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Reparations fight expands as advocates push local and state governments to right wrongs done to Black people

By La Risa Lynch Contributing Writer @larisa_lynch | Last updated: Nov 26, 2019 - 10:33:23 PM

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CHICAGO—The debate about this country’s atonement for more than two centuries of slavery and its continued aftereffects on Blacks under harsh Jim Crow laws has simmered for decades. 

That debate recently landed on Chicago doorsteps. Chicago Alderman Roderick Sawyer hosted a symposium about drafting a bill to remedy the city’s own complicity in carrying out national discriminatory policies locally. The harms of those policies still persist today in the forms of segregation and socio-economic disparities among Chicago’s Black residents.

Audience listens to presentations during Reparations Symposium at Malcolm X College in Chicago held Nov. 9. Photos: Haroon Rajaee

“People think of it as a check and just moving on,” Ald. Sawyer told The Final Call. “That’s not it. That’s not going to make us whole. That is not gonna make up for years of enslavement not just physically but mentally.”

The case for a Chicago reparations bill lays in its long history of racial violence. Experts speaking at the symposium held at Malcolm X College point to the brutal race riots that swept the nation in 1919 including Chicago.  The drowning death of a Black teen who entered into the White’s only section of a South Side beach touched off seven days of rioting that left scores—mostly Blacks dead.

Even the ongoing police violence against Blacks including the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, the torture victims of former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge, the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and its subsequent cover up all show the vestiges of slavery’s tight grip on the city’s body politics. And housing policies between the 1950s and 1970s where restrictive covenants, red lining and contract buying impeded Black wealth by extracting $6 billion from the Black community thrived under city policies.

Chicago is not the first Illinois city seeking to extend an olive branch to the descendants of slavery. The city of Evanston, a small college town to Chicago’s north, drafted what it deemed a “solutions only” reparations bill to address its past racial injustices. The city plans to use revenues from the legal sale of marijuana to fund its reparation package to the tune of $10 million. 

Using marijuana sales seems an appropriate remittance since the Black community has long been impacted by the War on Drugs, said the bill’s sponsor Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, of Evanston, who attended the Nov. 9 symposium.

“We’ve had hundreds of resolutions, ceremonial actions and honorific notions and it was not enough,” Ald. Simmons said. “Why don’t we move past apologies and put some actions and funds behind all these commitments we have articulated all of these years?”

At Final Call presstime, Evanston aldermen were scheduled to give final approval to a 2020 city budget that includes creating a new reparations fund, reported A three-member aldermanic subcommittee had yet to present a report on how money in the fund designed to provide reparations for slavery, redlining and other forms of discrimination against Blacks, would be spent, the website reported. 

The cannabis tax wouldn’t go into effect until July but is anticipated to yield $250,000 in revenue in 2020 with the $10 million reparations goal to be funded over the next decade from private contributions to the fund from businesses and individuals to supplement the tax revenue, noted

Other states like New York, California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have begun to draft their own legislations to remit the harm caused by decades of chattel slavery and the subsequent forms it took once Abraham Lincoln abolished it in 1863. 

This country’s racialized policies may have come from Capitol Hill, but the harms of those policies played out differently at the state level, said Kamm Howard, of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. N’COBRA is a coalition of organizations and individuals advocating for reparations for African slave descendants in the U.S. The group is helping Ald. Sawyer formulate the reparations ordinance based on standards of international norms of repair.

“Jim Crow was everywhere in America. It was not just in the South. It was in the North and it showed itself in different ways all round,” said Mr. Howard, N’COBRA’s national co-chair.

States, he said, had the responsibility to equitably allocate federal resources, but often those dollars did not make it to communities of African descent. States with large Black populations suffering poor educational outcomes, economic disinvestments, higher crime rates, low homeownership and a widening wealth gap recognize these maladies are “rooted in those historical periods of harm,” Mr. Howard added. To redress that, he said, states “cannot do that with race-neutral public policies.”

Nov. 9 reparations symposium held at Malcolm X College in Chicago.

Nov. 9 reparations symposium held at Malcolm X College in Chicago.

“It has been many studies over decades that show that race neutral public policy does not reduce these gaps among these racial lines, but it has to be targeted legislation,” he said. “The only targeted legislation that would address all of these areas is reparations.” 

The topic of reparations is not new. The late Michigan Congressman John Conyers first broached the subject 124 years after slavery ended. In 1989 he introduced the first bill to study slavery’s repercussions. It gained no traction on Capitol Hill prompting Mr. Conyers to constantly reintroduce the bill until he resigned in 2017. 

