The California Reparations Task Force recently voted on Saturday, May 6th to approve recommendations for how the Golden State should atone for past and current harms inflicted on people of African descent. While the California State Assembly must now decide how it will act on the reparations proposal, a local conversation is ongoing in San Francisco, where a city-appointed, 15-member African American Reparations Advisory Committee just released its Draft San Francisco Reparations Plan in December. Like the state-wide proposal, the draft plan makes over 100 recommendations on how the City and County of San Francisco should atone for centuries of systemic and structural racism against Black residents. Once finalized, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors must substantively adopt the recommendations of the Advisory Committee.
As a scholar of race and inequality and a professor of African American Studies at San José State University who researches and teaches about the enduring impact of systemic and structural racism in the U.S., I know that the draft plan makes viable recommendations for reparations that are adequate and proportional to the harms inflicted on Black San Franciscans across multiple generations. The United Nations defines reparations as “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.”
The draft plan gives recommendations that address issues in the areas of economic empowerment, education, health, and policy. For example, it proposes improvements to affordable rental housing accessibility and the expansion of homeownership opportunities, financial investments in Black entrepreneurship and business, the creation of community-informed programs to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that criminalizes Black children, the promotion of long-term solutions to the social determinants of health that contribute to a lower life expectancy for Black people in the U.S., and the repeal of Proposition 209 that eliminated government funded affirmative action programs in California that some argue has led to a significant decrease in Black representation in higher education, public employment, and an annual loss of $1 billion in contract dollars by businesses owned by women and people of color.
And yes, it also recommends that the City and County of San Francisco formally recognize the institutional harms inflicted on Black residents and issue a public apology.
These types of proposals were unfortunately overshowed by the national attention that primarily focused on the recommendation of a cash payment of $5 million to each eligible person. Nevertheless, the Advisory Committee’s draft plan outlines a promising and commendable path forward for San Francisco to atone for the atrocities inflicted on Black residents under systemic and structural racism.
Some opponents of the draft plan argue that it’s unwarranted because California never sanctioned slavery. They maintain that slavery is an issue of the past and that San Franciscans shouldn’t have to pay for crimes they didn’t commit. Others are concerned about the city’s bottom line and assert that San Francisco simply can’t afford reparations amidst the near $800 million deficit.
While such objections are understandable, the draft plan boldly declares that, “While neither San Francisco, nor California, formally adopted the institution of chattel slavery, the tenants of segregation, white supremacy, and systemic repression and exclusion of Black people were codified through legal and extralegal social codes and judicial enforcement.” That system of repression and exclusion of Black people included, among other things, housing segregation, discriminatory land use policy, discriminatory bank lending practices (like redlining), workforce discrimination, education discrimination, urban renewal, voter suppression, and Jim Crow. These acts of racism were inflicted on Black San Franciscans after the abolition of slavery. Accordingly, the recommendations outlined in the draft plan are designed with the intent to atone for these acts of racism that constrained the life chances of Black San Franciscans, both past and present.
Moreover, as Mayor Breed recently stated, despite her opposition to creating a San Francisco reparations office amidst the current budget deficit, the types of investments advocated in the draft plan will have a “tremendous impact” on long-time disenfranchised San Franciscans. The Board of Supervisors must consider the financial and moral cost of failing to act to atone for a legacy of systemic and structural racism in the city and county.
While it may not be possible to enact all of the recommendations simultaneously, it’s important that all San Franciscans substantively engage the Advisory Committee’s draft reparations plan despite the foreseeable political and financial obstacles. The draft plan makes a strong case for reparations.
According to the UN, reparations should address four themes:
First, restitution that aims to restore victims to their original situation before the violation occurred.
Second, compensation for economically assessable damage, loss of earnings, property, or other economic opportunities, and for moral damages inflicted on injured parties.
Third, rehabilitation that may include access to medical and psychological care and social services.
Finally, satisfaction that may include the end of perpetual violations, a public apology for inflicted harm, legal action, commemorations, and memorials.
The draft plan makes recommendations across these themes and the Board of Supervisors must substantively adopt them.