Reparations how? Mayor Johnson’s task force is beside the point on what’s needed to fix Chicago

For the past 250 years, the question of granting reparations to Black Americans for the racial injustices they’ve suffered has been one of the nation’s most complex — and polarizing — issues.

The Quakers gave up trading and owning enslaved Black people in the 1700s. But they argued those still in the horrendous trade should pay reparations to any enslaved person who managed to get their freedom.

Since then, there have been scores of national proposals to compensate the once-enslaved, or their descendants, and, as time passed, those who suffered under 20th century Jim Crow laws in the South.

Now Mayor Brandon Johnson has decided to wade into these complicated waters, announcing on Monday that he signed an executive order establishing a Chicago reparations task force with $500,000 for the panel to do its work.

“The legacy of slavery — the aftermath, still echoes today,” Johnson told a crowd at a Juneteenth flag raising ceremony at Daley Plaza.

“We saw it when previous administrations sold off public assets. We saw the harm when previous administrations closed Black schools, and they shut down public housing. When they raided the pensions. These anti-Black, anti-business endeavors … have caused tremendous harm and pain.”

Generations of Black people found success in Chicago after they or their ancestors arrived here from the South during the 20th century’s Great Migration.

But they also faced racial violence, as in the riots during the “Red Summer” of 1919. And Black Chicagoans still contend with underperforming neighborhood schools, undervalued real estate in their communities, gun violence and other crime in their neighborhoods, and practices that often deny them mortgages, business loans, jobs and other opportunities.

But is a city reparations task force really the best way to address these wrongs? When all is said and done, we think the answer is “no,” especially for an administration that is struggling to handle pressing, bread-and-butter issues already on its plate that impact the entire city.

In Evanston, an anti-reparations lawsuit

Johnson’s attempt to link the legacy of slavery to the city’s bad fiscal decisions — “selling off public assets,” presumably the parking meter and Skyway deals — is just wrong. Besides, Chicago didn’t exist until 1837, just 28 years before slavery was abolished, and Illinois wasn’t a slave state.

But the mayor is right when he says Chicago — much like America — never worked hard to prevent or rectify the inequities Black people endured for decades after slavery ended.

Evanston tried to do so in 2021 when it became the only U.S. city to grant reparations to Black residents.

But rather than trying to cure centuries of wrongs, the city started a $20 million program that gives a $25,000 payment to Black people, or their descendants, who were discriminated against when Evanston practiced housing segregation. The money can be used as a down payment on a house or for home repairs.

Robin Rue Simmons, founder and executive director of the national reparations advocacy group First Repair, pushed for the ordinance when she was an Evanston City Council member.

“Informed through a community process, we prioritized housing, economic development, and educational initiatives,” she told Chicago Policy Review in 2023. “We then established a committee to do the work.”

Is this the solution for Chicago? Maybe. But Evanston is a much smaller and more affluent city, and the solution is targeted to a specific wrong committed by the city, all of which makes a difficult task a little easier. Even so, the conservative group Judicial Watch in late May sued the city over the reparations program, alleging that it is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

What the mayor can — and should — do

Johnson didn’t say what form reparations would take or how they would be funded. Any potential solutions would likely have to be policy-based, given the city’s budget constraints.

Johnson’s office issued a news release saying the task force will “create a definition and framework” for reparations, identify “core issues for redress and reparative actions,” and examine “all policies that have harmed Black Chicagoans from the slavery era to the present day.” The task force would then “make a series of recommendations [to fix] past injustices and present harm.”

All of this seems iffy, ponderous and time-consuming. If the mayor wants to make things better for Black Chicago, he doesn’t have to wait for a task force’s findings.

He can fix the CTA so people all across the city can get to work and school safely and on time. He can fight to make sure the public school system, with its $9.4 billion budget, is properly educating all students.

He can make crime in Black communities a priority by working closely with police and the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability on a coherent, workable plan to make those neighborhoods safer.

He can make sure parks on the West and South sides are safe, have good programs and are properly maintained, the same as parks on the North and Northwest Side.

Fixing these things won’t change the past. But they can make for a better future.

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