The city of San Francisco is currently weighing whether to accept a reparations proposal designed to address decades of systemic injustice faced by Black San Franciscans.
The San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee (AARAC), an organization tasked with developing programs and recommendations for improving the treatment of Black citizens, outlined the necessity of reparations for Black San Franciscan residents in a proposal addressed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Mayor London Breed, and the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the Higher Commissioner, reparations are efforts to remedy human rights violations by providing benefits to victims of the injustice. AARAC’s proposal would award each eligible, Black San Francisco resident a one-time payment of $5 million to address the historic displacement and wealth inequality faced by Black homeowners and renters.
The list of eligibility requirements is extensive. Individuals must identify as Black or African American on public documents and be 18 years or older. They must also prove that they are a long time resident of the city and have either been directly impacted or are a descendant of a San Franciscan directly impacted by systemic injustice. Specifically mentioned eligible injustices include the War on Drugs, chattel slavery, and segregation.
“What we are trying to do with the idea of $5 million is really to estimate the injury, economic impact of homeownership lost by many families, and discrimination,” explained USF politics professor and member of the AARAC, James Taylor. “That’s what reparations is really aimed to do, to get people to the middle class.”
The proposal has been subject to criticism due to the lack of funding details in the plan. Chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party, John Dennis, for instance, called the bill “ludicrous” at a reparations task force meeting on Jan. 19 and questioned how the city, with a fiscal budget of nearly $14 billion would come up with enough money to fund this project. According to recent data, there are an estimated 48,225 Black residents in the city who could potentially qualify for this program, leading to an eventual bill of over $240 billion.
The proposal was set to be addressed on Feb. 7 by the city’s Board of Supervisors. However, because the proposal’s Chief Sponsor Shamann Walton was unable to attend the hearing, the proposition won’t be officially addressed until March 14 per Walton’s request.
Despite the item being put on hold, members of the public were invited to share their opinion on the issue at the Feb. 7 Board of Supervisors meeting. The first public speaker to take the podium was former committee member, Reverend Amos Brown. “As president of the San Francisco branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and senior pastor of the historic baptist church for 47 years, I would hope that we would have the moral compass to show some love for African Americans in this country,” Brown said.
Another member of the public, Kurt Young, who identified himself as a long-term resident of the Mission District, shared his personal experience with systemic oppression to the board. “Ever since I was a child my fate was determined for me, that I wouldn’t make it to 20 because I was a Black male raised by a single mother,” he said. “The system had no expectations for me.”
“With all the progress we have made in our country,” he continued. “I still fear for my life on a financial aspect, on a safety aspect because when I look at the news it’s people like me who are being shot and jailed. Reparations is an opportunity for us to live up to our promise in order to form a more perfect union.” Of the public speakers who elected to address the board, none of the commenters were members of the opposition.
The proposal document cites the main elements of successful reparations. “Cessation and assurances of non-repetition” references the international law that states when one is wrongfully injured by a state, the state must then stop the act and take appropriate action to assure the injured party that it will not happen again. “Restitution and repatriation” call on the state to take necessary action in order to reverse the effects of wrongdoing as much as possible. The proposal also suggests rehabilitating legal systems to be more beneficial to the oppressed party moving forward. Finally, it calls on ensuring the satisfaction of those who have been affected.
The $5 million per person in reparations would be dispersed with the intention to provide monetary compensation in an effort to remedy the economic losses felt by San Francisco’s Black population. The proposal cites displacement as one of the major consequences of harm by the city.
Displacement has long plagued San Francisco’s Black residents. A report conducted by the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley found that, between 2000 and 2015, San Francisco cleared out nearly 3,000 low-income Black households through redevelopment projects and gentrification that priced residents out of their homes. The report also found that Black renters are more susceptible to receiving eviction notices, with 74% of Black renters living in neighborhoods with a high risk of eviction.
U.S. census data shows that the population of Black people in San Francisco has dropped from 13.4% in 1970 to 5.7% in 2021. This issue has been particularly prominent in the Fillmore district, where “urban renewal” projects, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a construction program to replace or restore substandard buildings in an urban area,” has resulted in the significant displacement of Black residents. The projects have received criticism for nearly erasing the presence of Black residents and culture from the district.
“Redlining in urban renewal is the main injury in San Francisco, it is what happened when Black people moved to the city,” said Taylor. “The city did not welcome them, did not accommodate them, and were hostile to them.”
The roots of displacement in the Fillmore district can be traced back to the post-World War II era, after President Truman signed the 1949 Housing Act, allowing the demolition of urban neighborhoods, categorized as “slums.” This resulted in low-income neighborhoods, predominantly occupied by residents of color, becoming targets for reconstruction and redevelopment projects.
In their proposal, the AARAC also cited the California Community Redevelopment Act of 1945 as a fundamental element contributing to the displacement of San Francisco’s Black residents. This act allowed for agencies to start redevelopment projects in areas of the city that were deemed “physical and economic liabilities,” which the AARAC suggests resulted in the targeting of low-income and neighborhoods predominantly occupied by residents of color.
Taylor said that reparations address the multifaceted nature of oppression in the United States. “There are three major windows to focus on in reparations, one stage is slavery, discrimination itself is another stage, the next big chunk, and since the 1970s, post Dr. King, is the War on Drugs injury.”
He explained that a major goal of reparations is to shift the nature of the attention the government gives to Black citizens. “They have no problem with mass incarceration, with the cost of over policing, they don’t mind the state focusing on Black people negatively,” he said. “We are proposing to redirect the money to the kids to keep them out of trouble, to give them a different start. They’re going to spend it on them anyway, in programs, in incarceration, in parole, in everything the system entails.”
He continued, “I think that it’s important that people get past the superficial aspects of reparations and get down to the brass tacks — moving beyond the ‘what ifs’ and ‘how much’ and get into the mode of ‘we need winning results, we need some success to encourage our efforts.’”
Taylor said that the Human Rights Commission is currently developing an on-campus program in order to open up a dialogue with students about reparations. He encourages students to keep their ear to the ground on updates and to get involved. The AARAC’s proposal will officially be readdressed on March 14, where the livestream will be available to watch on the city council’s website.