Evanston, Illinois is taking a bold step on the path toward rebuilding communities razed by one of the most destructive periods in our nation’s past. In a historic first, Evanston established a $10 million reparations fund for black residents, funded by recreational marijuana tax revenue.
Evanston City Councilwoman Robin Rue Simmons has led the effort to implement the policy. She’s witnessed how drug arrests have disproportionately impacted black communities for decades, and feels that programs promoting equity and diversity don’t go far enough in addressing problems with their roots so deeply embedded into today’s systems.
“The War on Drugs and mass incarceration have devastated the black community and although policy is being corrected, the impact will remain,” Simmons said. “It is appropriate that sales tax revenue from recreational marijuana be invested in the community in which it unfairly policed and damaged.”
In 2011, Evanston city council decriminalized marijuana, leading to a decrease in arrests for possession. But today, even though black residents are only 16% of Evanston’s population, they comprise 71% of marijuana arrests. Simmons says that number was even higher—around 25%—in the 1990s. Today’s financial gap between black and white families—which Simmons estimates is roughly $46,000 per year in Evanston—was forged during the slavery and post-Civil War Reconstruction eras and has persisted across the nation.
A study on intergenerational wealth from the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that white families that had lost wealth through slave assets after the abolition of slavery in 1870 had largely rebounded by 1880. Authors of the study argue the “most likely explanation for the rapid recovery of slaveholders’ sons is that slaveholding families were embedded in social networks that facilitated adjustments to wartime losses.”
Fast forward to Jim Crow-era policies, and the same wealth preservation persisted among white families:
“In sharecropping, the Southern economy was able to achieve through credit arrangements what they were not able to achieve through legal means,” University of California Irvine law professor Mehrsa Baradaran told CityLab. “The same is the case with Jim Crow credit—first, you can legally segregate, and then you let the market do it for you. By cordoning off credit risks in segregated ghettos, white suburbs were able to build wealth unimpeded by certain risks of poverty.”
This economic divide has been sustained for over a century, from land seizures to Jim Crow laws, segregation, racist housing policies, and drug arrests. Simmons wants the reparations fund to measure success through metrics such as black household income, black-owned business revenue, and improved infrastructure to historically black neighborhoods torn apart by redlining.
In 2014, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece “The Case for Reparations” renewed the conversation, tracing the legacy of oppression that has decimated opportunities for black families for more than a century. On Juneteenth this year, Coates testified before Congress in favor of a bill to create a reparations study committee. In his testimony, he refuted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s assertion that “America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago” :
“What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s ‘something’: It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.”