The 2001 World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, reignited the debate when it declared the TransAtlantic Slave Trade a crime against humanity. That sparked laws or ordinances throughout the U.S., including in Chicago mandating companies seeking municipal business to disclose profits from their ties to slavery. And in 2016, a United Nations’ special rapporteur on People of African Descent propelled the issues further when it concluded that the U.S. owes reparations for refusing to address its long festering history of racial terrorism. 

Now with new momentum Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced Conyers’ legislation and held a hearing on it earlier this year. And, it has become central to the 2020 Democratic presidential election. 

But Congress’ inaction on the measure shows that local governments should take up the charge, said New York Assemblyman Charles Barron, who spoke at the symposium. He too introduced a bill in the New York state legislature establishing a community-led commission to study possible forms of reparations. Mr. Barron noted that throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats controlled the Senate, later the House and Mr. Conyers headed the committee overseeing his reparations bill and nothing happened. 

 “You had a chance to do it when you had power with a Black president and didn’t do it,” Mr. Barron said. “Now you come to 2019 and the Democrats are having a hearing in Washington on reparations with a Republican Senate and a madman in the White House. Don’t go for the okey-doke. Don’t go for it. They have no intentions of seriously taking reparations on.” 

Ald. Sawyer introduced his resolution in September tasking the city council’s Health and Human Relations committee to draft an ordinance to establish a reparations commission to address the harms of enslavement and Jim Crow segregation among Chicago’s Black residents. Once approved by the city, Sawyer wants the commission to find ways to implement the components of repair identified by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. 

Those components include restitutions of stolen lands, funds for cooperative business development, health and wellness resources, civilian police accountability councils, tax exemptions, financial payments and affordable housing among others. One of the tenets of reparations is that the repair must wipe out all consequences of the crime, Mr. Howard said.

Since the idea of reparations has been studied extensively, Ald. Sawyer said its time to act and hopes the commission can help identify what that would be at the local level. He plans to hold more meetings on the city’s reparations resolution, which has support from millionaire Willie Wilson, who ran twice for Chicago mayor.

The symposium ignited several discussions as to possible forms reparations can take including land, educational scholarships, debt forgiveness and greater investment in Black communities. But for Brian Mullins reparations from an equity standpoint for Black Chicago can be addressed in the upcoming city budget. 

The city’s aldermen can set aside money from the Chicago Housing Authority’s budget to rehab single family homes on the South and West Sides, said Mr. Mullin, a member of American Descendents of Slavery (ADOS) Chicago. And Blacks can get a greater portion of the billion dollars worth of city contracts to build, hire and develop their own communities, he added.

“Give us our fair share of resources that we are paying taxes for coming out of the city of Chicago right now,” Mr. Mullins said. “We don’t have to wait on the federal government. They [the city] have the opportunity to do it right now.”

But Mr. Barron, the New York assemblyman, disagreed. “Reparations is a debt owed. Let’s not get confused with things that they are supposed to do for you as taxpayer citizens. Don’t give me scholarships for reparations. That is what we are supposed to get as tax paying citizens.”

While a consensus exists that reparations are owned, disagreements arose at the symposium as to which slave descendants should reap the benefits including Puerto Ricans of African descent. Puerto Rico was colonized by Spain before it became a U.S. territory in 1898. Members of the American Descendents of Slavery in attendance contend it should be direct descendants of slaves brought to the U.S. Others say it should be any descendants of African slavery. 

Marlon Watson, a member of ADOS Chicago supports reparations, but says the pan-Africanist approach casts too wide a net and includes people with no direct connection to American slavery. People, he said, harmed through slavery in another country should seek their redress there. The Japanese and the Jews got reparations from the countries that harmed them, he said, adding that Black Americans are an ethnicity germane only to this country.

“We have a particular justice claim in this country that we are making a demand for and it doesn’t include other Black ethnicities. That doesn’t mean they are not Black,” said Mr. Watson, who’s also with the Illinois ADOS Equity Pact, a political action committee that supports reparations initiatives. 

“When you include everybody into the claim, you dilute it and it becomes too complicated to even understand. That’s why I think we haven’t been able to move the needle on [reparations] in the past 60 years. The country you were harmed in is the county you should seek your justice claim from.”

Other ethnic Blacks such as Haitians or Jamaicans have caucuses to champion their cause, especially for the reparation’s movement in the Caribbean, called CARICOM, he said. Black Americans, Mr.Watson added, couldn’t double dip and make a claim there under the banner that slavery took place in the Caribbean too.

Conrad Worrill, chairman emeritus of National Black United Fund, understand the concerns raised at the symposium, but added the event wanted to get different voices in the room to start a constructive dialogue.  Education, he said must be part of the discussion because there is “a disconnect” about the local, national and global reparations movement. A division among Black people about who gets reparations could hinder that movement, the longtime reparations advocate and activist pointed out. 

“We are all Black people,” Mr. Worrill said. “We just came over in different ways and ended up in different ports.”