With Reparations Office in Limbo, Advocates Urge Action to Help Black Residents

People cheering and waving hands in the audience at a Board of Supervisors meeting

Madison Alvarado/San Francisco Public Press

At a Board of Supervisors hearing on proposed reparations to the Black community, many shared their families’ experience of being pushed out of the city by urban renewal and other discriminatory practices.

In June, Mayor London Breed agreed to set aside $4 million over two years to set up an Office of Reparations. But that has not happened yet, and pressure is mounting within San Francisco’s Black community to act expeditiously on a months-old plan to redress the effects of decades of racism with an array of policy solutions.

The San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee’s final report proposes a long list of ideas to monitor future city policies for racial impact, break down barriers to home ownership and promote public health and education. It also endorses the hot-button proposal to give eligible Black city residents payments of up to $5 million.

On Tuesday Supervisor Shamann Walton, whose district includes the historically Black Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, introduced a resolution to accept the final plan, which the supervisors could vote on as early as next week. 

Echoing his enthusiasm for the proposal, hundreds of Black San Franciscans converged on City Hall before the meeting, calling for local leaders to “cut the check” and act on the committee’s recommendations.

“What we are asking you to do is now making an investment in the future of San Francisco, by centering and prioritizing Black San Francisco,” said Tinisch Hollins, vice chair of the committee, at the supervisors’ meeting.

[See our previous coverage on reparations]

Two other supervisors pushed for the creation of the office, saying it was necessary to repair past and ongoing racial harms. While all supervisors acknowledged the need for reparations, the discussion was light on specific policies board members were ready to support, or how to implement them.

In setting up an Office of Reparations, Walton said, the city must “identify a funding source to implement some of these recommendations,” in concert with the city’s Human Rights Commission.

People stand outside City Hall with yellow umbrellas with the words "reparations now" written on them

Madison Alvarado / San Francisco Public Press

Hundreds gathered Tuesday outside City Hall to support a plan delivered two months ago by the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee.

At a Sept. 11 committee meeting, the Rev. Amos Brown, leader of the reparations panel’s health subcommittee, predicted that the plan would face additional roadblocks.

“Our task is just beginning, because even after we present this report and the board accepts it, there still has to be lobbying, pushing and practical deliverance,” he said.

In an email in July, the mayor’s office wrote that Breed’s position was that reparations, including cash payments, were best handled at the national level, but that she was interested in policy reforms to address systemic problems.

The proposed $4 million earmark for the office is a far cry from the $50 million Walton initially requested. But he expressed optimism about what such an office could accomplish, including identifying potential recipients and acting on some of the committee’s recommendations.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Mission, said she feared that money set aside to create an Office of Reparations would not be spent. She called on the committee and board to “fight that together, because that’s the first step.” Tuesday’s hearing did not include a vote, and Ronen encouraged colleagues to back up their words with action. 

Diverse Reform Ideas

At the hearing, reparations committee members highlighted several recommendations they said were community priorities, including an apology to Black San Franciscans for historic harms, the creation of a committee focused on equity in city policies, and ideas related to economic empowerment, fair housing, education and health. They also advocated fully funding Black cultural centers, creating an Afrocentric K-12 school, interrupting the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and encouraging Black business and home ownership.

Perhaps the most controversial of the 150 proposals, to provide $5 million in cash payments to qualifying Black San Franciscans, was one that the community strongly supported, Hollins said. 

“We fully expect that we will see financial reparations,” she said, adding that while the committee recommended $5 million, “we continue to look and figure out what financial compensation can look like for Black San Franciscans.” 

The Rev. Amos Brown speaks at a lectern in front of City Hall.

Madison Alvarado / San Francisco Public Press

“The time for talk is over,” said the Rev. Amos Brown, leader of the local reparations group’s health subcommittee, at Tuesday’s rally.

Others expressed doubts about broad public support for the payments. A recent survey by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies focused on a parallel effort in Sacramento, the state’s Reparation Task Force. The poll found that 59% of California voters opposed cash reparations and 28% supported them.

Eric McDonnell, the San Francisco reparations committee chair, said many people who might benefit from cash payments were skeptical that they would receive them. Citing a Pew Research study, he said that while 77% of Black Americans said they were owed reparations, only 7% of those surveyed thought they would get reparations in their lifetime. “The question to you is, do you believe?” he said. “We want to close that hope gap.”

In a public comment period that ran several hours, dozens of people waited in a line that stretched from the speaker stand around the back of the chamber to the entrance. 

In an interview beforehand, James Lance Taylor, a member of the Reparations Advisory Committee, said the hearing was an important step toward rectifying harms. “The fact that Black people can come to City Hall and start talking,” he said, “that itself is a healing process.”

At a rally of hundreds of people on the steps of City Hall before the supervisors’ meeting, a diverse group spoke on behalf of Jewish, Japanese, Latinx and LGBTQ+ community organizations, along with tenants’ rights groups and a multicultural working-class coalition. Attendees held signs saying “Asian Americans for Reparations” and “Jews for SF African American Reparations.”

Yet research shows a lack of public awareness about the issue beyond the Black community. The Berkeley survey found that Latino and Asian voters were less likely than Black and white voters to have heard of the state task force. Both San Francisco and California leaders are pushing for educational campaigns about reparations.

Taylor said reparations would benefit San Francisco as a whole: “There’s no Black-only policy in America that only benefited Black people.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said Tuesday that the proposed policies to support Black-owned businesses and expand opportunities to access capital were “low-hanging fruit.” He endorsed opportunities for leases with favorable terms on property managed by the Port of San Francisco, and possibly San Francisco International Airport and the Municipal Transportation Agency.

Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents the Fillmore District, one of the city’s historic Black neighborhoods, criticized some colleagues for their support of War on Drugs-style policing policies that disproportionately incarcerate Black residents. 

“The task of reparations is not just to direct resources and policies to reverse past harms,” he said. “It’s also to learn the lessons from the past and make sure that we do not pursue policies and engage in conduct today that exacerbates anti-Blackness and racial disparities.” 

Opportunity for Leadership

The city created the African American Reparations Advisory Committee in 2020. This July, the committee released its final recommendations. If San Francisco moves forward with its plan, it will likely be the first local jurisdiction in California to do so. Other cities are also considering reparations, including Sacramento, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Oakland.

“San Francisco stands at the precipice of being a leader,” McDonnell said at the hearing.

The California task force is the first such statewide effort in the country. It submitted its findings to the Legislature on June 29, and state Sen. Steven Bradford introduced the first substantive reparations legislation in August. His amendment to Senate Bill 490 would establish a new agency to manage reparations to the descendants of slaves or free African Americans living in the country before 1900. The amendment has been referred to the Judiciary Committee and will be eligible for a vote in the next legislative cycle in 2024. 

In the meantime, the state’s members of the Congressional Black Caucus are preparing to launch a statewide educational campaign focused on the significance of reparations for Black communities. San Francisco’s state Assembly members, Phil Ting and Matt Haney, did not respond to questions about their positions on reparations.

The joyous gathering outside of City Hall on Tuesday included chants, musical interludes, a crowd rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and an original rap about reparations and the history of Black San Francisco. Activists said they remained optimistic.

“We must have the power to declare what we want,” said April Silas, director of the Homeless Children’s Network. “You see we are the authors. We’re not the subjects. Let me be clear: The word reparations does not have a question mark after it.”

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