If you’re Black and you have an ancestor who was enslaved before 1865, you might want to keep an eye on San Francisco.
The city’s reparations committee has recommended giving each Black person who meets the criteria a lump-sum payment of $5 million, along with a bonanza of financial benefits that includes a guaranteed income of $97,000 for at least 250 years and paying off all educational and personal debts.
“Through a tailored plan, San Francisco can redress the public policies explicitly created to subjugate Black people in San Francisco by upholding and expanding the intent and legacy of chattel slavery, whose vestiges continue to have impacts today,” the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee said in its December draft plan.
The proposal, which would need the approval of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, faces a host of legal, financial and political hurdles, as demonstrated by the deluge of criticism that greeted the draft after it hit Bay Area news outlets over the weekend.
“First of all, it’s not going to ever get implemented. I’ll be the first lawyer to fight against this,” civil rights lawyer Leo Terrell said on Fox News Channel. “This is outrageous. It’s unlawful. It’s unconstitutional. It’s racist, but it’s not surprising it came from California.”
San Francisco is hardly alone. Reparations have become a rallying cry in Democratic-run jurisdictions with advocates arguing that economic compensation is overdue for those suffering the lingering effects of the U.S. slavery era.
A California task force created by the state Legislature in 2021 is holding hearings on reparations. Meanwhile, Democratic-run cities including Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, have launched committees to study the issue.
“The 13th Amendment may have ended slavery, but the disparities exist,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, said as she reintroduced a bill last week to form a reparations commission.
Former California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder accused Democrats of seeking to keep Black voters in the fold with “the extraction of money from people who were never slave owners to be given to people who were never slaves.”
“It’s all about making sure that the Democrats keep getting that monolithic Black vote, about 95%, without which they cannot win,” Mr. Elder said.
He and others pointed out that California was not a slave state. The San Francisco proposal acknowledged that neither the city nor the state “formally adopted the institution of chattel slavery,” which was confined mainly to the Southern states, but argued that Black people suffered discrimination in areas including housing, education and employment.
“A lump sum payment would compensate the affected population for the decades of harms that they have experienced, and will redress the economic and opportunity losses that Black San Franciscans have endured, collectively, as the result of both intentional decisions and unintended harms perpetuated by City policy,” the proposal says.
Standing in the way are court decisions mandating that race-based remedies be tied to relatively recent and widespread discrimination, said civil rights lawyer Hans Bader.
“San Francisco’s reparations plan is unconstitutional because there is no evidence of recent, widespread governmental discrimination [italics his] against black people in San Francisco,” Mr. Bader said in an email. “Evidence of such recent, widespread discrimination by the City of San Francisco is needed before it can hand out race-based relief.”
He said courts have also ruled that disparities by themselves do not constitute discrimination and argued that many such inequalities “obviously are not the result of discrimination.”
“For example, Latinos live three years longer than whites, on average, even though doctors don’t discriminate in their favor,” Mr. Bader said. “Asians make more money than whites, on average, even though Japanese and Chinese Americans used to face massive discrimination. And while blacks make less money than whites, on average, immigrants from some African countries like Ghana and Nigeria typically make more money than whites do.”
Also raising issues is Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that prohibits state governmental discrimination based on race. The report advised challenging the state law “with the same precision as the discriminatory actions that were taken against this racial group.”
Another challenge lies in determining which Californians are eligible. Under the San Francisco committee’s recommendations, an individual would have to be 18 and have checked “Black/African American” on public documents for at least 10 years.
After that, a person would have to meet at least two criteria from a list of eight, six of which require a San Francisco connection. They include being born or migrating to the city between 1940 and 1996, attending public schools at the time of the desegregation consent decree and being displaced by urban renewal between 1954 and 1973.
Two of the eight criteria require no San Francisco residency. They are being descended from a slave, and being incarcerated or descended from someone incarcerated under the “failed War on Drugs.”
In other words, an Atlanta resident who was once arrested on drug charges and whose lineage includes an enslaved ancestor would apparently be eligible for the $5 million.
San Francisco has a Black population of about 44,930, according to the 2020 U.S. census. If all those residents were eligible, the lump-sum price tag alone would be about $225 billion. San Francisco’s 2022-2023 budget was $14 billion.
Those in support of the plan include Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin.
“There are so many efforts that result in incredible reports that just end up gathering dust on a shelf,” Mr. Peskin told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We cannot let this be one of them.”
The board is required to hold a hearing to accept, reject or amend the committee’s draft proposal but has not yet placed the matter on its agenda, said Brittni Chicuata, director of economic rights for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
She said the reparations committee is slated to continue meeting on the second Monday of each month through June. The next meeting is slated for Feb. 13.