Since the spring, the St. Louis Reparations Commission has held seven monthly public meetings to hear how Black St. Louisans would like the City of St. Louis to repay them for decades of racial discrimination.
Over the course of the year, some residents have expressed that they would like reparations to come in the form of interest-free home loans, a free college education and more mental health resources in the community. Others want cash payouts.
Black St. Louisans are not alone in their reparations requests to repair race-based harms.
In Evanston, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago, officials in 2021 approved the nation’s first reparations program. The city began disbursing checks up to $25,000 to Black residents for home down payments or repair to help restore the damage to families who endured decades of housing discrimination.
It was the lack of access to living wages, the lack of affordability in the city for Black residents and the overpolicing in certain areas that led to the council’s push for reparations in Evanston, said Robin Rue Simmons, a former Evanston alderwoman who led the city’s reparations efforts.
“If you drive through our community, you will be able to identify just on infrastructure, housing stock, community development or lack thereof where the Black community is,” Rue Simmons said. “It is the community that has been disinvested, and this story is the same all across the United States.”
She said this is the first step toward repair and is using her blueprint to hopefully convince cities around the country that reparations for Black Americans are attainable.
Rue Simmons is keeping a close eye on St. Louis’ reparations push and believes St. Louis is on course with listening sessions and preparing a harm report. However, she said for Black St. Louisans to receive true reparations, city officials must stand on their principles of creating equity for residents, especially Black residents.
“The City of St. Louis’ budget is a moral document, it tells you the values of the city,” Rue Simmons said. “If the city cannot designate a reparations funding, find a new revenue source or identify one existing and commit it to reparations, then they have not given the type of tangible commitment, real actionable commitment that I would hope to see from municipalities.”
St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke with Rue Simmons about the reparations process and her thoughts on St. Louis’ efforts.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrea Henderson: How did you build the case for reparations for Black residents in Evanston, Illinois?
Robin Rue Simmons: Once I began my research, I quickly learned that in 2002, the City of Evanston passed a reparations resolution that supported HR 40, and I thought, ‘Here is the fight foundation of our work.’ We certainly should be looking in our own backyard and holding ourselves accountable. I used that as a basis of how we can show our own commitment to repair as a locality, starting with a deep dive reporting on anti-Blackness in Evanston. When we established the reparations committee, my only request for staffing at the time was our Corporation Counsel so that our legal team would be assigned to the reparations work, understanding that we would have legal challenges, but also understanding that we need to have a viable legal framework that this wasn’t only aspirational, but that we could actually implement and disburse reparations.
I knew that reparations were in line with the values that we were expressing as a city at that time with racial equity being one of our core values. So using reparations, not so much as a political agenda, but as a legislative possibility for us to be true to who we say we value. And that is done through policy and budgets and on the municipal level. So, the case that I presented … was in line with everything that we said, we valued, and we passed it with overwhelming support in 2019.
Henderson: How did you all get people to come out to the reparations meetings and talk about the core issues and repayment? Because in St. Louis, only small crowds of people show up to the meetings.
Rue Simmons: It is the same in every city. I wish I could report back and say, ‘In Evanston, everybody Black was there,’ it’s just not the case. First of all, Black folks don’t really trust anything that the government is doing. Many Black people just dismiss it as lip service, it’s not going to happen. We had a respectable turnout for our process, but relative to the subject matter, the opportunity and the harm, we should have had standing room only. We didn’t have that, and I haven’t been to a city yet that has had that.
It wasn’t until we started giving out checks and benefits that we were hearing from residents like, ‘Wow, I really wish I would have applied, I wish I would have participated.’ Now we have proven that reparations are attainable, possible, and that we’re committed to accomplishing it. I believe that going forward, other cities and our own will start to see an increase in participation because what they thought would never happen, is happening.
Henderson: One of the main questions residents always bring up is, ‘Where is the city going to get this money to make this huge payment out to Black St. Louisans?’ So, how did you all come up with the $10 million payout?
