With a renewed sense of urgency, Chicago aldermen on Thursday held what once would have seemed like a politically-volatile debate about granting some form of reparations to descendants of African-American slaves.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of now-former Minneapolis police officers — and the anger, rioting and violence it continues to trigger — has turned a political hot potato into an open wound and a pressing need.
African Americans have borne the brunt of coronavirus cases and deaths, exacerbating a nine-year gap in life expectancy between black and white Chicagoans.
Long-neglected South and West Side neighborhoods were also ravaged by looters and arsonists after the downtown area was sealed off on Saturday night. That has deprived some inner-city neighborhoods of the groceries and pharmacies they tried so long and hard to attract.
“Downtown is gonna be fine next week. It’s gonna look like no one has ever been down there [to wreak havoc]. Our neighborhoods? I don’t know how soon we come out of this,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), the City Council’s reparations champion.
Against that backdrop, the Sawyer-chaired City Council Committee on Human Relations met Thursday to consider his resolution calling for the creation of a “Chicago Citizens of African Descent Reparations Commission.”
No vote was taken, but only because public notice of the meeting wasn’t posted in time. The committee will meet to vote at 3 p.m. Friday.
The 16-member commission would be charged with holding hearings and developing a plan to “ensure equity, equality and parity for citizens of African descent in Chicago who are mired in poverty.” It would remain in place for 20 years to monitor and ensure compliance.
Members would include: Mayor Lori Lightfoot or her designated representative; five members of the City Council; and 10 members from the public, with at least eight of those from the “eligible impacted community.”
An earlier version had the teeth of an ordinance and called for a series of commitments from cash-strapped city agencies, including free rides on the CTA, free tuition at City Colleges and a bigger share of city contracts. That was scrapped because, as Sawyer put it, “It was over the top.”
Thursday’s debate was part history lesson, part emotional catharsis.
The groundwork for the discussion was laid by Cecile Johnson, CEO of the Chicago-based African Development Plan, which provides research and data on issues affecting African Americans.
With charts and graphs, Johnson laid bare Chicago’s long and documented history of racial segregation and inequity — in housing, education, employment, health care and criminal justice.
She talked about the five “elements of genocide,” which include higher rates of infant mortality and suicide, exposure to environmental toxins, sub-standard access to food and health care and the fact that 50 percent of the children in foster care are black.
“Blacks in Chicago are experiencing all sides. Not just one element,” she said.
Johnson said Chicago needs “more than a conversation” about reparations. The city needs an “investment in the black community” because “a great harm has been done to us” by policies “put into place by our elected officials.”
“As we see from some of these things that have happened in recent days, there is such a despair. … The youth are crying out,” she said.
Ald. Matt Martin (47th) called Johnson’s testimony “incredibly sobering” after one of the most destructive and gut-wrenching weeks in Chicago history.
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said he doesn’t need the “data points” because “we’re living through it. … We’re watching exactly what continues to occur and has occurred for generations because of clear racist policy, racist culture.”
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said it’s “a shame that we’re talking about reparations related to what happened years ago when we were in slavery” when African Americans in Chicago are “still suffering the same consequences” today.
“Do we deserve reparations from back then? Or do we deserve reparations from back then and now because we continuously get discriminated against? It’s so frustrating for us to always have to try to fight for 30 percent we still don’t get. It’s an ongoing thing in our society,” Burnett said.
“I’m hoping that, with what’s going on right now with all of these protests, and the unfortunate death of my brother, that people will wake up, look at themselves in the mirror and say, `When that African American comes in to get a job, did I just turn him down just because he’s African American? Or did I just go to the white guy because I feel comfortable with him? Or do I look at all of these people as though they’re criminals?’”
Sawyer said he has no idea precisely what form reparations will take in Chicago, only that the debate about “finding ways to put black people on a level playing field” must begin.
“If we don’t start having the conversation, nothing’s going to happen. People will put a George Floyd sign up in the window and think that’s all they need to do. And they’ll go on about their lives thinking everything is OK,” Sawyer said.
“We didn’t get here overnight. I’m sure we’re not gonna get out of it overnight. But, if we don’t start talking about it, the pressure will keep building. Like a teapot, that pressure has to escape some kind of way.”