Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previous version to correct that the reparations study is funded by the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation.
Politics has been fused into Alvin Tillery Jr.’s consciousness for as long as he can remember.
He was born in 1971, a few years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 – what he calls “the end of the racial dictatorship.”
“My relatives, my Southern relatives in particular, were really empowered to vote and engage in politics,” Tillery said.
He grew up seeing his father shove the wooden stakes of Jesse Jackson campaign signs into the front lawn.
Tillery’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, had to wait 20 years after he fought in the war to truly have the right to vote. It was powerful to Tillery to later witness his grandfather mobilizing their Philadelphia neighborhood to vote for Democrats.
“Politics goes really deep in my family, and I think I just adopted that,” Tillery said.
He was the first person in his family – on either side – to live in an integrated neighborhood and go to integrated schools.
His family moved from his Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia to the suburbs of New Jersey when he was 8 years old. On his first day of fourth grade, older white children attempted to lynch him at the bus stop, he said.
“That is where I really began to think, for the first time, about race and understanding it,” Tillery said.
Tillery graduated from Morehouse College, a historically Black school in Atlanta, in 1993 and went on to Harvard University. He was one of two Black male students in the entire doctoral cohort for the whole university at that time, Tillery said.
Integrating into white spaces continued to be traumatic yet defining experiences for Tillery.
While pursuing his doctorate in political science from Harvard, professors constantly told him he didn’t belong, Tillery said.
“It was a very stark reminder that racism is still very much a real force in the lives of people of color,” he said.
“I started to see there was a pattern here,” Tillery said. “When I’m integrating spaces, there’s these kinds of social costs that accrue to me. That’s what made me really start to want to study this and to really dedicate my life to educating people.”
Tillery received his doctorate in 2001 and today is a professor of political science at Northwestern University and the founding Director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy.
This center is conducting the first of many studies on Evanston’s historic reparations progress in October. The first project will be an attitude study to get an idea of what residents think about the city’s current reparations program.
The center was founded in 2016 during a time Tillery describes as “a resurgence of the racial and gendered dictatorship.” He said he wants to use the center’s research to help stifle this resurgence.
“I’ve always tried to make my space here a kind of refuge for all students, but particularly women and students of color,” Tillery said.
Northwestern gave the center a $30,000 grant to get it started, and the center raised additional funds. It conducts public interest polling nationwide and produced one of the first polls to predict that Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were going to be elected to the Senate from Georgia in 2020.
The center’s poll found that Black Lives Matter messaging convinced college-educated, highly affluent white people in Georgia to vote for Democratic candidates, Tillery said.
4,000 to be surveyed on reparations
The attitude study on Evanston’s reparations work will be conducted randomly, both in-person and by mail. The study will sample 4,000 residents.
The center will send out questionnaires to residents in the Fifth Ward and other hard-to-reach areas of the city.
The study is funded by the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation. The center is partnering with the National Opinion Research Center and is in the drafting phase of the study. Tillery estimates he will have results of the research by early spring.
Tillery said he is conducting this study to see what concerns residents have and hopefully dispel the assumption that reparations efforts cause racial resentment.
“I think that it’s very likely that in a place like Evanston – highly educated, more affluent than the average community, that values diversity and tolerance – it’s very likely that we don’t see these spikes of resentment,” Tillery said.
“It’s very likely that we see broad-based support. We don’t know that; we’ve got to do the study first. But, you know, that’s what I’m predicting we’re going to find. I predict that if we find resentment of the program, that it will probably come from people who don’t think it goes far enough or that it’s a distraction from more universalist solutions.”