Diversity On the Backs of Black and Brown People: A Continuing Case For Reparations

If I had a penny for every time I heard, “We moved to Evanston for the Diversity” I’d be sitting on a beach in Fiji permanently. But to be fully upfront, it’s why I moved my multi-racial family here too. We all fell for the utopian myth of the diversity of “Hevanston.” Except, for families of color, the reality does not meet the promise in quite the same way, if at all. While black families quickly pick up this fact in measurable inequities once our kids enter school and we learn about the opportunity gap, (notice I didn’t say performance gap,) experienced by kids of color REGARDLESS of socio-economics. Or you notice that certain sub communities get improvement after improvement while the historically black community struggles to keep working street lamps. But subtle, less measurable differences take a while to fully sink in. The diversity that white families crave, tout and consider themselves superior to the rest of the elite North Shore for living adjacent to, is not because of people of color in Evanston, but ON THE BACKS of people of color.

After 7 years of being an Evanston resident, this solidified for me a few months ago. I was wrapping up a conversation with a lifelong white Evanstonian and a Black person who was about to move to Evanston. The lifer said to the soon to be “member” of the club.

“I was born and raised in Evanston and I raised my family in Evanston. You are going to absolutely love it here. My kids just loved the diversity in their high school and I just love knowing that they could go off to college anywhere in the country and already be used to all sorts of diverse communities. They know how to fit in everywhere and with everyone. It’s been the best experience for my kids that I could have ever asked for.”

As I walked away with the Evanston Newbie in silence, we both eyed each other subtly to see if the other person had picked up on the disconcerting nature of that monologue. Aside from the fact the white Lifer didn’t have enough racial consciousness to understand that her family’s experiences would most definitely be different to the families of the two Black people before her, the newbie was living in a community that is considered a twin to Evanston on the west coast. She already knew that the version described would not be the same for her family.

I decided to open up to my new friend. I decided to have an “in-house” conversation with a fellow African American who I didn’t really know that well, but I knew enough to know that our paths and those of our children were way more aligned than that of the Lifer who just regaled us with her tails of Evanston’s utopian glory.

“Funny how her kids get to benefit from being adjacent to my black kids, and yet my kids rarely experience feeling like they truly belong at any event, sport, or class. That whole diversity bonus just doesn’t seem to cut both ways.”

Here are some of the intangibles that are probably invisible to my white neighbors:

  • My daughters are often the only or one of two black kids on any sporting team which leaves them feeling like a token and just plain different.
  • I can’t just sign my kids up for camp based on their interest. I have to email all the other black families in my network to synchronize attendance at specialized camps so my child does not end up being the sole onyx in a pile of hay. (And if you are mad at that phase consider for a second the ridiculously racist “Fly in a glass of milk” statement of my parent’s generation.)
  • Black and Brown kids get to provide diversity in a classroom for white kids, yet rarely will they get to have teachers who look like them. In a combined 12 years of pre-school and elementary school thus far my girls have only each had 1 teacher who was black.
  • A friend of mine had to move her son from one Two Way Immersion (TWI) program to another with more strands, disrupting his continuity, so her son wouldn’t spend 6 years as the only black boy in his class.
  • English as a second language Latinx TWI kids, the ones for who TWI is truly created for, so their learning of English does not impede their overall learning, are bussed at much higher rates than the white kids who are in the TWI classes. This is especially burdensome when you consider that TWI for white little Paxton is a bonus and not a necessity.
  • All the white kids in our monolingual programs get to stay in their neighborhood school, when all the predominantly brown and black kids from our historically black neighborhood are bussed to three different schools. White kids enjoy their black adjacency but the black kids never feel fully at home, because they are simply not at home.

But on that day the pieces all came together succinctly in my head and I realized that unconsciously the White Evanston Lifer was inviting my new friend to help prop up her ideal reality, not truly be part of it. Black and Brown people of Evanston sure are generous to enrich the lives of White Evanston while carrying our own laden burdens. This conclusion also helped me realize something critical; reparations is not just repayment for past deeds, but for current emotional labors demanded.

But despair not, white allies destined to become white advocates, tuck away that white guilt and let’s talk solutions. In September 2019 Evanston’s city council will begin discussing the creation of a local reparation policy. If the first thing your brain did was go to, “What is so impossible to calculate and administer fairly,” I’m going to ask you to step back and realize a few things:

1. In 1860, when enslaved African Americans were, as a FINANCIAL asset, worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together, per the Yale historian David W. Blight, and conversations of ending slavery arose, it too seemed impossible to fathom. But it was not only possible but ethically and morally essential, as are reparations of some sort to simply begin the process of healing the unquantifiable harm done to generations of African Americans in his country.

