Payments of $US5 million ($7.4 million) to every eligible Black adult, the elimination of personal debt and tax burdens, guaranteed annual incomes of at least $US97,000 ($145,000) for 250 years and homes in San Francisco for just $US1 ($1.50) a family.
These are just some of the recommendations made by a city-appointed reparations committee tasked with a thorny question: what would it take to atone for the centuries of US slavery and generations of systemic racism that continue to keep Black Americans on the bottom rungs of health, education and economic prosperity, and overrepresented in prisons and homeless populations?
A first hearing underway before the city’s Board of Supervisors today could offer a glimpse of the board’s appetite for advancing a reparations plan that would be unmatched nationwide in specificity and breadth.
Critics have slammed it as financially and politically impossible.
One conservative analyst estimated that each non-Black family in the city would have to pay at least $US600,000 ($900,000).
Supervisor Shamann Walton, who is Black, opened the hearing by stating the board would not say “what recommendations we will be supporting or moving forward with”.
He also expressed thanks to the committee and the board for delving into an issue that has made him and other reparations supporters the target of racist comments and threats.
“It is not a matter of whether or not there is a case for reparations for Black people here in San Francisco. It is a matter of what reparations will and should look like yet,” Walton said.
“And still we have to remind everyone why this is so important.”
Some supervisors have said San Francisco can’t afford any major reparations payments right now, given the city’s deep deficit amid a tech industry downturn, but they still want to discuss the proposals and consider future solutions.
The board can vote to change, adopt or reject any or all the recommendations.
But reparations committee members consider their results to be an accurate estimate of what it would take to begin to repair the enduring damage of slavery and discrimination, and they bristle at the idea that they should figure out how to pay for it.
“We are the harmed,” Eric McDonnell, chair of San Francisco’s African American Reparations Advisory Committee, said.
“If the judge ruled in our favour, the judge would not turn to us and say, ‘Help them figure out how to make this work.’”
The idea of paying compensation for slavery has gained traction across cities and universities.
In 2020, California became the first state to form a reparations task force and is still struggling to put a price tag on what is owed.
The idea has not been taken up at the federal level.
Fewer than 50,000 Black people still live in San Francisco, and it’s not clear how many would be eligible.
Possible criteria include having lived in the city during certain time periods and descending from someone “incarcerated for the failed War on Drugs.”
Critics say the payouts make no sense in a state and city that never enslaved Black people.
Opponents generally say taxpayers who were never slave owners should not have to pay money to people who were not enslaved.
Advocates say that view ignores a wealth of data and historical evidence showing how long after US slavery officially ended in 1865, government policies and practices worked to imprison Black people at higher rates, deny access to home and business loans and restrict where they could work and live.
“There’s still a veiled perspective that, candidly, Black folks don’t deserve this,” McDonnell said.
“The number itself, $5 million, is actually low when you consider the harm.”
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Justin Hansford, a professor at Howard University School of Law, says no municipal reparations plan will have enough money to right the wrongs of slavery, but he appreciates any attempts to “genuinely, legitimately, authentically” make things right.
And that includes cash, he said.
“If you’re going to try to say you’re sorry, you have to speak in the language that people understand, and money is that language,” he said.
Black residents once made up more than 13 per cent of San Francisco’s population, but more than 50 years later, they account for less than 6 per cent of the city’s residents — and 38 per cent of its homeless population.
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Last modified: August 12, 2022