Should Chicago Pay Reparations?

August 21, 2023

Our debt over slavery has been paid

It has been nearly four years since Roderick Sawyer, the then-alderman of Chicago’s Sixth Ward, introduced a motion to explore the establishment of a committee to study methods to compensate descendants of enslaved black Americans living in Chicago. Since then, other than the creation of the Subcommittee on Reparations under the Health and Human Relations Committee, the issue of reparations has not advanced far in the City Council.  

Though little movement has occurred on financial reparations, external developments have helped influence the renewed drive for an ordinance to redress the injustice of slavery in Chicago. In the State of California, Governor Gavin Newsom established the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The panel’s conclusions include healthcare reform, sentencing reform, law enforcement reform, and housing and education reform. Newsom’s study group also estimated as much as $223,000 could be paid to each black descendent of slavery in the state if the California State Assembly were to approve the proposal. Under this measure, California taxpayers would be liable for a projected $569 billion to California’s contribution to slavery. The Golden State’s annual budget for 2022 was $307.9 billion in total state funds.

In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors has introduced a reparations initiative, proposing a fixed $5 million payment to each black resident. Lawmakers in Boston, too, have jumped on the reparations bandwagon with the creation of the Task Force on Reparations to study the lasting impact of slavery and how the Big Crabapple can redeem itself for slavery. To the south of Boston, New York’s City Council is mulling a reparations bill, which would require an advisory commission to study the possibility of reparations and submit recommendations in one year. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors is considering as much as a $5 million payment to all eligible African Americans in the city.

Closer to home, the City of Evanston passed the nation’s first reparations law, which provided cash payments in the amount of $25,000 to African Americans who have resided in the city prior to 1969. Though a reliably progressive city, Evanston’s reparations law was filled with restrictions to address segregationist housing policy, and only 16 eligible blacks received payments in 2022. Thus far, Evanston has set aside some $10 million for black people who qualify.

With states and municipalities across the country currently weighing measures to redress the injustice of slavery, it is only a matter of time before progressives make a pitch to resurrect a reparations plan in Chicago. Brandon Johnson’s election as mayor in April has rejuvenated the stalled movement. While inaugural functions seldom live beyond the day they are delivered, the aggrieved address delivered by the American Indian Center of Chicago’s Melodi Serna serves as a window into Mayor Johnson’s political conscience and an indicator reparations represent an important component of his political agenda.

Though no reparations bill is currently being weighed, one is certain to be considered so Chicago should be prepared for the mayor and the progressive bloc in the City Council to offer a sweeping bill modeled on California’s reparation’s template. This means, of course, a footloose and fancy-free ordinance with little concern to whom it would apply and even less concern over the cost. To sell the bill to the public, Chicago can anticipate both Mayor Johnson and progressive aldermen to rely more on moral posturing and emotive arguments — racial reconciliation and healing — to ensure the passage of a reparations bill. Chicago should also brace for progressive lawmakers to declare the reparations ordinance not merely a law to redress slavery but rather to recompense for a variety of offenses against black Chicagoans and declare reparations as “bold,” “transformative,” and “historic.”

Although reparations has been a hot button issue for a number of years, there are several problems with the City Council advancing any proposal to set right the sin of slavery. The fundamental problem with any reparations bill is Chicago simply cannot afford it. A city steeped in pension debt, Chicago cannot come close to paying for reparations, and even if Chicago could pay, it should not. While an uncontested truth black Americans suffered during and after slavery, no pain or injustice can be reversed simply through direct payments to the descendants of slavery. Furthermore, no injustice can be rectified by saddling the living today for the transgressions of their ancestors, particularly when the funds to pay for reparations would come from individuals with no connection to slavery. It is also important to note no legal doctrine permits children be liable for the crimes committed by parents or forefathers. Equally important, the taxes necessary to pay the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to pay reparations would be devastating for Chicago’s economy.

Second, a reparations bill is short sighted and could result in complicated problems. Though blacks have been at the very center of the debate over reparations, numerous groups have arisen to claim victimhood. A reparations ordinance to satisfy calls for reparations for blacks would likely unleash limitless claims from aggrieved groups demanding compensation for historical wrongs. Native Americans who inhabited the Great Plains suffered terribly at the hands of U.S. troops could credibly assert victimhood and demand financial restitution. Moreover, numerous immigrant groups and, for example, the LGBTQ community, could lodge grievances for past discriminatory laws which prohibited marriage.

Third, reparations have already been paid. Though slavery continued to be a burden for blacks in the decades after the end of the Civil War, it is deeply unfair to state Chicago’s black residents continue to suffer at the hands of its political, social, and economic laws. Today, blacks in Chicago control their own destiny and are free to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That this free atmosphere exists for Chicago’s black residents is due in part to local, state, and federal programs that have helped accelerate their advancement. Since the 1960s, trillions of tax dollars from every level of government have been transferred to welfare programs, in part for the sake of blacks to achieve self-actualization. Those welfare programs have varied widely: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, health care, emergency housing and rent assistance, small business contract set-asides, and affirmative action for employment and college admissions.

Last, Illinois, which includes Chicago, was never a slave state. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in lands which include what is now the State of Illinois. Thirty-one years later, Illinois was admitted into the Union as a “free state,” as part of a compromise in Congress which allowed Mississippi and Alabama admitted as slave states. Though Illinois disgracefully enacted and enforced “Black Code” laws — statutes which prohibited blacks from voting — were repealed in 1865.

Chicagoans should not be penalized for the sins of someone else’s fathers

Any debt over slavery has been paid. Regardless of the progressive claims of victimhood or continued oppression due to slavery, reparations would never heal, but rather create further divisions. Moreover, the payment of reparations would regrettably do nothing to purge a man’s heart and mind from any hatred toward his fellow residents or change racism where it persists in any corner of society.

Though many progressive legislators in Chicago have declared reparations for slavery would be the fulfillment of a moral obligation for a history of mistreatment of blacks, there is something deeply immoral about burdening successive generations for sins of the past. An eternal conflict, to pursue reparations is both unproductive and wicked, in the sense it seeks vengeance for an issue long settled. Moreover, the quest for reparations would never achieve the effect of its stated promise. Regardless of the sum of reparations distributed, its beneficiaries would still confront societal ills or social challenges of which no cash payment can erase.

If Mayor Johnson and the City Council are determined to create a society in which a proper order of equality and dignity for all persons exist, it should never begin with extracting wealth from individuals with no connection to slavery and should never be determined by race.

While there are still steps to be taken to do what is necessary to make amends for slavery or racism, there are some legislative initiatives the Chicago City Council should consider, which could drastically benefit Chicago’s black families. Reparations are not one of those policies. The crafting of legislation to allow black parents school choice, for instance, is one such policy. A second suggestion is the expansion of enterprise zones in low-income communities. Last, Chicago should take immediate action to provide protection to its law-abiding citizens in high crime neighborhoods, primarily through a strong police presence, a State’s Attorney’s office which prosecutes criminals, and a court system which hands down sentences proportional to the crime.

There is no doubt slavery was a hideous evil and a betrayal of the founding principles of the Union. This, however, this does not mean citizens of Chicago should be subject to the burden of a special tax for reparations, nor should Chicago be compelled to apologize for historical error. If the City Council feels obligated to address slavery and racial contrition head on, it should begin by articulating Chicago is, at root, a noble city populated by good-hearted people.

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