Mayoral challengers call for swifter action on reparations

A City Council subcommittee that was formed almost three years ago to explore how to make amends to the descendants of enslaved people has only met twice. “It’s smoke and mirrors,” state Rep. Kam Buckner said at a candidate forum on the issue.

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State Rep. Kam Buckner answers how to move forward reparations during Thursday’s Reparations United mayoral candidate forum as Ja’Mal Green and Ald. Sophia King look on at Malcolm X College.

State Rep. Kam Buckner answers how to move forward reparations during Thursday’s Reparations United mayoral candidate forum as Ja’Mal Green and Ald. Sophia King look on at Malcolm X College.

Kevin Tanaka/Sun-Times Media

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Five mayoral candidates on Thursday derided City Hall’s slow movement on reparations, saying efforts by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and another challenger vying for her office amount to “smoke and mirrors” in the quest to make amends for the lasting impact of slavery on Black Chicagoans.

State Rep. Kam Buckner, community activist Ja’Mal Green, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, Ald. Sophia King (4th) and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas all slammed the City Council subcommittee on reparations.

The subcommittee hasn’t taken any substantial action since it was formed in June of 2020, to explore how such restitution could be made — and who should receive it.

“I think it’s extremely disappointing and disrespectful that this mayor, a Black woman, pushed back on members of the council Black caucus, like [fellow mayoral challenger and 6th Ward Ald.] Rod Sawyer, who wanted a full commission,” Buckner said. “Instead, we got a subcommittee which has only met twice … it’s smoke and mirrors.”

Johnson said it was “not the first thing that this mayor has reneged on, and you know, the worst thing that you could ever be in the Black community is a flake.”

The largely inactive subcommittee was championed by Sawyer, who initially pushed for a larger commission to come up with a plan to “ensure equity, equality and parity for citizens of African descent in Chicago who are mired in poverty.”

Sawyer, who wasn’t at the forum at Malcolm X College due to a scheduling issue, later defended his effort in an email.

“I didn’t see any of the other candidates, with the exception of Willie Wilson, step up to help me in the two years I fought the mayor on this issue,” Sawyer wrote. “I will continue to fight for the pillars of reparations: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.”

The millionaire entrepreneur Wilson, who wasn’t at the forum, has pushed for an ordinance including free CTA rides, City Colleges tuition and a bigger share of city contracts for African American descendants of slavery.

Lightfoot wasn’t at the forum, which was rescheduled this week. In an email, a campaign spokesperson touted the incumbent’s “game-changing investments in historically-neglected communities.”

“She’s addressing generational poverty through numerous cash assistance programs including one of the largest guaranteed income programs in the country,” according to Lightfoot’s campaign.

All the mayoral hopefuls who appeared at Thursday’s forum hosted by Reparations United — a group that advocates for compensating the descendants of enslaved African Americans — each said they’d back a stronger commission with budget oversight to explore the issue.

The candidates weren’t asked whether they support reparations through direct payments to descendants of enslaved people, but four indicated they do.

Green said he’d push for “a robust package for reparations.” King said she supported such an “economic response to repair the wrongs of the past.” Buckner said it was appropriate “reconciliation for years and years and generations of putting our people in disadvantageous positions.” And Johnson vouched for a “plan that guarantees economic security for Black families in America.”

Vallas couched his definition of reparations, calling it “an opportunity for government to reprioritize budgets so that they create real ownership of wealth accumulation in communities that have been manipulated and exploited.”

The ninth candidate in the mayoral race, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, wasn’t at the forum, either.

In 2021, Evanston became the first American city to pay reparations, in the form of $25,000 grants tied to housing expenses.

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