"We have to be out there loudly, clearly, unapologetically demanding an end to Jim Crow and establishing real reparations to receive justice." -- Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-IL More than 100 members of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue and members of the larger Evanston community gathered virtually last night to hear a panel discussion about local and national reparations efforts. The panel, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee D-TX, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, D-IL (and a BE member), former Evanston 5th ward City Council member Robin Rue Simons, and Second Baptist Evanston's Senior Pastor Michael Nabors--took place as applications for the first reparations initiative are underway in Evanston, with more than 100 Black Evanston residents applying so far for housing assistance in the past month with a November 5 deadline. Across the country, other municipalities such as Asheville, Durham, and Highpoint, NC, San Francisco, CA, Kalamazoo, MI, Amherst, MA, and others are passing local reparations resolutions. The discussion was part of Beth Emet's commitment to supporting reparations locally and nationally as a Jewish institution based in Evanston. During the High Holidays last month, both Beth Emet's Senior Rabbi Andrea London and Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler spoke to the congregation about the moral, religious, and historical responsibility of Jewish people to support reparations for Black Americans.
“The focus of the Jewish high holidays is on ‘teshuva,’ making amends,” London said. “We spend a whole month each year on that, and this year we focused on reparations. I’m excited by the moment, and what we can do locally and on the federal level.” Congresswoman Jackson Lee, who is the sponsor of HR40, the bill calling for a commission to study reparations and Congresswoman Schakowsky, who was an initial co-sponsor of the bill, spoke from the national perspective. Rue Simmons, who brought the reparations movement to Evanston and recently founded FirstRepair, a new nonprofit that informs local reparations--nationally, spoke about municipal reparations. Pastor Nabors, who is President, Evanston/North Shore Branch NAACP and a founding member of the Reparations Stakeholders Authority of Evanston, provided historical perspective. Rabbi London moderated the discussion. Pastor Nabors began by quoting Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Case for Reparations, who has said that simply stopping to hurt a person after you've injured them does not mean that you've repaired the harm you've committed. Repair, Coates says, would mean bandaging the injured person, taking them to hospital, and making sure they heal. The same thought process must apply to this country's history of racial terror and discrimination. "The promise of civil rights, including reparations, goes back to revolutionary war when slaves were promised freedom if they fought," Nabors said. "But most of those slave owners didn’t free their slaves." And in 1803, "Black Laws," were established in Ohio to discourage Black people from moving to the state from the South. These laws required Black people to prove that they were not slaves and to find at least two people who would guarantee a surety of five hundred dollars for the African Americans' good behavior. The laws also limited African Americans' rights to marry whites and to gun-ownership, as well as to several other freedoms that whites held. "It's Important to know how long ago these discriminatory patterns existed," said Nabors. "Black people's sense of freedom and opportunities have been restricted since the start of this nation." Nabors also clarified a question that's often asked: what are reparations and how do they differ from social welfare programs? Social welfare programs, Nabors explained, are not designed to look at damage done, but at where people are right now. "Reparations," he said, "address how people got to where they are." Nabors said that reparations are urgent--and that they've been urgent for the past 245 years and that the historical context for reparations is important to lay the groundwork for today. "The compilation of historical discrimination and damage continues over and over and gets larger and larger. The whole idea of generational wealth did not exist for Black people" he said. "As a result, we haven't been able to pass wealth from one generation to another." Rep. Jan Schakowsky addressed current-day institutional racism and the urgency of reparations. "The pandemic awakened me to the legacy and proximity of slavery to what is happening right now in ways I didn’t expect," she said. "The degree to which the African American community has suffered more than other communities. We saw police violence, not only George Floyd, but Jacob Blake, and other shootings. The peril of being thrown out of your home. Healthcare — the likelihood of Black people dying more than white from pandemic." She pointed to the fact that Black women die at seven times the rate of white women during childbirth in Illinois, and that Chicago has the largest life expectancy gap in county between Black people and white people: in Streeterville, a well-off Chicago neighborhood, the average life span is 90 years. In Englewood, an almost exclusively Black area, it's 60 years. A 30 year difference. And, then, she said, there are efforts nationwide to limit voting rights, “to reinstitute Jim Crow laws, literally,” she said. "We have to be fighting it all the time because In some ways, things are getting worse." While attention to reparations has increased in recent years, Schakowsky emphasized that it's far from a new movement. More than 30 years ago, the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. began offering the bill in 1989 and did so until his resignation in 2017. