Reparations have become the latest target for conservative activists. Advocates say they are prepared to fight back.

A conservative group’s lawsuit against a reparations program in Evanston, Illinois, that provides some Black residents with cash payments and housing assistance, has left advocates for reparations worried this could be the first of many attacks on their efforts to redress the harms of slavery, segregation and systemic racism in the United States.

The complaint, filed against the city last month by Judicial Watch, claims Evanston’s program violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and asks the court to declare the city’s “use of race as an eligibility requirement for participation in the program to be unconstitutional.”

The argument follows a legal strategy frequently employed by conservative activists to attempt to undercut programs dedicated to addressing racial disparities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn affirmative action in college admissions.

As the nation prepares to observe Juneteenth — the federal holiday on June 19 that commemorates the end of slavery in the US — reparations advocates tell CNN they are bracing for potentially more lawsuits against their programs, but stand firm in their commitment to finding ways to rectify the centuries of racism Black Americans and their families have endured.

Under the Evanston reparations program, Black residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 – as well as their direct descendants – can apply for up to $25,000 in housing assistance, CNN previously reported. The program was established in 2019 and amended last year to provide the option of a direct cash payment.

Robin Rue Simmons, chair of the Evanston Reparations Committee, said the “lawsuit comes as no surprise and Evanston is prepared to defend this case.”

“This is not just an attack on Evanston,” Rue Simmons said in a statement to CNN. “This is an attack on the movement for reparations. This is an attack on the overall movement for the advancement of reparatory justice, racial equity, and civil rights.”

Robin Rue Simmons, who spearheaded the city’s reparations initiative, poses near her home in the Fifth Ward in Evanston, Illinois on March 19, 2021. - Eileen T. Meslar/Reuters
Robin Rue Simmons, who spearheaded the city’s reparations initiative, poses near her home in the Fifth Ward in Evanston, Illinois on March 19, 2021. - Eileen T. Meslar/Reuters

Judicial Watch’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of six people whose parents or grandparents lived in Evanston during the 50-year period the program covers but do not identify as Black or African American.

“At no point in the application process are persons in the first and second groups required to present evidence that they or their ancestors experienced housing discrimination or otherwise suffered harm because of an unlawful Evanston ordinance, policy, or procedure or some other unlawful act or series of acts by Evanston between 1919 and 1969,” the lawsuit states. “In effect, Evanston is using race as a proxy for having experienced discrimination during this time period.”

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told CNN in an interview that he believes Evanston’s reparations program is a “brazen violation of the constitution and federal law.”

“Generally speaking, you can’t treat people based on race and provide benefits to some and not others based on generalized complaints of historic racism,” Fitton said. “The courts frown upon it.”

A spokesperson for the city of Evanston previously told CNN officials will not comment on pending legislation but will “vehemently defend” its reparations program.

Justin Hansford, a commissioner for the National African American Reparations Commission, rejected Judicial Watch’s interpretation of the legality of reparations programs.

“Jim Crow was based on race, redlining was based on race, housing segregation was based on race,” Hansford said. “In all those situations you had a community that was harmed based on race. So now when you’re trying to give that community justice, you are going to naturally give it to the same group.”

Fitton said it’s possible he may file lawsuits against other reparations programs. The Evanston lawsuit comes as states and cities across the country have formed commissions to explore how reparations can be distributed and who should receive them.

The push for reparations and a making Juneteenth a federal holiday gained momentum following the racial reckoning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

But four years later, reparations and other race-based programs such as internships and scholarships across the country are continuing to face roadblocks following the gutting of affirmative action.

On Wednesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit that argued that the remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre should be compensated by the city for damages, dealing a blow to their ongoing fight for reparations.

A Black man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June 1921. - Oklahoma Historical Society/Archive Photos/Getty Images
A Black man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June 1921. - Oklahoma Historical Society/Archive Photos/Getty Images

And earlier this month, a federal appeals court blocked the Black-owned venture capitalist firm Fearless Fund from awarding grants exclusively to Black women entrepreneurs.

Some reparations leaders say they have taken more race-neutral approaches to their programs with hopes of avoiding legal battles. Kamilah Moore, chair of California’s Reparations Task Force, said her commission recommended that the state’s program be “lineage based” meaning residents who apply for it would have to provide proof that their ancestors were enslaved or free African Americans who lived in the U.S. prior to 1900.

Moore said the commission believes their lineage-based approach is constitutional.

“That’s not to say there may not still be a challenge to lineage-based programs by these same groups,” Moore said. “But as lineage-based reparations advocates we are confident in our position from a moral, ethical and legal perspective.”

The task force has also recommended payments to residents based on the harms suffered from inequities such as housing segregation, mass incarceration, over policing, devaluation of Black businesses, and health disparities.

The recommendations have been packaged in bills that are awaiting full approval from the California State Legislature, she said.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation in December to establish a reparations commission that would study the lingering effects of slavery on New York residents and make recommendations for how the state could address “longstanding inequities.”

Jennifer Jones Austin, a member of the New York commission and CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, said they are looking to take a more holistic approach to reparations that may include individual payments, investment in Black communities and redressing laws to advance equity and equal opportunity for Black people.

Jones Austin said she expected there would be legal challenges to reparations efforts given all the recent attacks on policies and programs created to repair the harms Black Americans have suffered.

She said she worries New York could be targeted but is confident the commission is doing everything possible to work within the law.

“You have to make sure you are dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s in any work you do that is controversial especially when it comes to money,” Jones Austin said. “It does make the work more challenging.”

Areva Martin, a civil rights lawyer and reparations advocate, said she was not surprised by the lawsuit against Evanston. Martin said she believes conservatives have been emboldened by the gutting of affirmative action and are using the decision to sue other race-based initiatives.

“Anybody would be naive to not be aware of these very calculated and very orchestrated and planned attacks,” Martin said. “But what I want people to know and what I want the message to be is that we are not going away. We are not going to shrink, we are not going to cower, we are not going to be intimidated.”

Hansford said he hopes the lawsuit against Evanston motivates supporters to rally around reparations programs.

“It’s a call to arms,” Hansford said. “We know this is just the opening salvo in a long running struggle. People around the country should realize how real the reparations movement has become.”

CNN’s Justin Gamble and Andy Rose contributed to this report. 

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