"It wasn't honoring my ancestors": Evanston lawmaker on her vote against reparations housing program

The city of Evanson, Illinois voted to become the first U.S. city to make reparation money available to Black residents impacted by decades of housing discrimination. Alderwoman Cicely Fleming, the lone vote on the Evanston City Council against the program, she spoke to "Red and Blue" host Elaine Quijano about her difficult decision.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: As we've been reporting, the city of Evanston, Illinois voted to become the first US city to make reparation money available to Black residents impacted by decades of racist government policies. The Chicago suburb voted to give a total of $400,000 to a small number of Black residents harmed by discriminatory housing practices between 1900 and 1959. The $25,000 grants can be used on housing costs, such as home repairs, mortgages, or down payments.

For decades, Evanston banks and builders refused to work with Black people unless they lived in areas deemed acceptable for Black people. By 1940, 84% of Black households in the city lived in this red triangular area. You can see that area inside this red section of a loan corporations map.

The company characterized the redlined areas as having, quote, "detrimental influences" and an "undesirable population." Let's bring in Evanston Alderwoman Cicely Fleming. She was the only member of the city council to vote against the measure this week. Welcome, Alderwoman Fleming. Thanks very much for joining us.

CICELY FLEMING: Thank you for having me.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So I'm really glad we have you, because this is an opportunity to dig a bit deeper beyond just the headlines, which I think some people will assume they know this story. But there's quite a bit more nuance. So first of all, you support reparations. But you voted no on this because you say that is not what this program is. How do you see it?

CICELY FLEMING: Yeah, you characterize it exactly. I do support reparations. I think what we approved Monday was a housing program, which you laid out very clearly, so thank you for that. But I think when we think of reparations, when African-Americans-- probably many Americans, when they think reparations, we usually think of the Holocaust or Japanese internment.

And this falls very short. Even as a first program, a first initiative, with $400,000, I think, for us, as a government, to call it reparations, when payments, as you laid out so clearly, are going directly to banks and lenders and contractors-- you know, maybe not the direct people, but many of which work in the industry that discriminated against African-Americans, have caused continued low valuation of housing and everything else.

So I think it's a great housing program, but it falls very short from reparations, in my opinion, and many in the Black community here and many more people I'm hearing from as they kind of dig through the details, as you did at the start of this show. So housing, yes, reparations, no.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So let me ask you, though. The city of Evanston says that they are not giving cash payments for reparations because they do not have the authority, they say, to exempt people from paying taxes, up to 28%, on money the city gives out. What do you make of that reasoning?

CICELY FLEMING: Well, I mean, that's, you know, that is something people would have to do. But we do live in America, where people pay taxes. People are accustomed to paying taxes. You know, I think, had we slowed down a little bit, we might have been able to work with our state legislature to see if there was a way that they can exempt people from paying taxes on this money, since it's not an earned income.

I don't know that that was examined. That would have saved people a little bit of money, not-- you know, we might not have gone as far with the federal government. But I think, again, in reparations, we need to give Black people that choice. Many people, I'm sure, will take advantage of this program, more than the 16 that we have money for right now. But I think not giving African-Americans a choice between cash or maybe something else, again, takes away from the term reparations, because as we've seen them, really, historically, they've been doled out in cash payments.

Just like you would see in a class action-lawsuit or any other kind of legal judgment, you pay the money which, you know, you've calculated or the judge has calculated that you owed. And it's really been quite offensive to people that this has been done under the guise of reparations.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So this $400,000 program is just the first 4% of $10 million committed towards reparations in the city of Evanston. How do you want to see the rest of that money used?

CICELY FLEMING: You know, so I'm glad, again, you mentioned this. It's the first 4% we don't yet have, 10 million, we're trying to build that fund. I think we need to really go back to the community. Even if we had have done that with this housing program, it's important that the people who are harmed have a voice. They should be leading this.

So we should go back to them and say, hey, you know, we did this housing program. What do you want the next step to be? And even if people say, hey, we want employment, I think, if it's reparations, it really has to have a cash component to it. We have to respect Black people's ability to manage their own funds.