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, took over sponsorship of Conyers' bill. "It's been simmering," Schakowsky said. "Now it's ready to bring to a boil in Congress and we’ve been helped along by the Black Lives Matter movement, men and women standing up and challenging the status quo. Not just Black people, all people, and organizations like this synagogue." Schakowsky said that as a lifelong organizer, she knows that it's the mobilization of ordinary people who will make change happen. "We have to be out there loudly, clearly, unapologetically demanding an end to Jim Crow and establishing real reparations to receive justice." Robin Rue Simmons brought the conversation to the local level, pointing out that Evanston was an early adopter of reparations as far back as 2002 when then-Alderman Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste brought the idea to the City after a trip to Durban, South Africa. The City Council passed Jean-Baptiste's resolution. "That’s when we committed to reparations," Rue Simmons said. She pointed to the $46,000 wealth gap between white and Black Evanston residents, the 13-year life-expectancy gap in the city, and the achievement gap in Evanston schools as some of the reasons driving local reparations. Evanston's City Council passed the Reparations Resolution in November 2019, setting aside 3% of taxes from newly legalized adult recreational cannabis sales to fund reparations with a cap of $10 million. Rue Simmons, who now runs a nonprofit, FirstRepair, that informs local reparations--nationally, said she had an epiphane, when, as a young girl she saw the difference in the quality of her life from the white people at school. "I knew that the differences weren't just slavery, but vestiges of slavery," she said, "There are number of egregious acts we need to begin redress." A report by local historian Dino Robinson, founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center and Northwestern University Professor Jenny Thompson of the Evanston History Center showed that Evanston had anti-Black policies--particularly when it came to housing discrimination--on the books from 1919 till 1969 when Fair Housing laws were passed. With that report, the Reparations Committee framed the guidelines for a restorative housing initiative for Black residents. "I’m a local leader," Rue Simmons says she thought. "We’ll start there." Through discussions with the Black community, Rue Simmons said, the City's Equity Commission determined that Black people most valued a restorative housing program. Applications for that program, the first $400,000 of the $10 million, opened last month and may be submitted till November 5. To date the committee has received more than 100 applications and plans to disperse funds before the end of the year. On the local level, Rue Simmons explained, Evanston can't offer reparations that speak to the responsibility of Congress. "But we have housing injury, and we are now giving $25,000 redress for home purchasing, repairing, or paying down mortgage debt." In addition to the City's reparations fund, a separate fund seeded by the Evanston Community Foundation and administered by the Reparations Stakeholder Authority of Evanston, with input from Black residents, will allow broader redress to the Black community in areas such as health disparities, education gaps, and other areas not named in the City's policy. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said that HR40, the bill which would create a commission to study reparations, has gone further than it ever has since John Conyers introduced it 30 years ago, with 200 house members committed to voting in favor. She called on Beth Emet, other synagogues, and all religious organizations to demand that the legislation come to the floor. “This is all about humanity,” she said. “It should not be a third rail in this country. Reparations is an international concept of repair and restoration and we’re the only ones that are behind.” She echoed Schakowsky’s observation that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the disparities between white and Black Americans that have existed since slavery, which she said is “a crisis and original sin in the United States,” and that slave labor--with no workers comp, no healthcare, no pay, benefits--made cotton king. “The real horror, the real pain,” she said, “has never been addressed,” and the trauma of slavery has come through generations so that most Black Americans fall to the bottom regardless of how many successful African Americans there are to whom one can point. She too pointed out that the Covid-19 pandemic placed in stark relief the lack of healthcare for Black people and the coinciding pandemic of Black people who have died victims of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. HR40 would study the various ways repairs can be made, including an apology and developing proposals. She said it’s not only about remuneration, a check, but the many ways this country can “come to a more perfect union.” Holding up “Carry On,” the last book the Rep. John Lewis wrote before he died last year, Jackson Lee commended Evanston's local efforts and support for HR40 and challenged Beth Emet all organizations to push the bill forward. “If the heartland is with us, we’ll get HR40 passed,” she said. Following the presentation, panelists addressed questions from participants. One question was how local and federal reparations work together. Robin Rue Simmons explained that the initiatives are separate--that any federal reparations should not in any way jeopardize the benefits Black Evanstonians should get from the federal government. “We need to support HR40 while doing what’s our responsibility locally,” she said. “There’s no conflict.” Rep. Schakowsky went further, saying that local efforts create the momentum needed to push HR40 to passage. “The more activity there is at any level of government will help move this along. We should be encouraging municipalities to move forward,” she said. Rep. Jackson Lee said that HR40 is the umbrella; that is doesn’t prevent other actions by nonprofits and other institutions to address the deficiencies and inequities that Black Americans face. “This legislation can lift all boats, bring about social reconditioning and transformation,” she said. Rabbi London addressed the controversy that has swirled around Evanston’s reparations plan, with some Evanston leaders and residents calling the first initiative a housing program--but not reparations. “How do you respond to that?” she asked. “If you ask 50 people, you’ll get 50 answers,” Pastor Nabors said. “People have a right to believe what is reparations and what isn’t.” But, he said, the housing initiative is just the first and only four percent of the $10 million. “Housing is probably the largest issue because it’s the particular area where generational wealth can be created.” And he said, the community will be able to determine how to allocate the remaining $9,600,000. “We do ourselves a disservice around reparations by defining them with limitations. The idea is to repair and restore,” Rep. Jackson Lee said. 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