Beyond the sprawling Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill., stands a vibrant African American community.
The residents don't live in those luxurious homes near the lakefront. Most of them are working-class people, who reside in apartments and neat little bungalows on four census tracts on the city's West Side.
Like any city with a long-standing racial divide, the inequities relegated most African Americans to a lower class. They contributed to the growth and economics of the city, but rarely were they recognized for their work or compensated fairly.
So, when Evanston decided two years ago to make amends by becoming the first city in the nation to award reparations, America noticed. The city created a $10 million Local Reparations Fund, subsidized by marijuana sales tax revenues and donations, and set out to show other cities how to do what the U.S. government would not.
For the first time, there was an attempt to compensate African Americans for the horrors of slavery and centuries of adversity that followed. Evanston was expected to provide a blueprint for effectively implementing reparations on a much smaller local scale.
But the first phase of its reparations plan unveiled Monday night was disappointing, bordering on insulting. African Americans won't get a dime in their pockets.
The city plans to designate $400,000 from the fund to a housing program that would award eligible residents up to $25,000. They could use the money as a down payment on a new home or to make repairs to their current one.
That means 16 people who can prove that they are direct descendants of people who lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969, and experienced housing discrimination are eligible for the $25,000 grants.
It will have little, if any, impact on the lives of the other approximately 12,000 Black Evanston residents. It probably won't even make a dent in addressing the economic disparities resulting from decades of neglect.
It is mostly a symbolic gesture with little of the substance the reparations movement hoped for.
Supporters of the resolution insist the grants are the best way to address the city's discriminatory housing practices and create generational wealth. But Alderman Cicely Fleming calls it "a housing plan dressed up as reparations."
Fleming, who grew up in Evanston's African American community, was the only member of the City Council to vote against the measure. She says residents deserve better. Many African Americans might agree.
Under Evanston's definition, any number of programs already in existence in Chicago and other cities could be repackaged as reparations. Simply doing what a city should do to help disadvantaged residents cannot be termed reparations.
Some cities and nonprofit organizations have been providing grants or low-interest loans to help minorities purchase their first home for decades. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Chicago designated $2 million from the city's Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund to provide $1,000 grants to 2,000 Chicago residents to use toward their mortgages or rent.
Chicago could have designated the money specifically to African American neighborhoods that were hardest hit and called it reparations.
Extending a helping hand to disadvantaged residents is what cities are supposed to do. Reparations are intended to be the repayment of a long-term debt to African Americans — not be a substitute for commonsense community-targeted policies.
The debate over reparations has been raging in the United States since slavery was abolished. Two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule, but it was quickly rescinded.
Black people have been talking about reparations in some form or another since, and every now and then, the idea makes its way to the halls of government. But until Evanston took it up, it never amounted to anything more than an idea.
Deciding what reparations should look like has been one of the biggest issues. Most people support cash payouts, the way the U.S. government paid $20,000 to each surviving Japanese American interred during World War II and awarded $1.3 billion to Native American tribes for seizing their land.
Germany was the first to offer cash reparations to Holocaust survivors, paying out more than $60 billion since 1952. Last year, Germany announced it would provide $662 million in COVID-19 relief aid to about 240,000 of the poorest Holocaust survivors around the world.
Reparations are the most impactful way to acknowledge the government's failure and help those who were harmed move forward. But the idea of compensating African Americans for the atrocities of slavery has been particularly unpopular.
Congress has yet to pass a resolution apologizing to African Americans for slavery. So, Blacks aren't holding their breath waiting for reparations.
But in Evanston, there was hope.
While Fleming supports the idea of reparations, she disapproves of the government dictating to African Americans how the money must be spent. There is an adage that Blacks are incapable of managing large sums of money, and if you give it to them, they will squander it.
It is ironic that banks and other mortgage lenders would be benefactors of a program intended to amend the sins of the past. Historically, banks have helped to suppress Black wealth. Much of the housing disparity is due to redlining and discriminatory practices in which banks refused to lend money to African Americans to buy homes or open businesses.
The problem with Evanston's reparations plan isn't just that it doesn't give money directly to African Americans. It is that the City Council didn't dream big enough.
They took the easy way out. They stuck with what's familiar and convenient.
Generational wealth can't be created through homeownership alone. Financial investments, small businesses and money in the bank play a role too.
Evanston must figure out how to use the remaining $9.6 million in the fund more resourcefully. It's not too late to correct the misstep and devise an innovative plan.
African Americans need this experiment to work. If it fails, every government entity that considers reparations in the future will have a good excuse to do nothing.
Evanston can't allow the effort once hailed as a milestone to become a millstone.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.