If we want to do a separate employment program, which we've done in the past, if we want to do some other kind of social, you know, racial equity program as an attachment, too, but under the guise of reparations because, again, Black people have kind of waited, and some people have given up hope on this. People are thinking cash payment. We're talking about monies that are earned Black people, monies that we've forgone, equity that we've foregone, wealth that we've foregone for many years just because of our skin color.

And so to give us that back and say, you can only do this with it, or you can only use it in this place, you know, part of this program that's going forward is you have to buy your primary home in Evanston. So folks who will qualify, elders who have moved away, they might be settled somewhere else, and they don't qualify. They can't be redeemed unless they move back and have a primary residence in Evanston. So I would like us to look at giving people cash, giving them the options.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, this Evanston program, as you know, is being discussed as a potential model for other cities to adopt. What would the impact of that be, and what are your thoughts on that?

CICELY FLEMING: You know, that's another concern I have. I think that that would be detrimental. We have African-Americans who live-- I use this example in Mississippi and some of our southern states-- where we know the racial terror that they faced was horrendous. We're not talking about redlining and housing discrimination, as we are in Evanston.

And I think it would be bad government policy for us to tell-- or give the example that you can do a 16- even 20-, 100-people housing program, and that is what a municipality or township or state can do to remedy the harm that was caused by racial terror, whatever that might have been where they live.

So I think for us to set this as a precedent with such a low bar really gives a pass to so many municipalities, banks, so many people who have really harmed African-American people here in this country. Obviously, a federal bill is really what we need. That's really where the money needs to come from.

But working in these small municipality bills, we need to set a high standard. We need to let African-American people know we value them, we understand the harm we caused, and we need to allow them to use the funds or use the repair however they choose to do that. And that's how we start to build trust. It's been a lot of mistrust, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of anger in the Black community over this.

And so I think, under the guise of reparation, trying to set this out has been a little bit of a bust when I speak to people where people are calling me, wanting to apply, and there's not even an application yet. So, I mean, I would warn other cities from using this. I would hope that they spend more time talking to their constituents, more time doing a feasibility study, which we don't have.

And before they roll anything out, the government should not be leading. We need to let the people who we've harmed lead and let us know what to do. And we need to listen and follow their-- you know, follow their plan.

ELAINE QUIJANO: On a personal note, Alderwoman, I know you have deep roots in Evanston. Your family certainly does. Was this a difficult decision personally to vote against this measure?

CICELY FLEMING: It was really-- it was really difficult. The last few weeks have been challenging. I do-- I'm fifth generation from one side of my family, fourth from another, fourth generation to sit in public office here in Evanston, moved back here to raise my kids.

It was extremely difficult. I ran four years ago to pursue racial equity, which this kind of housing plan falls right under. But I felt like it was disingenuous. It wasn't honoring the people who came before me. It wasn't honoring my ancestors for me to boil down all the harm that they faced, even in redlining, even as my great-grandfather bought a quarter of a block here in Evanston, I don't know what that was like for him. But to say $25,000 was going to remedy that-- $25,000 that I didn't even get to touch, $25,000 that might very well go to the bank that discriminated against him-- it was a hard decision, but I really felt like I had to stick with my convictions.

I was hearing from so many people in the community who felt like they had been ignored, so many who had questions. And this came public on a Thursday. We voted on a Monday. There was really no time for discussion, no openness on our side for correction. So it was a really hard vote, but I knew I had to make it. I had to honor my family. I had to honor the people who had not felt heard.

And it's 2021. We've all sat through, you know, the last year of seeing great racial terror on the news. And I felt like if we were gonna talk about reparations, we had better do it right or I could not stand by it as a Black woman.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Well, this is a conversation, certainly, that many people are having. And we thank you, Evanston Alderwoman Cicely Fleming. Thank you very much for sharing your perspective with us.

CICELY FLEMING: Thank you so much for having me.