California leads in thought — not action — when it comes to reparations

California politicians are bold when it comes to discussing reparations, but not when it comes to implementing them. The true leader of the country’s reparations movement — and the place California needs to follow — is Evanston, Ill.

By Justin PhillipsFeb 11, 2024

Members of California’s Reparations Task Force listen to public comment during their first in-person meeting at Third Baptist Church in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco on April 13, 2022.Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The day before this year’s Black History Month began, a group of powerful Black California lawmakers got the whole country talking about reparations. They proposed 14 bills seeking to address issues like food insecurity, hair discrimination in competitive sports and racist property seizures, among other things.

These Black leaders had an opportunity to be courageous and make one of their bills about cash payments, but they didn’t. This wasn’t an unfortunate oversight — it was intentional. 

“Many of the bills seem like they were coming from parts of bills that were in the works already and didn’t have anything to do with reparations,” said Darrin Young, a reparations advocate who served as an expert witness for the state task force on the topic of mass incarceration and the state’s school-to-prison pipeline. “It’s saddening to see these Black politicians not do what’s right.” 

But maybe this is to be expected in California. Politicians in this state are bold when it comes to discussing reparations but not when it comes to implementing them. Since in politics actions speak louder than savvy rhetoric, the true leader of the country’s reparations movement — and the place California and the rest of America needs to follow — is Evanston, Ill. 

A mural painted on the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center in Evanston, Ill., in April 2021. The Chicago suburb pays reparations in the form of grants to Black residents who experienced housing discrimination.Shafkat Anowar/Associated Press

The city of roughly 77,000, just north of Chicago with a population that is 62% white and 17% Black, began its reparations journey back in 2019. The city established a reparations fund that is getting $10 million from the city’s cannabis retailers occupation tax and an additional $10 million from the city’s real estate transfer tax. The fund made Evanston the first city in the country to enact a government-funded reparations program aimed specifically at providing redress for historical harms faced by Black people. 

While Evanston’s reparations money is small compared to what would be needed to fund statewide reparations in California, or citywide reparations in San Francisco, Evanston’s political leaders show that it can be simple to agree to set money aside. This move just needs elected officials who believe in what’s morally right, even if it’s politically divisive. 

It isn’t just Black folks benefiting from reparations in Evanston. A study on the effort conducted last year by Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy also found Evanston’s reparations program led to “double-digit net increases in trust in city government … among all ethnic and racial demographic groups.” While only roughly 20% percent of white America supports reparations, according to national surveys, 70% of white respondents in Evanston viewed the reparations program as “good public policy” for the city, according to the Northwestern University study. These white supporters are likely encouraged by seeing how reparations bring the community closer together socially and politically. 

Setting up the reparations fund back in 2019, even before city leaders had a clear plan for how to use the money, was a key part in reparations existing in Evanston, according to Robin Rue Simmons, a former Evanston alderwoman who led the city’s efforts. Simmons is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit FirstRepair, which promotes local reparations policies around the country, and she is also the chairwoman of the City of Evanston Reparations Committee. 

“Evanston has set a new standard,” Rue Simmons said. “There’s a precedent now, you can actually pass reparations specifically for the harm in the Black community and repair that community … every government body can point to Evanston and say it is possible.”

Less than two years after Evanston created its reparations fund, the city launched a program aimed at addressing the harm Black residents experienced from housing discrimination and segregation in the city between 1919 and 1969 — the period in which housing discrimination was allowed through zoning ordinances. Eligible recipients can get $25,000 for things like paying off a mortgage, remodeling a home or putting a downpayment on a home, which the city will help them coordinate. 

According to the city, 80 people will receive reparations in 2024. Last year, as of Aug. 1, the city reported distributing reparations to 76 people. As of 2023, Evanston had given just over $1 million in reparations, with a plan of eventually giving away at least $10 million. 

Most importantly, reparations recipients also have the option of just getting the tax free $25,000 as a cash payment. 

Meanwhile, California’s Black Legislative Caucus couldn’t even see fit to make cash payments one of its first proposed bills; San Francisco’s Black mayor refused last year to carve out a measly $4 million from an annual budget of over $14 billion to fund an office of reparations, and cash payment reparations struggle to have support among California voters, in part, because most of our elected officials aren’t helping to educate the public on the need for reparations. 

“In communities with partisan politics … you’re going to have far more challenges than a community that is value- and mission-aligned like Evanston,” Rue Simmons said.  

Reparations aren’t something that can be approached with timidity. They’re a historic pursuit that demands visionary leadership and political fortitude.

The only reason California is considered a leader in the national reparations movement is because of the work by a first-in-the-nation state reparations task force that spent two years studying the legacy of chattel slavery and developing reparations proposals. But the task force’s work only makes California a leader in ambitious research, advocacy and thought — not decisive political action. 

What America needs most right now is to see politicians proving how reparations can be more than just hollow promises and empty rhetoric — and these examples exist in Evanston —  not California. 

Reach Justin Phillips: jphillips@sfchronicle.com

Feb 11, 2024

By Justin Phillips

Justin Phillips joined The San Francisco Chronicle in November 2016 as a food writer. He previously served as the City, Industry, and Gaming reporter for the American Press in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In 2019, Justin also began writing a weekly column for The Chronicle’s Datebook section that focused on Black culture in the Bay Area. In 2020, Justin helped launch Extra Spicy, a food and culture podcast he co-hosts with restaurant critic Soleil Ho. Following its first season, the podcast was named one of the best podcasts in America by the Atlantic. In February, Justin left the food team to become a full-time columnist for The Chronicle. His columns focus on race and inequality in the Bay Area, while also placing a spotlight on the experiences of marginalized communities in the region.

He can be reached at jphillips@sfchronicle.com.

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