2. How are we going to pay for it? As a community, and as a nation, our budget is a reflection of our values. I simply have zero patience for the seemly practically push back of, “where will we find the money?” We will find the money by giving up some of the “nice-to-haves,” the things that we have almost come to expect as a fancy North Shore community. My kids are as fond of the new water fountains as every other kid who frolics in it, but if I was given a vote; spend $7 Million Dollars on a new fountain and colorful chairs at the heart of downtown or spends that money on affordable housing for the Black and Brown communities that are priced out of Evanston every day, I would be in the backyard in a heartbeat explaining to my kids that the hose and a sprinkler was just going to have to cut it for water play, and they should count their blessings too. And as a nation, if Trump can fund a bloody wall and gear the military spending up for the 99 countries he is now twitter-fighting with, we can fund reparations.

3. This is not just a national issue that Evanston stayed out of because we are so progressive. In this very month, Morris “Dino” Robinson, Founder and Executive Director of Shorefront Legacy Center, has an exhibit at the Civil Center showing the history of redlining and housing discrimination in Evanston. Black people right here in Evanston were forced into one neighborhood because of racist lending policies and segregation laws. Those areas were then deemed to risky for loans and values plummeted as homes and store fronts were abandoned is the story for similar redlined communities across the country. Today, black families whose ancestors lived in Evanston feel the ripple effect of the wealth their families were not able to build by appreciating real estate values, through no fault of their own. Many black families lost homes that had been in their family for generations because of predatory lending and refinancing in the past 15 years. This is a key cause of the wealth gap and why the black families are being pushed out of Evanston. There is zero question that any reparations policy would need to include some form of home ownership program.

4. I am also so immensely irritated by the demonization of reparations as “handouts” or “entitlements” particularly when they are mentioned in reference to black and brown people. After World War II, over 5 Million white veterans we able to take advantage of the GI Bill to buy homes, which is the largest builder of wealth for most families, while black veterans were boxed out. Over 10 Million veterans returning from that same war took advantage of the college education benefits, while black veterans were still not allowed to apply to schools in the south and schools in the north dragged their feet on integration, particularly with an influx of white candidates to admit. No one demonized the GI bill as “handouts.” Yet, African Americans have been forced to fight a 400-year war for their mere humanity in this country and the thought of educational or housing benefits is met with such scorn and mockery, because, well……racism. Reparations are not handouts, they are a token attempt to make good on a massive debt owed that all rational people know can never be paid back in full.

5. And finally, if your mind is simply blown by the idea of housing and education housing and the complication and cost of it, do not short circuit on me. While those two are essential, and we will have to outline a path to get there, let’s return to where we started this piece, the invisible (to white people) hurts that black and brown kids experience today. There are things you can do to get reparations going in smaller ways.

  • Talk to your sporting leagues and camps about offering more scholarships, marketing these scholarships under resourced communities, offering ride shares and clustering kids on color in groups larger than 2 on a team/class so they have other team/camp mates who look like them.
  • Can we start a scholarship fund for Black and Brown high schoolers who plan to study education that requires them to teach a certain number of years in Evanston. We are funding our own better tomorrow for kids of color. I know some of your have fundraising skills… take a proposal to D202, city or local foundation who can oversee the scholarship.
  • There is a group championing a 5th Ward Stem School so that we are not bussing our black and brown kids at a higher rate than our white kids and that 5th ward kids have a community school to call their own. Get involved, see how you can help make this a reality.

Capitalism thrives on the constant fear of scarcity. Make more, more, more, more, because some day, it could run out. This thinking has us convinced of the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. There isn’t enough to pay the debt that this country owes to the people whose backs it was built on, both physically and emotionally. Just like the world’s wealth, food supply and medicinal supply, there is ample supply for everyone, however there is a massive allocation or distribution problem. If our community decides it is ready to live up to the values we espouse so loudly but seldom truly reflect in our actions, the money can be reallocated for reparations. Are there going to be sacrifices? Indeed there are. But if Evanston is honest with itself, an inconsequential sacrifice to some in our community would be a bounty for others.

Now that we are all either fully awake to, or waking up to the fact that diversity is not the same thing as equity and inclusivity; and that the idea of simply ending slavery and removing some of the racist laws and policies that further contribute to the wealth and opportunity gap in this community doesn’t automatically make everything even, let’s all dig in and ask NOT IF, BUT HOW we can implement a reparations policy in Evanston and the US at large.

Karla Thomas is an Anti-Racist & Equity Consultant & Trainer, Writer, Activist & Entrepreneur. Sprint2Equity.com

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