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San Francisco Seriously Considers $5 Million Reparations Payouts To People Who “Identify” As Black For At Least 10 Years

Payments of $5 million for each qualifying Black adult, cancellation of individual debts and tax burdens, guaranteed annual incomes of at least $97,000 over 250 years, and homes in San Francisco at a cost of only $1 per household.

These are among more than 100 recommendations made by the city-appointed reparations commission charged with tackling the difficult issue of how to pay reparations for centuries of enslavement and systemic racism. 

San Francisco’s board of supervisors, hearing the report for the first time Tuesday, expressed passionate support for the slate of ideas, some saying that money should not hold back the city from doing what is right. Several supervisors said they were surprised to hear resistance from politically liberal San Franciscans, who seem oblivious that the legacy of slavery and racist policies continues to leave black Americans at the bottom of the ladder for health, education and economic prosperity, overrepresented in the jails and the homeless. The blueprint for reparations, released in December, is unparalleled nationally for its specificity and scope.

Under the draft recommendation from San Francisco, an individual would need to be 18 or older, and identify as “Black/African-American” on publicly available documents for at least 10 years. Eligible individuals also must meet two of eight other criteria, although this list could be amended. These criteria include being born in or moving to San Francisco between 1940 and 1996, and living in the city for at least 13 years; being moved out of the city as part of an urban renewal project between 1954 and 1973, or being a descendant of someone who was; attending the city’s public schools before it was fully desegregated; or being the descendant of a formerly enslaved person.

The commission has yet to conduct a cost analysis for the proposal, but critics pounced on the plan as fiscally and politically unfeasible. An estimate by the Hoover Institution, an academic institution at Stanford University that leans conservative, said that each nonblack household in the city would be on the hook for at least $600,000.

Tuesday’s unanimous vote of council members to support reparations does not mean that all recommendations would eventually be adopted, since the body could vote to approve, reject or modify any or all of them. The commission’s final report is expected in June. Some supervisors previously said that given the city’s large deficits in a downturn of the technology industry, it cannot now afford to make major compensation payments. Tinish Hollins, the vice chairman of the African-American Reparations Advisory Council, alluded to those comments, and a number of people in the queue who spoke reminded the council that they will closely monitor what supervisors do next.

The idea of paying reparations for slavery has gained momentum in cities and universities. In 2020, California became the first state to create a reparations working group, and it is still struggling to place a price on what is owed. The idea has yet to gain traction at the federal level.

In San Francisco, Black residents once made up over 13% of the city’s population, but over 50 years later, they are just under 6% of city residents – and 38% of its homeless population. The Fillmore district once flourished with black-owned nightclubs and shops, until a government-led renovation in the 1960s forced residents out. Fewer than 50,000 blacks still lived in the city, and it is unclear how many will qualify. Possible criteria include having lived in the city in a specific period of time, and descent from someone who was “incarcerated as part of a failed war on drugs”.

Critics said that payment made no sense in a state and city that had never enslaved Black people. Opponents typically argue taxpayers, who were never slave owners, should not be paying people money for being non-enslaved. Supporters say this perspective ignores that, long after U.S. slavery formally ended in 1865, state policies and practices worked to keep Blacks in prison at higher rates, denied them access to housing loans and businesses, and restricted the places they could work and live.

Justin Hansford, professor at Howard University Law School, said there is not a single municipal reparations program with enough money to rectify the injustices of slavery, but he welcomes any effort at making things “truly, legally, truthfully” right. And that includes money, he says. J

John Dennis, chairman of the San Francisco GOP, does not support the restitution, though he said he would support serious dialogue on the subject. 

The board created the 15-member compensation board at the end of 2020, months after California Gov. Gavin Newsom approved the state-wide task force in the wake of nationwide uproar following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The commission continues to consider recommendations, including money damages, and its report is expected before the Legislature July 1. At that time, lawmakers will have the task of crafting and passing the legislation.

The state commission made the controversial decision in March to restrict reparations payments to descendants of Blacks who were living in the country during the 19th century. 

The Chicago suburb of Evanston became the first city in the United States to levy restitution. The city gave cash to eligible individuals to pay for house repairs, down payments, and the interest or late fees due on properties. In December, Boston’s city council approved the creation of the Reparations Study Task Force.

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