Gotham Gazette

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What New York City Should Take from San Francisco’s Ongoing Reparations Debate

A Black Lives Matter street renaming (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In his third inaugural address on January 1, 1986, Mayor Ed Koch remarked that "New York is the city where the future comes to rehearse.” It was a poetic take on the old idea that New York is a leader in culture, politics, and public policy; a place where cutting edge ideas are embraced only to be belatedly adopted by the rest of the country. This is often true, but one glaring exception has emerged related to a deeply important policy being examined by our West Coast counterparts: reparations for Black Americans.

Unless you are paying close attention you might have missed the major news that San Francisco is gaining momentum behind proposals to implement groundbreaking modern reparations. In 2020, California enacted a law to create a task force to determine how the state could provide reparations to Black Americans and who would be eligible.

While this process moves forward, some localities are taking action on their own, namely San Francisco, where the San Francisco Board of Supervisors just voiced enthusiastic support for proposals, including payments of $5 million to every eligible Black adult. While this expression of support by the board does not mean all recommendations will be approved, policymakers around the country would be wise to take note.

The moral case for reparations is clear: for 246 years, Africans taken from their homes and their descendants born on this land were purchased and sold as chattel, pieces of property, and enslaved. Millions of Africans and their African-American descendants were forced to labor in the most brutal conditions with no rights to self-determination and, of course, no compensation for their labor. 

After the abolition of slavery, and for the next century, freed Blacks and their descendants were subject to Jim Crow Laws that limited their participation as full citizens. For centuries, Black Americans have been subject to systemic racism that has hampered their economic growth potential and specific government policies have explicitly left these communities out. For example, the Social Security Act itself, as enacted, did not provide benefits to those in professions then dominated by Black Americans, including agricultural and domestic workers. The GI Bill, which triggered the post-WWII economic boom as enacted, systematically excluded Black service members from being able to reap its benefits. 

The result of all this history is an unquestioned loss of wealth generation and accumulation. According to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 2019 the average per capita wealth of white Americans was $338,093 but only $60,126 for Black Americans.

The public policy case for reparations, much like universal income proposals, is also sound. New York should provide reparations to the descendants of those who were enslaved not just as a matter of moral justice, a recognition that slavery was wrong and an act of contrition for the very active role that New York played in the Atlantic Slave Trade, but as a matter of good policy. Providing reparations and closing the racial wealth gap will allow more Black families to stay in New York City, which has seen its Black population continue to shrink due to the economic pressure of living in the highest tax and highest cost-of-living city in the country.

Further, despite the initial fiscal hit of a multibillion-dollar outlay, paying reparations and closing the racial wealth gap also means there will be several hundred thousand fewer New Yorkers reliant on the city’s social safety net, likely saving taxpayers money in the long run and freeing up resources to be put toward things we all agree need more funding. Like other cash transfers, this has potential to be an economic stimulant, especially given that research shows Black entrepreneurs start businesses at higher rates than other groups, which will spur economic activity that lifts others out of poverty, further reducing reliance on social safety programs and increasing tax receipts. 

There even exists an historical precedent for reparations in New York City. Over four days in July 1863, while the battle of Gettysburg was being fought over 150 miles away in Pennsylvania, mobs of white New Yorkers, protesting the draft, terrorized Black people by roaming the streets setting fire to buildings and killing people. The overall death toll is estimated at between over 100 and up to 1,000. After the riots, the white merchants of New York combined forces to raise money to care for the injured, repair the damaged property, and support the legal and employment needs of the community's Black people. The shopkeepers raised over $40,000, equivalent to $825,000 in 2021.

Reparations are not “unAmerican” or unconstitutional, in fact they are deeply American. Indeed, the United States has regularly proposed, and occasionally paid, reparations to groups intentionally harmed by its policies. A small selection of those occasions includes the following: 

On January 12, in the midst of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman and U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton met with 20 Black leaders in Savannah, Georgia. Four days later, General Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 stating that Black people would receive an army mule and not more than 40 acres on coastal plains of South Carolina and Georgia. By June, roughly 40,000 Blacks had settled on 400,000 acres of land — before Confederate landowners, former enslavers, aided by the new Johnson administration, started taking back "their" land.

With the Pueblo Lands Act of 1924, Congress authorized the establishment of the Pueblo Lands Board to adjudicate land title disputes, along with a payment of $1,300,000 to the Pueblo for the land they lost (although the Pueblo disputed the amount). Later, in 1980 as the result of a lawsuit, the federal government appropriated $105 million to be paid to the Sioux of South Dakota for seizure of their land. Again in 1985 $12.3 million was set aside for the Seminoles of Florida. And of course in 1988, with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill providing $1.2 billion ($20,000 a person) and an apology to each of the approximately 60,000 living Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II. 

Support for modern reparations policies is growing. In 2021, Evanston, IL released its first batch of funds in a program offering reparations to Black residents whose families faced discriminatory housing practices and Amalgamated Bank became the first major U.S. bank to support a federal proposal to explore reparations. 

While the exact dollar amount is, and should be, debated (and it is worth noting that San Francisco’s proposal of multi-million-dollar payments is an outlier as most experts on the study of reparations propose payments closer to $350,000 per eligible individual, a number that would represent closure of the racial wealth gap) there should be no doubt that New York, the nation’s largest Black city, and a city that played a starring role in the economy of slavery, must lead in redressing the lasting harm that manifests itself daily. 

These proposals will surely be met with legal and political challenges. But the impact of slavery, and subsequent century of policy choices that excluded Black Americans from opportunity and wealth creation is felt across our city every day, from the racial wealth gap to disparities in health and education, segregation in housing, and much more, its impacts are also felt by those who benefited from that history and continue to do so, even if they don’t know it.

Akhurapa Ambak is an attorney and sits on the associate board of the Harlem School of the Arts and is a Board Member of the Drexel Law School Black Alumni Association. Erika Tannor is an SVP at Tusk Strategies and the co-founder of the 5BORO Institute who has written on cash transfers extensively.

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