San Francisco grapples with racism and reparations: 'The world is watching,' Black residents say

A sign reading Black Lives Matter is held at a demonstration at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
A sign held at a demonstration at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. (Brant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

In 1957, baseball great Willie Mays went searching for a house in San Francisco, where his New York Giants had just decided to relocate. He eventually settled on a boxy, stylish home in the desirable Sherwood Forest neighborhood.

There was only one problem: Sherwood Forest was exclusively white, and Mays was Black. “I certainly wouldn't like to have a colored family near me," a local told the San Francisco Chronicle. Mays had to find somewhere else to live.

If such views clash with the popular image of San Francisco as a progressive haven, they are all too familiar to the city’s dwindling and disenfranchised Black community, which is now demanding reparations for decades of racist housing practices, aggressive policing, poor schools and employment discrimination.

By putting a dollar amount on historical wrongs, Black politicians, activists and residents are pressing San Francisco to live up to its progressive image.

“The world is watching,” said Tinisch Hollins, the vice chair of the city’s reparations committee, which has produced a controversial report that has garnered nationwide headlines.

With the city confronting a reparations price tag that could well be in the billions, hostilities to the effort have exposed long-standing rifts in this city of extreme wealth — and wealth disparity. Home to dozens of billionaires, many of whom earned their riches in the region’s famed technology sector, San Francisco has persistently struggled with homelessness and crime.

Those struggles became more public, and more fraught, with the coronavirus pandemic. Many residents here are on edge, less interested in dealing with deep, difficult questions than with grindingly practical ones.

A homeless man sleeps in front of a business gate in San Francisco.
A homeless man sleeps in front of a business gate on San Francisco's Embarcadero in January. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“Our downtown is the nation’s slowest to recover from the pandemic. Storefronts and restaurants remain shuttered. Muni [the city's public transit system] is a mess, and BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] is on life support. The streets remain full of potholes, tents and needles, and the mentally ill and drug-addicted run amok,” a resident named Jay Elliott wrote in a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, criticizing the reparations as misguided.

“We need representatives who are focused on making San Francisco a great place to live and work,” he argued.

To some supervisors (the name San Francisco gives to its 11 City Council members), such resistance is evidence that the same sentiment that drove Mays out of the tony Sherwood Forest neighborhood remains today, despite the profusion of "Black Lives Matter" banners on businesses and private homes around San Francisco.

“Unfortunately, our city is not all ‘Summer of Love,’” Supervisor Joel Engardio said at a reparations hearing last week, during which Mays’s difficulty in purchasing a home in San Francisco was cited as just one example of injustices so deeply entrenched that not even the famous could escape them.

Three years ago, San Francisco created a committee to study how to compensate Black residents for “systemic, City-sanctioned discrimination that has adversely impacted the lives of Black San Franciscans.”

That committee recently issued a draft report that included 111 recommendations, including a payment of $5 million to each eligible Black person to “make amends for the economic and opportunity loss that Black San Franciscans have endured, collectively, as the result of both intentional and unintended harms perpetuated by City policy.”

(The committee has not said which San Franciscans would be eligible for reparations, but applicants would likely have to show historical ties to the city.)

Other recommendations include a guaranteed income of $97,000 per year, debt forgiveness, business and property tax breaks, along with a host of other policies that, supporters say, would finally put the city’s Black residents on equal footing with the rest of San Francisco.

A plan of such scope has never been tried in American history — though reparations have been proposed since the end of slavery.

And there is at least some modern precedent for payment in compensation for past wrongs. In 1988, for instance, the Reagan administration paid $20,000 to Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II.

“If you’re going to try to say you’re sorry, you have to speak in the language that people understand, and money is that language,” Howard University professor Justin Hansford told the Associated Press.

A evacuation of Japanese Americans near Seattle in 1942.
A evacuation of Japanese Americans near Seattle in 1942. The U.S. Army took more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

Supporters of reparations say that evidence of past harm is plain to see on the streets of San Francisco, where about 40% of the homeless population is Black, nearly seven times greater than the share of Black residents in the city’s overall population.

While the average income of a Black family in San Francisco is about $31,000, an average white family there earns $116,000, according to 2019 figures.

