Evanston, Illinois, Approved Reparations. Except It Isn’t Reparations.

Black Lives Matter lawn sign in the front yard of a large white house.

The Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, has received a lot of national attention for initiating a plan that they’re calling “reparations.” The plan acknowledges and takes steps toward redressing the town’s complicity in a long history of housing practices that have knowingly and intentionally discriminated against Black people, who currently comprise 16% of the town population, according to census data. Arts consultant A. Kirsten Mullen and economist William A. Darity Jr., authors of the 2020 award-winning book From Here to Equality, wrote this March 2021 essay on Evanston’s plan for the Washington Post.

Read it here.

EXPLORE, REFLECT, SPEAK UP.

1. Mullen and Darity are not arguing against reparations; in fact, they wholeheartedly endorse them. So what, exactly, is their objection to the Evanston program? What arguments do they present? Summarize their objection to the Evanston plan. Are their arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

2. Mullen and Darity’s essay appeared in the Washington Post, a daily newspaper published in the nation’s capital with a large readership across the country. What do you think the authors assume about their audience? Do they expect that readers have some prior knowledge of the debates around reparations? What features of the essay would help you answer that question? Do the authors expect that readers will be sympathetic to their arguments? Unsympathetic? How can you tell? Point to statements from the essay that helped you arrive at your conclusions.

3. LET’S TALK. For this conversation, let’s start with a given: in the United States, the systemic obstruction of economic advancement for formerly enslaved people and their descendants is an established fact. (Perhaps you don’t accept this given as fact; that can be a separate conversation for another day. Today, please participate in good faith and listen respectfully.) One of the essential features of Mullen and Darity’s proposal for reparations is a careful delineation of eligibility based on two factors. Are these two factors adequate and sufficient for making sure that the system is fair and also not conducive to cheating? For the first factor, consider that some of the living descendants of enslaved people are only two generations (four grandparents) away from the relevant ancestor, while many more descendants may be five generations (32 ancestors) distant from a relevant ancestor. For the second factor, the authors stipulated Black self-identity with a time threshold of twelve years; is the threshold too low? Too high? Explore these questions with a few classmates and remember that there are no right answers. Listen with an open mind; think with an open heart.

4. LET’S WRITE. Mullen and Darity focus here on the economic aspects of reparations, and certainly erasing the wealth gap would make a tremendous difference in redressing centuries of injustice. Economic reparations alone, however, may not be enough to make US society, going forward, truly equitable for the descendants of enslaved people. It is likely that many other factors would need to be addressed in order to create the kind of just and fair society for everyone that we, as a nation, claim to desire. Choose ONE aspect of this complex situation—for example, education, voting rights, or housing, to name only three of many—and write an essay that proposes a feasible remedy. Your proposed remedy may have a local or national focus, or it may involve short-range or long-range implementation; however you imagine it, try to elaborate your ideas as concretely and precisely as possible.

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