Rue Simmons: We came up with the $10 million as a seed. And so that’s not any type of scientific calculation on what it will take to repair, it was a seed to begin this complicated work. I don’t believe that reparations is a transaction, and there is so much more than a dollar of any amount that can repair the Black community.
So, part of the process when we were asking ‘What did we want as a Black community for repair, how might we fund it and who was eligible’? We were informed fully in our process by the Black community. There were recommendations of a reparations tax. There were other recommendations like opt in a reparations payment on your water bill, there was a public event tax on Northwestern University … there were a host of ideas. My colleague Ann Rainey … said to use the cannabis tax. At that time, the state hadn’t approved recreational cannabis, we only had medicinal. Immediately, it just made so much sense, so I quickly asked our police chief for a report on our policing as it relates to marijuana. That’s when I got that report back saying 71% of the arrests were in the Black community, but we were 15% of the population. There was no better use for this revenue than reparations.
Henderson: At our reparations meetings, people often ask ‘How will Black St. Louisans qualify for repayment?’ So, how did you all come up with the calculation of $25,000 for each qualified Evanston resident?
Rue Simmons: Absolutely, so eligibility is a big challenge everywhere, and starting with the harm report as the first step in the reparations process is important, because it informs everything else. So, the harm in St. Louis, let’s say like in Evanston, is in housing. You can look at housing-related ways to repair if it’s in education, if it is in policing, environmental injustices, whatever it might be, it can help you prescribe what repair looks like. The same thing is true for eligibility. In Evanston, we had an anti-Black zoning law that was enforced from 1919 until 1969. Therefore, everyone Black in Evanston during that 50-year time period, plus their descendants, could qualify. That’s how we determine eligibility. If you were Black, and in Evanston, all you had to do was show your race and place in Evanston and you qualify for reparations.
Henderson: Since many cities are setting up reparations commissions and preparing race-based harm reports, what are your thoughts on the likelihood of other cities disbursing reparations in the next year or two to help repair the harm done to its Black residents?
Rue Simmons: The only place I know disbursing is Evanston right now. I’m hearing cannabis sales tax come up in most cities that are looking to do local reparations. Some will be very difficult, but we have learned that home rule taxes are the most viable way to fund reparations. Home rule taxes don’t pass through the federal government. They’re within the purview of the municipality, especially if it’s a home rule city. So that is a recommendation that I do share with all municipalities, that they look at their home rule taxes first, and there’s a long list.
Henderson: St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones created a volunteer reparations fund in spring 2022, where the residents can contribute to this fund by adding money to their property tax bills or their quarterly water bill. Residents were able to start contributing to the fund in November 2022. As of October 31, 2023, it has only collected $1,288.31. What are your thoughts on voluntary reparations funds, and is this a good strategy?
Rue Simmons: I can agree with that as an option to supplement a budget line-item commitment. The City of St. Louis budget is a moral document, it tells you the values of the city. If the city cannot designate a reparations funding or find a new revenue source or identify one existing and commit it to reparations, then they have not given the type of tangible commitment, real actionable commitment that I would hope to see from municipalities.
Henderson: What advice would you give to Black St. Louisans who hope to see reparations in their lifetimes? And what would you tell those Black residents who are leery about reparations?
Rue Simmons: Well, I would say that in the case of St. Louis, they can look to all these other cities now that have passed. They can look to Evanston, that’s giving out checks. There’s been reporting on the recipients, so they can see that it is attainable, it is possible and they should use that as accountability to their own elected officials and not opt out because they don’t believe it can happen. They can point to Evanston and say it’s happening there. They can point to Asheville, North Carolina; Amherst, Massachusetts; Detroit, Michigan; San Francisco, California; they can point to these other examples now. But it’s also fair to understand that Black residents just don’t trust a government process. If we don’t do it, it will not get done, no one is coming to save us. It’s going to take Black community members, Black legislators, our allies, and institutions committed to this as well, for us to get repair and we have to keep hope.
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