In 1970, about 13% of the city’s residents were Black. Today the percentage is half that. Supporters of reparations say Black residents have not simply left San Francisco but have been driven out.

“San Francisco has been a sanctuary city for everyone except for us,” one person told the reparations committee.

California is also studying the feasibility of a statewide reparations program, but the debate has moved at a much slower pace. Slavery was never legal in the state, but during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, Southern enslavers brought their Black slaves with them in search of fortune.

Other types of discrimination flourished over the decades, notably when it came to where Black people could live and work.

“It’s important to think of California as less exceptional and more like the rest of the nation than we have heretofore understood,” Stacey Smith, a historian of servitude in California, told SF Weekly.

San Francisco is a microcosm of California’s complicated racial history. During the Gold Rush, racial discrimination persisted from the mining camps of the Sierra Nevada foothills to the San Francisco storefronts and dockyards. During the Great Migration of the early 20th century, Black families from the South were attracted to the availability of jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area’s ports and factories. The city's Fillmore district came to be known as the “Harlem of the West.”

Jazz clubs in 1967 in the Fillmore district of San Francisco.
Jazz clubs in the Fillmore district of San Francisco in 1967. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

But racist housing covenants made it difficult for upwardly mobile Black families to purchase homes, short-circuiting the possibility of building generational wealth.

And the flight of the shipping industry after World War II deprived blue-collar Black workers of reliable, if difficult, jobs. Meanwhile, city-sanctioned “slum clearance” allowed developers to demolish treasured Fillmore blocks, eradicating a rich legacy of Black culture and displacing thousands of people.

The quality of schooling remained heavily tied to income and, therefore, race. Efforts at desegregating schools faltered, as they did in much of the country, stoked by a rising antipathy to “busing” that built throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

These developments hurt other San Franciscans too, including its large population of Asian and Hispanic immigrants, as well as a gay and lesbian community struggling for basic recognition.

But they seemed to hit Black residents the hardest.

“The reality is, my entire life has been living in — and experiencing — a tale of two cities,” reparations advisory committee chair Eric McDonnell told lawmakers.

The most famous reparations program in the world was undertaken in the 1950s by Germany to compensate the relatives of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. Scholars like Susan Neiman, the American-born moral philosopher who directs the Einstein Forum in Berlin, believe the German effort is the best model for atoning for American slavery (Neiman’s book on the subject is titled “Learning From the Germans”).

Supervisor Dean Preston noted that his own family included Holocaust victims and received restitution from Germany, allowing his grandparents to start a successful medical equipment business in New York that later expanded internationally.

“Those payments — and I’ve often thought about this — gave my family a chance at financial success in this country,” Preston said. He frankly acknowledged that a similar atonement by San Francisco’s government for generations of systemic racism would require “significant transfers of wealth.”

As legislators, activists, residents and locals testified at City Hall in San Francisco, a few miles to the south in Palo Alto, billions of dollars in deposits at Silicon Valley Bank had been secured days before by federal regulators and a private industry fund.

San Francisco City Supervisor Shamann Walton at a rally in support of reparations.
San Francisco City Supervisor Shamann Walton at a rally on March 14 in support of reparations. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Meanwhile, some progressives have marveled at the ease with which Ukraine managed to lock in billions of dollars in military and civilian aid in its fight against Russia.

The money seems to be there, in other words — sometimes.

Supporters of the San Francisco initiative sought to instill a sense of urgency that the reparations debate has never enjoyed in the United States. “We cannot continue to do research for the sake of research,” Hollins, the reparations committee's vice chair, told city supervisors, who all voiced support for reparations.

As the committee’s report noted, none of the recommendations are binding; the March 14 hearing saw the council endorse the draft report without saying anything about whether it would adopt any of the recommendations. Engardio, the city supervisor, had previously said the $5-million-per-person sum “may not be feasible under current budget constraints.”

That figure has attracted national derision as both unrealistic and misguided, despite pleas from city officials to “not get bogged into, like, ‘How are we going to pay for this?'” as the city’s human rights commissioner, Sheryl Evans Davis, put it at the hearing.

Much of the ensuing media coverage did just that, condensing the recommendations into the seven-figure dollar amount.

