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San Francisco will discuss reparation proposals — but even supporters are split

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which meets at City Hall, accepted a draft plan of more than 100 recommendations for reparations to eligible Black residents. But the move was largely procedural and doesn't bind the city to any of the proposals.
David Paul Morris
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which meets at City Hall, accepted a draft plan of more than 100 recommendations for reparations to eligible Black residents. But the move was largely procedural and doesn't bind the city to any of the proposals.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors have signaled they're ready to right racist wrongs of the past — at least in spirit.

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the 11 members accepted a draft plan of more than 100 reparations recommendations for the city's eligible Black residents. Those proposals include a whopping one-time payment of $5 million to each adult and a complete clearing of personal debt — including credit cards, taxes and student loans. Black residents would also be able to collect an annual income of at least $97,000 for 250 years and buy homes within the city limits for $1.

The move by the board was largely procedural – an intermediate step in a much longer process. It does not bind the city to any of the ideas presented in the 60-page proposal by the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee, which in 2020 was tasked with addressing "the institutional, City sanctioned harm that has been inflicted upon African American communities."

"We are not here today to say what recommendations we will be supporting or moving forward with. There is still much work that needs to be done," the bill's sponsor, Shamann Walton, stipulated before the vote during the 7 1/2-hour meeting.

A final report that includes feedback from the Board of Supervisors is due in June. The board is set to meet again on the issue in September.

Still, the vote was met with fanfare by residents and the large cash payout made national headlines. But some longtime civil rights and reparations activists were critical of the board and the committee's financial restitution figures, calling it political theatrics designed to delay meaningful change.

Some activists criticize the plan as unrealistic

"This Black community does not need to be set up for trickery and for failure. Their hopes should not be raised up by just words, words, words," Rev. Amos Brown told NPR a day after the meeting.

In addition to being a lead pastor at Third Baptist San Francisco, the city's oldest Black church, Brown is president of the San Francisco NAACP. He said he's "been in the civil rights struggle for 68 years" and learned from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Frustrated and fuming, Brown noted that he had urged the board to reject the $5 million payment proposal ahead of the meeting.

To be clear, Brown said he expects monetary restitution to be part of any reparations package by the city, the state and the federal government. But first, he said, officials must focus on the future and the best path forward toward equality and justice. For Brown, that means investing in housing, education, healthcare, economic empowerment and cultural centers for San Francisco's dwindling Black community.

At its peak in the 1970s, African Americans made up about 13.5% of the city's population. As of 2022, the number dropped to 5.7%. That makes it one of the biggest cities in the nation with one of the lowest shares of black residents.

"There should be deliberate action to stop the hemorrhaging of this black population if we want to have any Black people left to give reparations to," Brown said.

Brown also noted the city's budget deficit. "They know there's no money to pay for it," Brown said. "So all they did was just give lip service. It's not fair. It's not honest."

By voting to accept the proposal without any indication of how they'd fund it, politicians get to have it both ways, according to Brown.

"They offer low hanging fruit that seems like a victory but you know will only [lead to] more studies. And that's another game. Another delaying tactic. That gets people frustrated until things dissipate and then self-destruct. We've got to stop that. It's time for America to pay up and deal in substance, with integrity and with accountability," Brown said.

During Tuesday's meeting, one of the plan's authors explained that the "committee was not charged to conduct a feasibility study. The charge was to chronicle the harm and determine the value."

Others believe the proposals are an important first step toward justice

Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies race and structural inequality, has written about the government's obligation to pay reparations. He disagrees with the idea that San Francisco's big ticket items are a red herring.

"That argument of whether or not this is a distraction or not doesn't necessarily hold up to me because in so many instances, I hear people say that very serious ideas around reparations are fantastical or foolhardy. So I don't necessarily jump when I hear a big number anymore because people often make the same arguments to very rigorous analysis," Perry told NPR.

"Just the idea of reparations is impossible for many."

Perry hasn't yet read through the details of the San Francisco draft proposal. But he said most often the experts drafting plans that include large cash sums are "acknowledging the depth of discrimination and the collective economic impact that many different discriminatory policies can have on a person over a course of not only their lifetime, but their family's lifetime."

So even when it may appear to be next to impossible for any one municipality to pay that sum out, it is imperative to have a record of that assessment, he added.

He acknowledges that Brown's concerns are grounded in lessons from the failures of other efforts by the federal government and municipalities.

"In a place like San Francisco, you have largely what is, and I'll put this in air quotes, a progressive city in a quote-unquote 'progressive state.' And so much of what can be presented can be just placating to the fantasies of a progressive left as theater," Perry said. "And that doesn't do anyone a service."

But Black communities seeking justice can't operate from a place of fear, he said.

Other groups of people have succeeded in creating systems of redress for egregious injustices. In the U.S., Native Americans have received land and billions of dollars for being forcibly exiled from their lands. Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II were eventually paid $1.5 billion in restitution. And the American government played an instrumental role in ensuring that Jews received reparations for the Holocaust.

If the proposal in San Francisco advances, it will join other cities in taking a first step towards some form of local, state and federal reparations, Perry said.

"Exclusive, discriminatory policies did not start in Washington. They started in local municipalities," he explained. 'Things like redlining started in Baltimore, and they were eventually codified by the federal government. But they started locally. So it's important that local governments also start to develop their reparative policies that will work their way up to Washington, D.C."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.