Evanston’s groundbreaking reparations program challenged by lawsuit from a conservative activist group

The nation’s first government program providing cash reparations to Black residents in response to past discriminatory housing practices is being challenged in court by Judicial Watch, a conservative activist group.

The lawsuit, filed last month, against the city of Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, alleges the program’s requirement that applicants state whether they and their ancestors identify as Black or African American “violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

A push for reparations gained momentum following the national uprising in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in 2020. Measures aimed at exploring ways to address the racial wealth gap – and discriminatory practices that contributed to it – have been discussed in cities like San Francisco and St. Paul, Minnesota, and on the state-level in California.

Evanston’s reparations program was established in 2019 with the intention of redressing the pattern of housing discrimination and segregation that took place in the city from 1919 to 1969. Black residents who lived in the city during that time – as well as their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – can apply for $25,000 in housing assistance.

The program was amended last year to provide the option of a direct cash payment.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of six people whose parents or grandparents lived in Evanston during that 50-year period but do not identify as Black or African American, said Black residents were not the only people who experienced discrimination.

“In effect, Evanston is using race as a proxy for having experienced discrimination during this time period,” the suit said.

“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,” Cynthia Vargas, a spokesperson for the city of Evanston, told CNN in a statement.

Judicial Watch is asking a judge to declare the reparations program’s use of race as unconstitutional and issue an injunction to prevent the continued use of race as a requirement. It also wants the case to be certified as a class action lawsuit, which it said could include tens of thousands of plaintiffs.

“This scheme unconstitutionally discriminates against anyone who does not identify as Black or African American,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement. “This class action, civil rights lawsuit will be a historic defense of our color-blind Constitution.”

The city pledged $20 million for the reparations program. A report filed last month with the city’s Reparations Committee said Evanston expects to pay about $5 million in cash payments and housing assistance by the end of this year, with more applicants still being evaluated. The city calendar shows that the next scheduled committee meeting – set to take place Thursday – was canceled.

Adrienne Broaddus contributed to this report.

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