Universal basic income resolution touches off emotional debate on reparations

Ald. Jason Ervin, chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said there’s “no way in hell we can support” giving 5,000 needy families $500 a month when aldermen have just begun discussing reparations to Chicago descendants of slaves.

SHARE Universal basic income resolution touches off emotional debate on reparations
A woman walks past a painting of Malcolm X at a retail store in the Pilsen neighborhood on Friday, June 5, 2020.

A demand for reparations presented as street art in Pilsen last year.

Associated Press

A seemingly harmless resolution calling for the city to use $30 million of the $1.8 billion avalanche of federal relief funds headed to Chicago to launch a universal basic income pilot program turned into an emotional debate about reparations.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, argued Wednesday that it’s an insult to talk about giving 5,000 of Chicago’s neediest families $500 a month — no strings attached — when aldermen have just begun talking about paying reparations to Chicago residents whose ancestors were enslaved.

“Until we deal with the issue of reparations in the city of Chicago, there’s no way in hell we can support direct payments to anybody other than the American descendants of slaves in the city of Chicago,” Ervin told his colleagues at a City Council meeting.

“These conversations are a slap in the face to people that have suffered great atrocities over time in this country. … We have all these conversations about other communities. But when it comes down to dealing with Black folks — not only in the city of Chicago but in America — we’re always in the back seat.”

Just this week, the Evanston City Council passed a reparations plan — the first in the United States. Among other things, it would distribute $400,000 to Black residents with ties to the city’s Black community between 1919 and 1969. The suburb had voted in 2019 to create a reparations fund using cannabis sales taxes.

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, sided with Ervin.

“It’s not an either-or vote. But unless that conversation happens around descendants of slaves first and foremost, I don’t think this issue can move forward,” Scott said.

“I’m speaking for myself as an African American in the city of Chicago. It is important that that conversation [about reparations] be held first. It can be held together. But there needs to be a prioritization of reparations. … If it is not talked about as something that is going to focus on descendants of slaves first, that is a non-starter for me.”

License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) noted the council has been about “talk, but no action” on reparations since former Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd) pushed through an ordinance forcing city contractors to come clean about past ties to slavery.

It’s time to stop talking and start doing, Mitts said.

“Reparations need to be paid. It has not only affected our past generations and the present, but the future as well. There’s not enough to pay, but they need to start … and then, we can become whole and be able to work together,” Mitts said.

“Reparations should be front-and-center for Blacks here in the city of Chicago. Reparations is going to mean a lot. A lot for the lack of education, the disparity in health care. Things that we have been deprived of — not just now but since our parents and grandparents. And it reflects on today here in the United States of America.”

When the roll was finally called, the resolution urging further study on the universal basic income pilot passed 30 to 18.

Among the “no” voters were 10 Black aldermen. Joining Scott, Mitts and Ervin were Pat Dowell (3rd), Michelle Harris (8th); Anthony Beale (9th); Stephanie Coleman (16th); Howard Brookins (21st); Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Carrie Austin (34th).

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) also dissented, but because she believes a universal basic income program should be initiated at the federal level.

In fact, Smith said Congress already is doing “a form of” basic income by authorizing two rounds of federal relief checks.

“Our city is climbing back from the financial abyss. And I don’t think that we should repeat the errors that we made in the 2008 crisis. Which was to spend every dime that we could think of. And then, when the first recession hit, we had to sell the parking meters and use up all those assets,” Smith said.

“We’ve got to be very careful about a resolution that says, ‘Oh, gee whiz. We’re getting this money from the feds. Let’s go spend it on something.’ We have to be very careful about it.”

Lightfoot never mentioned reparations when asked after Wednesday’s council meeting whether she supports the idea of creating a universal basic income pilot in Chicago.

“I favor jobs. In the long-term, building a strong, robust and inclusive economy that deals people in from across the city is the best way that we can cure some of the economic woes that folks are facing,” she said.

Earlier this month, Chicago aldermen were urged to get moving toward granting some form of reparations to descendants of African American slaves, using as a model the redress paid to victims of the Jon Burge police torture era.

Evanston Ald. Robin Rue Simmons spoke at that hearing, urging her Chicago counterparts to follow Evanston’s lead.

“There is a lifetime of work ahead of you. You need to lead in the urgency of now,” she said.

Resolution on India fails

Ervin used a similar argument to oppose a resolution condemning violence against oppressed castes and religious minorities in India that has divided Chicago’s Indian American community.

The nonbinding resolution went down to a rare defeat, 26 to 18.

“We have more than enough work in the city of Chicago if we want to talk about oppression. If we want to talk about racism,” Ervin said. “I look out this window and I see young men and young women who don’t have jobs. I see young men and young women that can barely read and have lost a level of hope. They don’t appreciate their alderman focusing on what’s going on 8,000 miles away.”

Ald. Maria Hadden (49th), chief sponsor of the failed resolution, countered, “To those who think it is not the place of Chicago City Council to use our platform to speak out on issues outside of our city. ... I ask you to consider an example in 1984.”

That’s when then-Alderman-now-Congressman Danny Davis championed a resolution that passed condemning apartheid in South Africa.

Hadden said she has met with many of the opponents of “this nonbinding resolution” over the last few months. Their main argument was that raising these issues “causes conflict and disharmony.”

“The intent was never to cause disharmony. If you look at the language of the resolution itself, you will see that this is clear. And the support that I’ve heard has been unwavering and strong. The residents who are asking you to vote yes in support of this resolution are doing so because their voices and the voices of their families are being silenced,” she said.

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