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.”

 ?? JEFF CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Hospitalit­y workers march in San Francisco in 2020 for racial justice. The city’s reparation­s figure has been called unrealisti­c even by some advocates. It “undercuts the credibilit­y” of the effort, said one.
JEFF CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS Hospitalit­y workers march in San Francisco in 2020 for racial justice. The city’s reparation­s figure has been called unrealisti­c even by some advocates. It “undercuts the credibilit­y” of the effort, said one.

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