‘We’re going to wake up the world’: San Francisco’s bold reparations plan has a revolutionary spirit

It’s rare to hear University of San Francisco political science Professor James Taylor at a loss for words. Taylor is an expert on the Black experience in America, particularly regarding the injustices perpetrated against our people since the first Africans were brought to this land in chains over 400 years ago.

Yet, when we spoke last week about the final report from the local reparations committee on which he sits, Taylor wasn’t sure how to describe what he was feeling.

“I think as a committee, myself included, we’re too close to it to really respect the, I guess the word is maybe magnanimity, of what we’ve done,” Taylor told me. “This is historic.”

San Francisco has never had a document like the one its African American Reparations Advisory Committee spent the last two years creating. Published Friday, the report, with its bold recommendations, embodies the revolutionary fight for Black reparations in America and serves as a blueprint for other cities to follow.

The nearly 400-page report dedicates chapters to how mass incarceration, discriminatory housing policies and unequal access to education made it difficult or outright impossible for Black San Franciscans to lead the lives their largely more affluent white neighbors lead.

To level the playing field, the committee’s report proposes radical solutions:

Give Black residents a clean slate in terms of debt, including but not limited to student loans, credit card debt and payday loans

Convert public housing units into condominiums with a $1 buy-in for qualifying Black residents

Make all residential vacancies of three or more months immediately available to Black homeowners or renters, particularly those who were displaced by urban renewal in the 1950s and have promissory notes — or Certificates of Preference — the city gave out at the time so they could return; Section 8 vouchers; and/or are city reparations recipients

And fully fund new African American cultural districts for 5-10 years

And yes, the $5 million lump sum payments to eligible recipients that conservative reactionaries freaked out over in the draft report made it into the final report as a recommendation.

It won’t be the only recommendation to invite controversy.

The committee also recommends the city expand a 2006 ordinance requiring contractors to reveal whether or not they or their parent companies or subsidiaries participated in or profited from chattel slavery to private companies. The same recommendation urges the city to turn a voluntary fund for these contractors to pay into to “promote healing and assist in remedying depressed economic conditions” into a requirement for these companies, though it does not call for a specific payment amount.

According to the report, Bank of America and U.S. Bank are the only companies to disclose their ties to the slave trade, when earlier iterations of the financial institutions took security interests in slaves in the case of Bank of America, or, in U.S. Bank’s case, had founders who owned slaves. 

Another recommendation calls for San Francisco to provide long-term funding to current programs that in recent years have proved to benefit the city’s Black populace and to expand others.

To qualify for reparations, a person has to have identified as Black for at least 10 years and be 18 years of age or older when the plan goes into effect. Recipients will also have to prove at least one harm out of a list that includes but is not limited to being a descendant of someone enslaved before 1865, someone who had been forced out of the city by urban renewal efforts between 1954 and 1973, or personally be a direct descendant of someone incarcerated by the war on drugs.

The comprehensive and holistic approach goes beyond monetary compensation and seeks to address the root causes of inequality. As other cities and states consider their own reparations efforts, they can look to San Francisco and note that healing the wounds of the past begin with taking decisive action in the present.

While slavery was never technically legal in either California or San Francisco, its practitioners were more than welcome here. California’s Fugitive Slave Act in 1852 codified the state’s stance as a place that protected white slave owners and not Black freedom seekers.

In San Francisco, where there is an ugly history of school segregation, redlining, Ku Klux Klan popularity and other racist horrors, there does appear to be momentum on the report’s side. 

All 11 San Francisco supervisors in March approved moving the report to its current legislative step, and several spoke about wanting to approve as many recommendations as they could. In addition, Mayor London Breed and supervisors agreed last month to allocate $4 million to establish an office that would oversee the rollout of reparations, an amount that is far less than the $50 million Supervisor Shamann Walton originally sought.

The Board of Supervisors plans to have a public hearing on the report in September.

“I’m hopeful these recommendations will be approved, but at the same time, the realist in me recognizes the role that politics will play,” said Eric McDonnell, chair of the advisory committee. “The vote to create (the advisory committee) was easy relative to the vote they’ll be facing from here. Because now there are real consequences to their votes. And next year, for many of them, including the mayor, it’s a re-election year, so all of that is going to come into play.”

San Francisco’s reparations plan comes a week after a state task force released its own. Each has an opportunity to lead by example — California as an example for the nation, and San Francisco as an example for California. 

First, San Francisco’s lawmakers have to show they understand that approving the local recommendations are not only a means of rectifying past wrongs but also a step toward building a more just and equitable society in the city they lead.

“There’s a spiritual awakening happening in San Francisco because of what we’re doing,” Taylor said. “In fact, with what we’re doing, we’re going to wake up the world.”

Reach Justin Phillips: jphillips@sfchronicle.com

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