Reparation case according to Jews living in the first American city

(JTA) – On his way to the article that would make many Americans consider reparations for blacks for the first time, Ta-Nehisi Coates stopped to stress the role of Jews in Chicago’s housing inequality.

Coates had just read “Family Properties,” a book by Beryl Satter on how government policy served to impoverish blacks in postwar Chicago while enriching the mortgage industry. Some Jews, like Satter’s father, saw echoes of the oppression they had experienced in this situation and supported the struggle for integration. But many of those who benefited from this story, people who treated the vulnerability of blacks as a business opportunity, were also Jews.

Seeing these two contrasting impulses appear side by side helped Coates crystallize his thinking about community responsibility for past damages. While these Jewish businessmen could be labeled “bad apples,” the same cannot be said for a racist system backed entirely by white votes and violence.

A little over a year later, in 2014, Coates published his Atlantic magazine cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” which also dealt to some extent with the Jews, that is, their struggle with the idea of reparations after the Holocaust.

Among the many readers who found the article stimulating were two Jews in Evanston, Illinois, who, years later, would end up on opposite sides of a debate about how to enact the country’s first municipal reparations program in their city.

One was Lesley Williams, an African-American Jew by choice, whose father was denied housing in Evanston because of the color of her skin. The other was Daniel Biss, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who received reparations from Germany and who, as the future mayor of Evanston, would play a role in overseeing the program.

A STATUE of Martin Luther King. Many Jews supported the civil rights movement in the US (Credit: REUTERS)

Raised on the values ​​of the Civil Rights Movement, Williams had long understood the concept of America’s moral debt. But it wasn’t until the Coates article that he saw reparations as a plausible political goal.

“It was from Ta-Nehisi Coates that I came up with the idea, along with many other people, that this was actually a possibility, it was not a pipe dream,” Williams said in an interview. “There was a reasonable way to make repairs.”

He would continue to study the subject of reparations from a Jewish angle with other members of a new congregation called Tzedek Chicago. Founded by a rabbi who left his Evanston synagogue over criticism of Israel, the synagogue is best known for attracting “non-Zionist” Jews and infusing social justice policies and activism into ritual practice.

Perhaps the most tangible examples of how much he had changed came about seven years after the Coates article was published. If repairs were ever an impossible dream, the place where they seemed closest to becoming a reality was in the same city where Williams lived.

In March 2021, Evanston became the first American city to pass a plan to begin compensating its black residents for discrimination in the past. Funded by the cannabis sales tax, the $ 10 million repair package would be rolled out in stages, with the first $ 400,000 going to 16 applicants to support home improvement and home loan projects in November.

Williams qualified for the program through his father, who, while studying history at Northwestern University in Evanston in the late 1950s, was denied housing because he was black and had to sleep with friends of friends.

But when what was previously unthinkable became a reality, Williams not only refused to run, but openly opposed the program in comments to city officials and in the mainstream media.

For Williams, the repair project should have started with an analysis of how much wealth was stolen from black residents. The number would likely be much higher than Evanston could afford, but the city could treat it as a liability. A debt.

“If it’s a community obligation, then it’s not something that you just base on how many marijuana sales you make in a year and it’s not something that you ask people to voluntarily contribute to,” Williams said.

She set the example of how Evanston dealt with unfunded police and firefighter pension obligations: He collected more property taxes.

Echoing a criticism voiced by academics William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, Williams also objected to calling the compensation payments “repairs” because their use was restricted to payments for home ownership costs.

“When you owe people money, you don’t say, ‘Well, I really think you should buy houses with the money I stole from you.’ You just say, ‘I stole money from you, I’m sorry.’ Here’s the money I owe you and you can do whatever you want with it, ‘”Williams said.

Darity and Mullen use the example of Holocaust reparations to defend unconditional payments to victims.

Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss understands the comparison better than most: One of his grandmothers survived Auschwitz and received restitution payments from the German government.

“Their attitude was basically that this is something that they can do to acknowledge the crime that they perpetrated against my family,” Biss said in an interview. “It is not particularly satisfying. It doesn’t bring my parents back. It does not bring countless other things. That said, it is recognition and recognition is valuable. “

When Evanston debated and later approved his repair plan, Biss was not yet mayor. I was in the crowd listening to the various voices on the subject. But he didn’t come to the same conclusion as Williams, who happens to be a personal friend. Convinced that the program was a good place to start, and that it was appropriate to use cannabis tax money due to how the war on drugs hurt black communities, Biss sided with the majority of 8- 1 of the city council that approved the plan.

Two months after that happened, Biss was sworn in. Even now, however, it will not have a direct role in shaping the repairs because, under Evanston’s governance structure, the mayor presides over council meetings but does not vote on ordinances (unless there is a tie to break). His work is more ceremonial.

“My role is divided into parts,” he said. “Number one is acting as a kind of ambassador and entertainer for the show to point out that this is something the city takes very seriously. And then part of this is just making sure all voices are heard, and that the [reparations committee] he’s moving forward and doing his job so we can really get this off the ground. “

In Biss’s approach, succeeding with this local program, however limited, is the key.

“We can inspire other communities and perhaps even the states of the federal government to shoulder their share of the burden as well,” Biss said in an interview in March.

Biss wasn’t just dreaming. Mayors of 12 other cities, including Los Angeles, Denver and St Louis, have since pledged to pursue repairs programs, and in April in Washington, DC, lawmakers advanced a bill to study repairs that had been languishing. on the committee for 30 years.

Biss, who said that his knowledge of the “unimaginable horrors” of the Holocaust propelled him toward a policy of social justice, believes that the teachings of Judaism can help advance the cause of reparations.

When it comes to people who are skeptical about repairs, Biss’s example: “People who say, ‘What was done was terrible, but wait, I didn’t. Why are my tax dollars being used to fix it? ‘”Suggests that Pesach is a helpful guide.

Biss says that the Passover ceremony, with the reading of the Haggadah, is about the connection between liberation and history.

“We talk about why we talk about the past, we talk about the purpose of telling this story for our present,” he said. “There are many circumstances and this is clearly one of them, that we cannot understand or fix what is wrong in the present without understanding and reacting to what we know about the past.”

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *