The Washington Post
Reparations proposal: $5 million per person
San Francisco figure for payout to Black residents criticized as unrealistic
Tasked with calculating how much San Francisco should pay its Black residents for decades of discrimination, a governmentappointed panel didn’t develop a mathematical formula. Instead, over the past year and a half, its 15 members have been studying the city’s history.
In the 1960s, city leaders demolished part of the Fillmore District, a neighborhood once known as the Harlem of the West, displacing 883 businesses and 20,000 people, most of them Black. Decades later, thousands of people remain displaced and the neighborhood has turned into a predominantly White enclave of multimillion-dollar homes.
To compensate for that and other instances of racial discrimination, the city’s African American Reparations Advisory Committee recently recommended that qualifying Black residents receive $5 million each in reparations.
“There wasn’t a math formula,” said Eric Mcdonnell, chair of the reparations committee and the principal of Peacock Partnerships, a San Francisco-based consulting firm. “It was a journey for the committee towards what could represent a significant enough investment in families to put them on this path to economic well-being, growth and vitality that chattel slavery and all the policies that flowed from it destroyed.”
The proposed reparations program is not a recompense for slavery, which was never legal in San Francisco, but instead, the committee’s report says, for “the public policies explicitly created
to subjugate Black people in San Francisco by upholding and expanding the intent and legacy of chattel slavery.”
Across the country, more than a dozen cities and states have begun developing reparations programs, attempting to quantify the financial damage brought by slavery and decades of Jim Crow laws. Some proposals envision offering scholarships, or housing vouchers, while others call for Black Americans to receive cash payments.
But many are still struggling with one central question: How much?
Finding a price tag big enough to satisfy reparations advocates, and yet politically palatable to the many Americans polls have shown oppose financial restitution for Black Americans, could determine the fate of a movement that gained momentum after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 but has yet to find national acceptance.
San Francisco’s $5 million proposal, magnitudes larger than amounts being discussed in other communities, has drawn intense backlash from conservatives who lambaste the idea as financially ruinous for a city with an annual budget of $14 billion that is still recovering economically from the coronavirus pandemic. The proposal doesn’t explain who would qualify, but if even a fraction of the city’s 50,000 Black residents met the criteria, it would consume a huge amount of the city’s annual budget.
John Dennis, chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party, says that he’s open to a conversation about whether Black residents should receive reparations but that the proposal wasn’t a serious effort to start one.
“This is just a bunch of likeminded people who got in the room and came up with a number,” he said. “You’ll notice in that report, there was no justification for the number, no analysis provided. This was an opportunity to do some serious work and they blew it.”
Even some within the reparations movement have dismissed the figure as unrealistic.
There are no widely accepted formulas for paying reparations, said William A. Darity Jr., an economist who has been advocating for reparations for decades, but the number should be “somewhat realistic.”
“Calling for $5 million payout by a local government undercuts the credibility of the reparations effort,” Darity said.
But supporters of the proposal say it’s justified, noting that the city’s Black residents have a median income of about $44,000 compared with $85,000 for Latinos, $105,000 for Asians and $113,000 for White residents, according to 2021 census data.
The scale of the payment should be weighed against San Francisco’s history of racist policies, including enforcing housing and school segregation, said Sheryl Evans Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which provided research support to the reparations committee. The city also has one of the highest costs of living in the country with a median home price of $1.3 million, she said.
How San Francisco settles the debate could reverberate throughout the reparations movement, setting a high-water mark for an effort that has been criticized for, so far, producing small sums.
In Evanston, a Chicago suburb credited with having America’s first government-funded reparations program, the city is offering some Black residents a $25,000 housing voucher, a figure critics have called paltry. Providence, R.I., has announced a $10 million reparations program, but it doesn’t include any direct cash payments to Black residents — and White residents can also apply.
Meanwhile, Darity, the economist, says Black Americans should receive at least $350,000 each in a federal reparations program, a figure based on his calculation of the country’s racial wealth gap.
“We see the racial wealth gap as this core indicator of the cumulative effects over time of White racism and White supremacy on living Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved here,” said Darity, a public policy professor at Duke University.
