Conservative group sues Evanston reparations program for racial discrimination

A conservative activist group filed a class action lawsuit against a reparations program in Evanston, Illinois, claiming the initiative is unconstitutional because qualification for the program is based on an applicant’s race.

In 2021, Evanston became the first city in the U.S. to implement a reparations program, offering payments to Black residents affected by discriminatory zoning in place from 1919 to 1969. The group Judicial Watch is representing six non-Black people whose ancestors lived in the Chicago suburb at that time. They argue that the program aimed at ameliorating historic wrongdoings violates the equal protection clause. Judicial Watch claims that Evanston uses race as “a proxy for experiencing discrimination between 1919 and 1969.” 

The lawsuit follows a series of cases brought forward by advocacy groups in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision to end race-conscious admissions for colleges — shifting the focus from universities to scholarship programs and local initiatives. 

Evanston’s program was designed in order to acknowledge the “historical harm” to residents who experienced “discriminatory housing policies and practices,” according to the memorandum.

Housing discrimination in Evanston at the time included redlining, a practice carried out nationwide, in which banks refused mortgages to Black people to sway them away from buying homes in predominantly white areas. The practice, since outlawed, also prevented Black residents from accumulating wealth through home ownership, fostered racial segregation and created socioeconomic inequality

Evanston’s first phase of the reparations program provided $25,000 to eligible Black residents. The City Council allocated $10 million of the city’s cannabis sales tax revenue for local reparations, which it plans to distribute over a decade. 

When the reparations initiative first launched, however, eligible Evanston residents said the vouchers had too many limitations, particularly for renters who could not access the assistance meant only for homeowners.

“Black Evanston residents need to be determining their own repair,” Evanston resident Sebastian Nalls, who organized members of the community in 2021, told NBC News then.

Residents’ advocacy led to the implementation of direct cash payments to be used on housing costs, Cynthia Vargas, Evanston communications and engagement manager, said Wednesday.

Black residents are eligible for a $25,000 payment if they, or their ancestors, lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 or if they prove that they have experienced housing discrimination due to city policy after that time frame. 

At least 129 people who lived in Evanston during this period had accepted reparations payments as of May 1. An additional 80 people who are descendants of those who lived in the city during that period are expected to receive payments this year, according to Reparations Committee documents.

Judicial Watch claims that the plaintiffs in its class action lawsuit should also be eligible for the program, satisfying all requirements except for the race requirement.

“The Evanston, Illinois’ ‘reparations’ program is nothing more than a ploy to redistribute tax dollars to individuals based on race,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement

The plaintiffs are seeking $25,000 in damages and a judicial order prohibiting the city from continuing to use race as a requirement for receiving payment through the program.

“The City of Evanston does not comment on the specifics of pending litigation, but we will vehemently defend any lawsuit brought against our city’s reparations program,” Vargas wrote in a statement Wednesday.

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