San Francisco lawmakers will consider a range of options on Tuesday to provide reparations to Black people for decades of racist treatment by the city government, from providing reparation tax credits to helping finance debt forgiveness for Black families.
The proposals will be presented at a city meeting today, though there is no immediate timeline for action. The most prominent and controversial proposal is a “one time lump sum payment” of $5m to all eligible Black people, a number that the chair of the city’s reparations committee called “actually low when you consider the harm”.
But the more than 100 recommendations also include many more modest options, from offering Black residents grants to maintain their homes, to exempting Black businesses from certain city taxes, to funding community centers focused on Black history and culture. Other proposals are more sweeping, including guaranteed annual incomes of at least $97,000 for 250 years for Black families or homes in San Francisco for just $1 a family.
Black residents once made up more than 13% of San Francisco’s population, but more than 50 years later, they account for less than 6% of the city’s residents – and 38% of the city’s homeless population. The reparations attempt to rectify historic injustices by focusing not on slavery but rather the city’s discriminatory treatment of Black residents during the period of “urban renewal” in the 1950s through 1970s, which included the razing of a thriving Black neighborhood and the displacement of nearly 20,000 people in the name of “economic development”.
Adopting any of the recommendations would make San Francisco the first major US city to fund reparations, though the effort faces steep financial headwinds and criticism from conservatives.
The lawmakers’ next steps are unclear: at Tuesday’s hearing, the board could direct staff to conduct further research, write legislation or schedule more meetings. The committee’s final report is due in June. Several board members have expressed concerns over the potential hit the lump sum payment and other options would have on the city budget, already facing a shortfall.
San Francisco’s reckoning with the city’s historic treatment of Black people is being considered at a time of current economic instability, as the region’s tech industry reels from the failure of the Silicon Valley Bank and local businesses are seeing waves of layoffs.
An estimated 50,000 Black people currently live in San Francisco, but it is not clear how many of them would be eligible for financial reparations. The recommendations lay out a number of possible criteria, such as living in San Francisco during a certain time period and descending from someone. .
Eric McDonnell, chair of San Francisco’s African American reparations advisory committee, said he’s disappointed by people who do not understand the legacy of US slavery and how structural racism reverberates through institutions today.
“There’s still a veiled perspective that, candidly, Black folks don’t deserve this,” he said. “The number itself, $5m, is actually low when you consider the harm.”
The idea of paying compensation for historic wrongs has taken off across the country, with California in 2020 becoming the first state in the US to form a reparations task force. The idea has not been taken up at the federal level.
The Chicago suburb of Evanston became the first US city to fund reparations in 2021, using tax money from the sale of recreational marijuana. The city gave money to qualifying people for home repairs, property down payments and interest or late penalties due on property in the city. In December, the Boston city council approved a reparations study task force.
Critics of reparations for Black Americans often ignore the movement’s focus on government discrimination against Black people in the 20th century and say the payouts make no sense in a state and city that never enslaved Black people. California joined the United States in 1850 as a “free state”, but the state’s reparation committee has documented numerous accounts of land confiscation and housing discrimination, among other forms of institutionalized racism. Generally, reparations opponents say taxpayers who were never slave owners should not have to pay money to people who were not enslaved.
Reparations advocates say that view ignores a wealth of data and documentation showing how even 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. San Francisco’s report examines the legacy of discrimination against Black people in public education, as well as the toll of racial violence. It notes that at least 25 San Francisco police officers were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and that, since its founding, the police department has “killed African Americans at disproportionate rates”.
Justin Hansford, 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 by city officials 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.
John Dennis, chair of the San Francisco Republican party, said he does not support reparations, and called the city’s current conversation “completely unserious”.
The $5m lump sum payment “seems ridiculous, and it also seems that this is the one city where it could possibly pass”, Dennis said.
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