California has established a separate state reparations task force and asked a team of five economists to quantify the cost of discrimination that the state’s Black population has faced. The team calculated California’s maximum liability for discriminatory housing policies between 1933 and 1977 and settled on a figure of $569 billion. That would work out to $223,239 for every Black California resident.
The committee’s final report, which would take into account other forms of discrimination, is scheduled to be released in June. It’s separate from the local reparations efforts that have also sprung up in Oakland, Los Angeles and Sacramento, which are developing their own approaches.
“People think there is a onesize-fits-all model” for reparations, said Kaycea Campbell, one of the economists advising California’s reparations task force. “But your perception of reparations could be very different based on what you think can get passed from a legislative point of view, what you think is most egregious, or what you think has been left as the residue of slavery as an institution.”
Japanese Americans who survived internment camps during World War II faced similar challenges when they began calling for reparations in the 1970s. There was tension over the best way to provide enough to fully account for the harm done to the Japanese community and finding a figure that would gather enough political support, said Donald K. Tamaki, a lawyer who worked on the Supreme Court case that paved the way for reparations for Japanese Americans.
Compensating thousands of victims for years of imprisonment, the value of businesses and homes lost, and the lives of people who died in the camps would have reached billions of dollars, Tamaki said.
Eventually, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1988 to make $20,000 reparations payments to more than 80,000 Japanese Americans. It was a figure that was affordable and politically palatable, Tamaki said, but not one based on the economic calculations of the harm done to their community.
“Our strategists decided to go for a number which was large enough to make the apology meaningful as atonement,” Tamaki said. “But it was not reparations in terms of: ‘ Here is the value of what was taken away from you.’ ”
But those negotiations are not a fair model for reparations for Black Americans, he said. “There’s no equivalent between four years in a concentration camp and centuries of enslavement and then years of racial terror and exclusion,” said Tamaki, who serves on California’s reparations task force.
The debate has roiled local leaders in San Francisco, a liberal city where 85 percent of voters sided with President Biden.
Since the draft report’s release in December, the reparations committee has been inundated with hate mail, including emails and voice messages using explicit and racist language. Shamann Walton, the board member who authored the legislation creating the reparations panel, said in a recent Facebook post that members of his office, even interns, had received “threatening messages and some are fearful for their own lives.”
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the committee’s recommendations this year after a final report is released in June.
It was the committee’s responsibility to advocate for the best deal possible for Black residents, said Brittni Chicuata, director of economic rights at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. It is up to elected officials to decide what the city could afford, she said.
“People propose policies all the time when they don’t necessarily know where the money is going to come from. Since when is that a requisite for advocacy?” Chicuata said.
Despite the onslaught of criticism, some members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors say they stand behind the committee’s work.
“I think that the people who are so focused on the dollar amount are really just attempting to undermine reparations for Black people,” said Walton, the board’s only Black member. “People are going to have to get comfortable with the fact that to do reparations, there’s going to be some costs, and figuring out how to achieve that is where the real work happens.”
The city can lead on the issue of reparations as it has done on other progressive issues, said Supervisor Dean Preston, who said that while the $5 million figure accurately reflects the harm done to Black residents, he isn’t sure the city can afford it. “Honestly, half the things my office works on, people will say it’s impractical, it’s pie in the sky,” Preston said.
But some board members have already voiced opposition to the proposed $5 million payments. “I wish we had this kind of money in San Francisco’s general fund, but if we want to maintain the services that exist today, we do not,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen told the San Francisco Chronicle. Ronen did not respond to requests for an interview.
Despite being home to Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires, San Francisco faces a $728 million budget deficit over the next two years.
And even some reparations committee members are critical of the proposal. It distracts from the report’s other recommendations, said Amos Brown, a member of both San Francisco’s and the state’s reparations task forces.
“You can’t put a dollar tag on the horrifying and hellish evil that our ancestors went through,” said Brown, who has been the pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church since 1976. “But what you can do is implement simple, practical programs that will deal with our health challenges, our educational needs, our economic needs and creating spaces for us to connect as a community for our cultural needs.”