams also thinks the passing of Evanston's reparations initiative was premature.

WILLIAMS: This is not about making white people feel better. This program - reparations should be about actually giving economic justice to African American people who were defrauded and robbed of institutional generational wealth for many, many decades. And, you know, that means that it's not going to be something where it can get fixed quickly.

GOMEZ-ALDANA: Cities all across the country are taking measures to pass their own reparations programs even as similar conversations are underway in Congress. For NPR News, I'm Araceli Gomez-Aldana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.