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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Chicago mayor announces reparations ‘task force’

The task force will be charged with creating a “definition and framework for reparations” for Black Chicagoans affected by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws.

CHICAGO (CN) — Windy City Mayor Brandon Johnson signed a municipal executive order on Monday to establish a “Reparations Task Force to develop a Black Reparations Agenda.”

Johnson’s office said the task force will study the ways Black Chicagoans continue to be impacted by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Working with Chicago's Aldermanic Black Caucus and other city departments, the task force will also propose ways for Chicago to address those harms.

A key task for the task force, Johnson’s office said, is “identify[ing] core issue areas for redress and reparative action.” These include “housing, economic development, health, education, community safety, mass incarceration and over-policing, and more.”

The task force will also be charged with “conduct[ing] a comprehensive study and examination of all policies that have harmed Black Chicagoans from slavery era to present day,” and “making a series of recommendations that will serve as appropriate remedies and restitution for past injustices and present harm consistent with international standards.” 

Johnson announced the creation of the new task force at a Juneteenth celebration near city hall, alongside Black Caucus Chair Alderwoman Stephanie Coleman.

“As an Alderwoman, I have remained steadfast in our city making progress wherever possible on reparations, and I am proud that we are taking concrete action rather than just engaging in discourse,” Coleman said in a prepared statement.

The mayor, in a speech to Juneteenth celebration attendees Monday, discussed systemic racism that continues to impact Black Chicagoans. He cited highways which cut through Black neighborhoods, the legacy of industrial pollution on Chicago’s south side and the chronic divestment that many Black communities continue to face. A former labor and Black community organizer, he remarked how his own majority-Black neighborhood of Austin suffered from that divestment.

“Like many cities across this country, Chicago still bears the scars of systemic racism and injustices that have been inflicted on our communities,” Johnson told attendees.

Johnson also attacked prior mayoral administrations for, he said, deliberately engineering these injustices. He alluded to how former mayor Richard M. Daley oversaw the demolition of public housing projects in the 1990s and 2000s, and to how former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school board approved the closure of 50 public schools in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods in 2013.

To this day it remains the largest mass closure of public schools in U.S. history.

“Even as I stand here today as mayor, the legacy of slavery and the aftermath still echoes today. We saw it when previous administrations sold off public assets,” Johnson said. “We saw the harm when previous administrations closed Black schools and they shut down public housing.”

Johnson’s 2024 city budget earmarked $500,000 to create a “restoration committee,” but until Monday his office had not released concrete plans for what that meant. According to the Chicago Reparations Commission, a community organization that advocates reparations for Black Chicagoans, the executive order is only the latest in a decadeslong effort to push the city into creating a workable reparations plan. The commission has documented other actions going back to 2002, including city council bills, lawsuits and the 2015 creation of the nation’s first reparations package for victims of police torture.

The city council also approved the creation of a reparations subcommittee amid the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, but little came of it. David Stovall, a professor of Black Studies and Criminology at University of Illinois – Chicago, said that was typical of local politics.

“The city and the state of Illinois are famous for task forces that go nowhere,” Stovall said.

Stovall also expressed skepticism at the wide range of responsibilities handed to the new task force. He said it would serve the city better if the reparations task force focused on assessing how much the city owed its Black communities.

“If you need a task force ... the purpose of that task force right now should be figuring out how much is owed,” Stovall said.

The UIC professor further compared possible reparations strategies Chicago could take compared to its northern suburb of Evanston.

The town’s Restorative Housing Program, which the Evanston city council approved in March 2021, is the nation’s first municipal reparations initiative. It intends to compensate Black residents for housing discrimination they or their ancestors may have experienced while living in Evanston between 1919 and 1969. The program assists eligible applicants with buying or improving their own homes, and in some cases qualifies households for direct payments of up to $25,000.

Stovall said such a narrowly tailored program could work for a small city of about 78,000, such as Evanston. But trying to repeat the program in Chicago — a city of almost 3 million, a third of whom are Black — could lead to applicants getting caught up in red tape as the city tried to verify their historical claims. He instead advocated for Chicago to consider reparations on the community level.

“You need to think a lot more imaginatively about ... what communities have been marginalized, and putting them in the center of the analysis,” Stovall said.

Evanston’s reparations campaign is not without its own challenges. Last month six non-Black non-residents filed a federal class action against Evanston over the Restorative Housing Program, arguing it was unconstitutional. Represented by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, the plaintiffs claimed that, since their parents were Evanston residents between 1919 and 1969, should also be eligible for a $25,000 payment.

Stovall said he was expecting similar pushback over Johnson’s executive order from conservative voices in Chicago’s city government. White groups in the city such as Eastern European immigrants have also faced historical hardships, he said, but argued they don’t live with the daily realities of systemic racism in the ways most Black Americans do.

“I’m preparing for them to say, ‘What about everybody else?’” Stovall said. “I think the response to that is, you still have an existing and continuing exclusion [of Black communities].”

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Regional

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