The former chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus is working with vanquished mayoral challenger Willie Wilson on a Chicago reparations ordinance that will require cash-strapped city agencies to establish an array of programs to make amends for the evils of slavery.
Wilson said Wednesday he decided to work with Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) after Mayor Lori Lightfoot refused to return Wilson’s phone calls.
On Feb. 26, Wilson won 13 of 18 black wards on the strength of his charitable giving. On April 2, Lightfoot won all of those wards — and all 50 citywide — after Wilson’s endorsement.
Wilson’s backing also sent a signal to his older, church-based constituency that “contracts and jobs and schools” were more important than their concerns about Lightfoot being a lesbian.
But ever since Lightfoot took office on May 20, Wilson said, his phone calls have gone unreturned. Instead, Lightfoot sent him a text message saying she’s “too busy running the city to call me back.”
“I called her three or four times. She responds to me with a text, but she won’t take my calls. I have no relationship with the mayor at all. … I’m disappointed. I probably do feel used to be honest with you. I ain’t gonna lie about nothing,” Wilson said.
“I would never take it personal. But I know Chicago’s got a lot of issues and I want to be involved to help fix it. She can use me. That’s fine. I’ll just go and work with the aldermen, state legislators and just continue to work with the community.”
The mayor’s office had no immediate comment.
After getting nowhere with Lightfoot, Wilson went to Sawyer, who picked up the ball and ran with it.
Their draft reparations ordinance will be introduced in September, when the City Council reconvenes after the traditional summer recess.
It calls for commitments from agencies of local government under the mayor’s control. They include:
• Free education, job training and apprenticeship programs at the City Colleges of Chicago “leading directly to job opportunities for the impacted population” along with a “curriculum that seeks to undo the lingering effects and trauma of the Transatlantic slave trade.”
• Free public transportation on the CTA.
• Development of an early childhood education plan at Chicago Public Schools for African American students living in poverty along with “tutors and specialized attention for impacted students.”
• Free water filters to deal with high lead levels.
• Examining the feasibility of creating a “prescription drug benefit for senior citizens…forced to choose between paying their rent and buying medicine.”
• A full range of housing services and assistance programs.
• Updated city’s minority set-aside requirements “with the express goal of increasing the number of African American vendors and contracts for services to an equitable level reflecting their population in the city (31%).”
“When we talk about the trials and tribulations of black people in America, a lot of it still has ramifications from slavery and they need to be righted. That’s really all it is. It’s just starting that conversation and seeing if we can push the envelope a little further,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer said he’s well aware that the mere mention of reparations will trigger a heated debate. He’s equally cognizant of the fact that, with a shortfall Lightfoot claims is “north of $700 million,” the city is hardly in a position to create an array of new programs.
“That’s a legitimate question. But we’re never gonna get there if we’re hesitant about talking about it just because of the financial constraints. This is something we cannot avoid any longer. We have to talk about it and be up-front about it,” the alderman said.
“The first part is acknowledging that black people are entitled to reparations. That’s gonna be probably the biggest conversation. How do we do it is gonna be the next conversation. … I prefer it to be done federally. But if we don’t start the conversation, who will?”
Wilson argued that, without reparations, African Americans will continue to leave Chicago in droves.
“If things keep going the way they’re going right now — with all of this violence and people losing their homes — after a while, you’re not gonna even have any blacks in Chicago,” he said.
“I don’t need reparations. … But what about the people out here who don’t even make $10,000 or $15,000-a-year? What about the people in the street who don’t have homes or shelter or things of that nature? We have to do something.”