PERSPECTIVE: Reparations in San Francisco need Mayor London Breed’s support. Why hasn’t she given it?

Cash payment reparations need one more political ally in San Francisco. 

That final, critical supporter is Mayor London Breed, a powerful politician who grew up knowing the struggles of Black folks in a city plagued by inequality. 

But with the world watching to see if San Francisco is bold enough to cut checks to Black residents suffering the effects of slavery’s legacy, the mayor is choosing to be a calculated politician instead of a revolutionary one.

Breed, who will be running for reelection in 2024 and almost certainly has higher political aspirations in the future, knows that polls show cash reparations, especially San Francisco’s proposed $5 million lump sum payments, are not supported by the majority of voters. 

Is it a surprise then that she has not only failed to publicly support payments but she also has yet to even commit to spending the $4 million already in the city’s budget to launch a reparations office? 

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors — which has one Black member and rarely agrees on anything — unanimously supports the plan that includes the $5 million payments to eligible recipients. Although it’s highly unlikely the city will ever hand out checks this big, the jarring figure is still symbolic of the economic power stripped from Black people over generations and why cash payments must be a vital component of reparations in the city. 

Breed is in a uniquely “perilous position” when it comes to reparations, according to Tatenda Musapatike, a digital election messaging expert and the founder and CEO of the Voter Formation Project, an organization working to increase voting in local, state and national elections. 

“Even if she vehemently believes in it … she still has to take a position that makes her as palatable as possible to as wide of a base of Democrats,” Musapatike said. 

For decades, the Black community in San Francisco has endured systemic discrimination in housing, education and employment. The Black population is down to a mere 5% of the city today from a high of around 13% in the 1970s. Any politician can see that Black voters aren’t going to carry them to a landslide victory in the city. 

But these low population numbers double as proof of the insidious effect of systemic racism over decades, and the need for ambitious reparations plans to address it.

Cash payments could immediately revitalize the community. But Breed seems unmoved by the fact that many of the city’s Black residents, and some of the most influential lawmakers, support this idea. 

“What it comes down to is the mayor has basically said ‘no’ to everything about reparations that has come across her desk,” said James Taylor, a University of San Francisco political science professor and member of the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee. “If we’re being honest, the mayor has said very little in the affirmative, publicly, when it comes to local reparations.” 

The most concrete thing Breed has said about cash payments is that they should be “handled at the federal level.” All we have to do is look at the history of reparations in this country to see that when it comes to Black people and redress, the federal government is content with doing nothing. Breed has carefully avoided commenting on the local reparations work in the media, and she didn’t personally provide a comment for this piece. 

I should have expected as much. As Musapatike told me, there’s “no real political upside” to a politician like Breed speaking about reparations, because any supportive comment risks alienating “conservative-leaning Silicon Valley donors” who could contribute to her campaign next year. 

When San Francisco started its reparations journey in 2020, the United States was going through a racial reckoning. It benefited politicians like Breed to support the plight of Black folks. It was also in this window that Breed launched the Dream Keeper Initiative, a citywide effort to reinvest $60 million annually into San Francisco’s diverse Black communities. 

But the Dream Keeper Initiative is not reparations. And Breed has to ask herself if she wants to be remembered as someone who watched the reparations movement happen without her, or as a central figure who steered it where it needed to go. 

“Reparations has to be a grassroots movement, the same way that there were grassroots movements around gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana,” Taylor said. “They weren’t popular at first, but we can see now how vital they were to this country. (Breed) could be a leader when we need it.” 

According to a poll conducted in August by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, 60% of California voters feel slavery’s legacy affects the socioeconomic position of the state’s Black residents today. In a separate question, 28% support cash payments and 13% have no opinion on the matter. 

Taylor said Breed should see the data as a positive. For decades, Taylor has studied Black issues in America and said he’s seen polls in which cash payments received single-digit support. “We’re winning the war on messaging,” he said. “It’s undeniable that more people are understanding the need for cash payments.” 

Also, Black people are mobilized behind cash payment reparations in a way that’s only rivaled by Black Lives Matter support in 2020, and Black voters showed America the power they had at the polls that year and in 2021 by ushering in a wave of progressive politicians across the country who believed in the BLM movement. 

While Black residents are only a small portion of the city’s population, that demographic of voters can make the difference in a close election, which could very well be what the city sees in the 2024 mayoral race where Breed will try to remain in office. 

In this historic moment, Breed can rectify the wrongs of the past and pave the way for a more equitable future. 

This city’s politics were once defined by a revolutionary spirit. If Breed doesn’t move with the same courage, Black San Franciscans will keep facing the same problems they have for decades and wondering why a mayor who knows the Black struggle in the city but does not support them now. 

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