The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is slated to approve a 15-member African American Reparations Advisory Committee on Tuesday, which would make the city the first of its size to take such a concrete step to explore what reparations could look like for its Black residents.
Over the next two years, the committee plans to explore possible financial compensation and other recommendations for the descendants of enslaved people. It would examine how slavery, segregation, redlining, predatory financial practices, and other social and political ills contributed to the mistreatment and subsequent wealth gap and other disparities affecting Black people in the city.
In January 2020, District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton announced legislation calling for reparations for Black people whose ancestors were enslaved and those who were discriminated against under Jim Crow laws enacted at the state and local levels to enforce segregation.
“We were brought here against our will,” Walton told The Chronicle. “We were forced to work under inhumane conditions, not allowed to own property, not allowed to go to school — the list is long. The lingering effects of those inequities have spilled over generations.”More for you
African Americans moved in large numbers to San Francisco during World War II to work shipyard jobs amid segregation. For example, the federal government created a Black housing project for Black war workers in the Fillmore district, which became a Black neighborhood, while white war workers were housed in four other whites-only housing projects in the city. Decades later, the Fillmore’s redevelopment would lead to massive displacement of Black families.
Today, Black people make up 5% of San Francisco’s population but account for 35% of the city’s homeless population. The average income for a Black household is $31,000, compared with $110,000 for white families, and about 19% of Black children live in poverty in the city, according to city data.
“This is long overdue,” said Dr. Amos Brown, who would also serve on the committee and is pastor of San Francisco’s historic Third Baptist Church. “There is a movement happening at the local level across the country to think about ways in which city governments can deal with the legacies of slavery.”
Many people realize the need to recognize and deal with existing social inequities that are based on race, said Brown, who is also president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, whether it be through cash payments, housing, education or other means.
The appointment of the San Francisco reparations committee comes amid a growing national movement to examine the legacy of slavery and its ongoing harm.
In March, the city of Evanston, Ill., made reparations available to eligible Black residents — a move considered to be a first in the country. In April, the House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill (HR40) that would establish a federal commission to study the legacy of slavery in the United States. Last year, California established its own commission on the state level to study the matter. Other cities such as Asheville, N.C., and Amherst, Mass., have approved reparation programs or are considering similar measures.
Reparations have been a part of the public discourse for decades, but recent momentum seems inspired by several factors. The Black Lives Matter movement, the slow but steady emergence of people of color as the majority population in the U.S. in the next two decades, and younger generations more willing to talk about race relations who are entering the workforce and public office are all factors, experts say.
“It’s all of these things and more,” said James Taylor, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco who has taught classes on race and politics and would be one of the committee’s 15 members. “Which is why it’s important to talk about reparations from a contemporary view that goes beyond monetary compensation. It could be more investment in education, housing and neighborhoods.”
While there is mounting support for reparations, there’s also fierce opposition.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans and 90% of Republicans oppose the idea of providing reparations to the descendants of slaves, according to the results of a nationwide University of Massachusetts Amherst poll released last week. Among the 1,000 people who were polled, 6% said such a program would be too expensive, 13% said it would be too difficult to administer and 25% said it is impossible to place a value on slavery’s impact, the poll showed.
Meanwhile, 38% said the descendants of enslaved people do not deserve reparations for their ancestors’ struggles. Another 18% said reparations should not be paid because they say African Americans are treated equally today, the poll showed.
Tatishe Nteta, associate professor of political science at UMass Amherst and director of the poll, told The Chronicle that the opposition is particularly acute among white Americans.
“I was not surprised about the pushback; that’s always been there,” Nteta said. “But I was surprised about the reasoning. I was under the impression that people were recoiling at the monetary costs associated with reparation policies, but that’s not it. It’s really about perceptions of deservedness and worthiness.”
Defining what reparations mean is going to be crucial, he said.
“This is not just about slavery, exclusively, but about the secondary system of racial subjugation known as Jim Crow,” Nteta said. “And so here, the argument is, you don’t necessarily need to be a descendant of a slave to deal with the contemporary legacies of racial discrimination.”
The United States has issued reparations before. The 1988 Civil Liberties Act gave Japanese Americans an official federal apology and a check for $20,000 each four decades after their internment during World War II. The U.S. paid $1.6 billion to more than 80,000 survivors of internment.
In addition to Brown and Taylor, the San Francisco advisory committee would include 13 other African American residents with varied backgrounds, officials said. Among the 15, there’s a member who has experienced homelessness, a representative from the Fillmore, a formerly incarcerated person, a person who has been displaced due to gentrification, a small business owner and others. Members will be paid $500 a month and are tasked with coming up with a report summarizing research, outreach and other efforts in the first six months. A draft plan is due 18 months after the committee’s inaugural meeting, and a final draft is due in 24 months.
“San Francisco has a history of racism toward Black people; it’s documented in our government records,” said Gloria Berry, a member of the committee who was formerly unhoused. “This committee can finally right some wrongs.”
Update: The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved members of the African American Reparations Advisory Committee on May 4.
Shwanika Narayan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter/Instagram: @shwanika
Shwanika Narayan covers workplace discrimination, income inequality, and poverty, at The San Francisco Chronicle. She previously covered retail and small businesses on the business desk. Before joining the paper in 2019, she worked at The Los Angeles Business Journal and freelanced for AJ+, NBC News, Quartz, and Hyphen magazine, covering national and global news and writing about Asian American identity. Shwanika has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA.