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How Evanston's reparations program could offer a roadmap for U.S.

Evanston’s 5th Ward Alderman and Reparations Sub Committee Chair Robin Rue Simmons joins Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers to discuss how the city is working to resolve racial inequality through a reparations program.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to talk about reparations because it's something we've discussed quite a bit on this show. And some folks might remember when I calculated just how much reparations would cost. That figure, for anyone who doesn't remember, totaling over $17 trillion.

But H.R. 40, that bill to study reparations, has been essentially dead in the water in Congress, and now some municipalities are taking matters into their own hands. Evanston, Illinois, became the first in the country to pass a local reparations bill, adding some $10 million to their 2020 budget.

So for this, we're joined now by Robin Rue Simmons. She's Evanston Fifth Ward board alderman and Evanston's Reparations Subcommittee chair. Robin, thank you so much for joining us today.

When we talk about reparations, I always like to start from a place of why it's needed. And I want to call out this graph for everyone at home about Black mortgage applications in the Evanston area just from 2018 in these disclosures from the US Census Bureau. I mean, 33% of Black applicants had been turned down. That's compared to only 15% of white applicants that had been turned down.

So as someone who knows the community of Evanston-- I believe I was reading that you grew up there-- talk us through why it was so important to get a reparations bill passed in your local community.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: So thank you. Thanks for having me. Thank you for the question. To that point, the data-- all of the efforts that we have made in Evanston were probably consistent in other places in the country, and the data remained that the disparities were way too wide and widening.

Last year, when I actually started moving towards reparations in our city, the wealth gap, the income gap, the homeownership rate, the education gap, the opportunity gap, the information divide-- all of that was not in line with our values of equality and diversity and inclusion in our city. And it was time that we do something as radical as 401 years of oppression on Black people in this nation-- as radical as that in a way of policy to start to bring redress and remedy to the Black community.

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to ask about how reparations even came about in Evanston. As I mentioned, this is a bill that has been dead in the water in Congress. And for those that don't know, it has been introduced by John Conyers, a congressman from Michigan, every year since 1989 until, of course, his death when it was picked up again. And it's been languishing there, essentially.

So how long did it take for a reparations bill in Evanston? I imagine that the battle or that the uphill climb was not swift.

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: Well, it was several months. But before I get into the Evanston story, I'm really encouraged that right now H.R. 40 is closest to a victory ever in its history. There are 136 sponsors in the House.

There are, I believe, 13 sponsors in the Senate on the companion bill. So I'm really encouraged by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's leadership and a vote in maybe the fall of this year on reparations.

But in Evanston, it took several months. I made the formal introduction to our Equity and Empowerment Commission in February. And there were conversations that led us to a referral.

Our ask was that our Equity and Empowerment Commission look at reparations for our city. And we worked through a very public process. We had countless pieces of input from our community.

We had community meetings, multiple, where our community advised us on what reparations should be for our city, what it might look like, how might we fund it, who might qualify for reparations. It later went on to the city council, and we ended up passing it in November of 2019. There's a subcommittee, which I chair, and we're working on remedy policy on how we might use our initial $10 million funding to bring redress to the Black residents in Evanston.

KRISTIN MYERS: So to that point, what will it look like in Evanston? How will reparations-- essentially, what will reparations look like in Evanston?

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: So like I said, our community spoke on what our priorities are. And it was largely around housing, business development, initiatives and policy that will build wealth. Our wealth as Black people has been stripped away in housing, primarily.

And we have evidence of housing discrimination in our policy, our practices, our culture here. Of course, we have redlining as well in Evanston. So much of our defense is there. And our initial remedy policy will be housing. We have consensus on our subcommittee for a $25,000 direct benefit to Black homebuyers for the purchase of homes.

We are working towards a consensus on a preservation or retention program for those that already own a home so that we can build wealth. I mean, whether you're black or white, the most likely path to building wealth is through homeownership. That's the place our residents wanted us to focus, and that's where we're going to prioritize, understanding that even $25,000 is not enough, $10 million is not enough. The harm is so far beyond any one policy. There has to be a comprehensive approach.

And with that, we have been in touch with our local banks for them to partner with us, with lending products and other products, services, and even education, so that we compare this with the tangible repair that we will give our residents, our Black residents here in Evanston, hopefully as early as 2020. But we were conservative in our initial policy in '21, being that we will not get the sales tax revenue until this fall. But it will certainly be in 2021.

KRISTIN MYERS: Right. I have one last question for you, Robin. Are you getting other calls-- you know, calls from other cities, municipalities that want to replicate what you guys have done? I know Asheville, North Carolina, has now passed a bill on this. And do you think that this is something that if Congress isn't going to act that, you know, every local community just needs to go ahead and do it?

ROBIN RUE SIMMONS: Absolutely. So I would say that-- we passed it in 2019. And since then, I have been getting requests from other city leaders on what we did. I've shared our tool kit. There are others that are looking towards replicating what we've done in Evanston. But I tell everyone, your redress, your policy, your initiatives are going to have to be in line with the damages done specifically in your community and the population that is there.

So we have been able to share what we've done. And I haven't spoken to Asheville. I was really excited to see what they had done on this week-- Monday, I believe. Encouraged that localities across the nation will follow suit as we wait on H.R. 40.

But I don't believe we should only be waiting on H.R. 40. This is a responsibility of this nation, starting in the local government, in large institutions, the universities, the financial institutions, family foundations, community foundations. Even though those may have not established the law of slavery or enslavement of Africans-- they may not have participated in kidnapping, rape, and torture-- they certainly did enforce it in their institutions and in their leadership. And those damages are still impacting us today. You can see it in the data and the disparities that you mentioned even in housing. Those data points are consistent in every area in the racial divide.

KRISTIN MYERS: Right. I wish we had more time to chat, Robin Rue Simmons, Evanston's Fifth Ward alderman and also the city's Reparations Subcommittee chair.