“This is madness,” comedian and commentator Bill Maher said on his program, “Real Time,” last week, pointing out that the $5 million payout alone would cost every San Franciscan $600,000. (The figure comes from the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.) Even the local chapter of the NAACP, the storied civil rights organization, is against the plan, arguing instead for targeted programs.

Sheryl Evans Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, at the city's reparations hearing.
Sheryl Evans Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, at the city's reparations hearing on March 14. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Leaders of the advisory committee maintain that the national focus on the proposed $5 million lump sum has been nothing more than an effort by conservatives to derail the process.

Though San Francisco is by far the biggest and most significant American city to try reparations, it is not the only one. Evanston, Ill., was the first city to actually approve a reparations program, in the form of housing allotments. Legislators in New York state have submitted a reparations bill, and the City Council in Washington, D.C., is also taking up the matter.

On the federal level, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduced the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act in the House of Representatives in 1989.

The reparations effort has gained currency in recent years. In 2014, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations,” an influential article for the Atlantic. That same year, the killing of Black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the social justice protests that roiled the country in 2020, Americans became more aware than they had previously been of systemic inequality, polls found. Even so, they continue to be skeptical of reparations as the best way to redress the wrongs of slavery and segregation.

People participate in a project to paint massive letters spelling
A project to paint massive letters spelling "Black Lives Matter" on a San Francisco street in June 2020. (Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

A small city of immense cultural significance, San Francisco is now at the forefront of this debate. Its experience can be seen as both a road map and a cautionary tale, as the nation continues to grapple with the history of racial injustice. A conservative media and political establishment has used the San Francisco plan as further evidence of “woke” policies run amok. And while progressives for the most part wholeheartedly support reparations, they have seemingly failed to persuade moderates concerned with budgetary realities.

Proponents of reparations recognize the undercurrent of liberal unease. They also believe it must be overcome. Failing to pass the measure in San Francisco would signal that reparations aren’t feasible in more moderate parts of the country — not to mention the Deep South, where slavery was not only practiced but violently defended.

That may explain why the White House was not eager to weigh in on the San Francisco proposal when asked about the measure at a recent press briefing.

“We think Congress is the appropriate venue for consideration on such action,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told Yahoo News, referencing a reparations bill introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

Jean-Pierre added that many of President Biden’s legislative aims have a distinct racial equity component. “He is going to continue to lift that up,” she said during Tuesday’s briefing at the White House. “But as it relates to the legislation, we want to leave that in the hands of Congress.”

The problem for Biden is that he may have to confront the issue in any case. A Washington, D.C., City Council member recently reintroduced a bill to empanel a reparations committee, a move similar to what San Francisco undertook in 2020.

The move could have national implications.

Republicans recently found that by meddling in local D.C. legislation — something Congress is allowed to do — they can corner Democrats into uncomfortable votes on issues that party leaders would rather avoid. Proof of concept materialized several weeks ago, when a bipartisan coalition in Congress overrode the D.C. City Council’s attempt to reduce penalties for certain crimes by revising the district’s crime bill.

The override seemed to open a new venue of divisive politics, forcing local city issues onto the national stage.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks at a press conference  on Capitol Hill about reparations legislation.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill in November 2021 about reparations legislation. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Republicans in the Senate need only two Democratic votes to block D.C. laws like potential reparations-related legislation; the GOP already has the votes in the House to do so. And many Democrats — including, in all likelihood, Biden himself — face tough reelection battles next year, when they will have to make their pitch to electorates far more conservative than San Francisco’s.

For that matter, even some San Francisco legislators seemed to leave themselves room to maneuver. Last year, voters there decisively ousted progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin, in a warning to city leaders that their legendary liberalism was not without limits.

It would be up to “future incarnations” of San Francisco leadership to fully grapple with the reparations question, said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the board. It was a telling hint that he and others will likely draw out the reparations process until their time on the board is through.

Members of the audience at the hearing plainly grasped this point.

During the public comment portion, a resident named Erica Burrell approached the microphone reserved for audience members and informed the city supervisors seated before her that she was unconvinced by their shows of support.

“You all claim that you want to be active listeners,” Burrell told the supervisors, “yet you are on your cellphones. You all need to pay attention to the people you claim to be helping.”