Movement to Pay Black Americans Reparations for Slavery Gathers Steam Across the Country

California’s proposal to pay Black residents descended from slaves $233,000 each comes despite the fact that the state entered the American union in 1850 as a free state.

AP/Jeff Chiu
Morris Griffin holds up a sign during a meeting by the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans at Oakland, California. AP/Jeff Chiu

Moderate national Democrats hoping to steer their party down a more centrist path during the next election cycle are being pulled in the opposite direction by state and local officials around the country rallying around the divisive issue of reparations for Black Americans.

Dozens of primarily Democratic-run cities and states have already established, or are considering establishing, task forces and committees to study the issue, and a handful have already launched programs. Efforts are also underway in Congress, where progressives in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would create a federal commission to tackle the prickly topic.

In the Senate, New Jersey’s Senator Booker is among those spearheading the effort. In a letter urging President Biden to support his initiative, Mr. Booker said the “legacy of slavery remains with us today and is compounded by ongoing racism and discrimination. The consequences for Black people in this country have been severe, continuous, and measurable.”

Leading the charge at the state and local level is California, where the state legislature is expected to debate in the coming weeks a suggestion by a two-year-old task force that Black residents of the state who can trace their lineage to slaves receive as much as $233,000 each in compensation. The proposal comes despite the fact that slavery was banned in what is now California by the Mexican government in 1837, and the state entered the American union in 1850 as a free state.  

The effort in California has sparked similar overtures across the country. The New York state assembly passed a bill establishing an 11-member reparations committee in the Empire State last year, but the measure stalled out in the state’s Senate. Now, prominent New Yorkers such as New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, are urging state lawmakers to reconsider the bill.

“This country was built on free labor and we are who we are because of that free labor,” Mr. Adams said. “That free labor destroyed the foundation of African Americans that worked on plantations, made cotton king, the tobacco industry, many of the banking industries — a lot of these industries are where they are because of it. The government has an obligation to deal with it, and I’m 100 percent supportive of what they’re doing.”

In nearby Wilmington, Delaware, the city established a new, nine-member task force earlier this month whose remit is to tackle the issue and report back to the city council in 180 days. Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, this fall announced a reparations program that will dole out $25,000 grants for home repairs or down payments on a house to Black residents of the town who were discriminated against in the 1960s.

In St. Louis, Mayor Tishaura Jones signed an executive order establishing a commission charged with recommending  “a proposal to begin repairing the harms that have been inflicted” by slavery and segregation. “I look forward to reviewing this commission’s work to chart a course that restores the vitality of Black communities in our city after decades of disinvestment,” Ms. Jones said. “We cannot succeed as a city if one-half is allowed to fail.”

The Democratic mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, Jorge Elorza, last month signed off on a $10 million Providence Municipal Reparations program after a lengthy study by a commission there. The nascent program is already under fire, however, because the city used federal Covid-relief money to finance it, and the strings attached to that money require it to be race-neutral. Consequently, according to the Washington Post, about half of the city’s low-income white residents would be eligible to apply for relief.

In all, more than a dozen states — New York, New Jersey and Illinois among them — are now considering or setting up mechanisms to consider reparations for Black Americans in their states.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found wildly divergent views among Americans on the topic of reparations. Overall, more than two-thirds of Americans surveyed by Pew said they oppose such efforts. Among Black Americans, however, support for reparations stands at 77 percent. Only about 18 percent of white Americans support the idea, Pew reported.  

Those who believe such measures at the local level are insufficient are pinning their hopes on a bill introduced three decades ago in the House by the late Congressman John Conyers. The bill, which would create a commission to study reparations for Black Americans, is now being championed by a Democratic congresswoman from Texas, Sheila Jackson-Lee.

Absent action from the House, Ms. Jackson Lee and other supporters of the bill, which now has nearly 200 co-sponsors, want Mr. Biden — who has previously expressed support for the bill — to mandate the creation of such a commission via executive order. At a national symposium on the topic in Evanston this month, Ms. Jackson Lee suggested that “millions” of Americans support the idea of reparations.

“I want for once an acceptance of the history, of the journey that African Americans have taken — to be an accepted reality in America,” Ms. Jackson Lee said at the event. “Not out of anger, but out of how do we come together to resolve what happened.”


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