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San Francisco to consider reparations plans, including proposal for $5 million per person payments

A controversial draft reparations proposal that includes a $5 million lump-sum payment for each eligible Black person could make San Francisco the first major U.S. city to fund reparations, though it faces steep financial headwinds and blistering criticism from conservatives.

Tuesday's meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will include a presentation by San Francisco's African American Reparations Advisory Committee, which released its draft report in December. The $5 million-per-person payment is among more than 100 recommendations ranging from offering grants to buy and maintain homes to exempting Black businesses from paying taxes.

Supervisors can vote to adopt all, none or some of the recommendations and can change them. 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.

An estimated 50,000 Black people live in San Francisco, but it's 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 incarcerated for the police war on drugs.

The reparations advisory committee developed in San Francisco is part of a statewide effort to study and develop reparations proposals for Black residents of California, with a focus on residents who are descendants of people who were enslaved. 

In 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that established the state's Reparations Task Force, whose members work with officials across the state to look at how slavery and systemic racism have caused harm to Black residents and determine an appropriate response. The task force is expected to present reparations proposals to the state legislature in California this summer.

California Reparations
Damon Brown, special assistant of the Attorney General, left, and Parliamentarian Doreathea Johnson listen during a meeting by the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. Jeff Chiu / AP

Critics of reparations payouts in San Francisco note that neither the city nor the state of California enslaved Black people. 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 U.S. 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.

The San Francisco reparations committee's draft proposal responds directly to critics who suggest that reparations are unnecessary in a place where slavery was not formally adopted.

"According to the United Nations, reparations 'refers to measures to redress violations of human rights by providing a range of material and symbolic benefits to victims or their families as well as affected communities. Reparation must be adequate, effective, prompt, and should be proportional to the gravity of the violations and the harm suffered,'" reads the proposal's executive summary.

"In this context, reparations are being demanded by members of the Black/African American communities not to remedy enslavement, but to address the public policies explicitly created to subjugate Black people in San Francisco by upholding and expanding the intent and legacy of chattel slavery," it says. "While neither San Francisco, nor California, formally adopted the institution of chattel slavery, the tenets of segregation, white supremacy and systematic repression and exclusion of Black people were codified through legal and extralegal actions, social codes, and judicial enforcement."

California Reparations
Morris Griffin holds up a sign during a meeting by the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. Jeff Chiu / AP

Eric McDonnell, chair of San Francisco's African American Reparations Advisory Committee, said he's disappointed by people who don't understand the legacy of U.S. 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, $5 million, is actually low when you consider the harm."

San Francisco could be the first major U.S. city to fund reparations for Black Americans as the idea of paying compensation for slavery gains traction across cities and universities. San Francisco could even fund reparations before the state of California, which in 2020 became the first state in the U.S. to form a reparations task force. The idea has not been taken up at the federal level.

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 Fillmore District once thrived with Black-owned night clubs and shops until government redevelopment in the 1960s forced out residents.

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.

Led by Supervisor Shamann Walton, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors created the 15-member reparations committee in late 2020, months after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed off on the statewide task force amid national turmoil after a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man. The hearing was scheduled for February but was postponed to Tuesday.

The committee's final report is due in June, and there's no timeline for San Francisco to act on the recommendations. At Tuesday's hearing, the board could direct staff to conduct further research, write legislation or schedule more meetings.

John Dennis, chair of the San Francisco Republican Party, does not support reparations although he says he'd support a serious conversation on the topic. He doesn't consider the board's discussion of $5 million payments to be one.

"This conversation we're having in San Francisco is completely unserious. They just threw a number up, there's no analysis," he said. "It seems ridiculous, and it also seems that this is the one city where it could possibly pass."

McDonnell is frustrated by questions of how San Francisco will produce money to pay for the panel's recommendations.

"We are the harmed," he said. "If the judge ruled in our favor, the judge would not turn to us and say, 'Help them figure out how to make this work.'"

California's task force continues to deliberate recommendations, including monetary compensation. Its report is due to the Legislature on July 1. At that point, it will be up to lawmakers to draft and pass legislation, often a time-consuming process.

The state panel made the controversial decision in March to limit reparations to descendants of Black people who were in the country in the 19th century. Some reparations advocates said the approach misses the ongoing harms that Black immigrants suffer.

Under San Francisco's draft recommendation, a person must be at least 18 years old and identified as "Black/African American" in public documents for at least 10 years. Eligible people must also meet two of eight other criteria, though the list may change.

Those criteria include being born in or migrating to San Francisco between 1940 and 1996 and living in the city for least 13 years; being displaced from San Francisco by urban renewal between 1954 and 1973, or the descendant of someone who was; being a person incarcerated by the war on drugs, or their descendant; or being a descendant of an enslaved U.S. person before 1865.

The Chicago suburb of Evanston became the first U.S. city to fund reparations. 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.

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