The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion San Francisco shows how not to pursue slavery reparations

People line up to speak during a reparations task force meeting at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco on April 13. (Janie Har/AP)
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An earlier version of this article incorrectly estimated that San Francisco's reparations proposal would cost $100 billion if applied nationally. It would cost trillions of dollars. This article has been updated.

Advocates for making government reparations to Black Americans in recompense for chattel slavery remain frustrated at their lack of progress. A recent draft reparations plan offered by the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee is an example of why that is so.

The moral case for reparations is straightforward: Black Americans were unique in their suffering from slavery, subsequently experiencing discrimination both legally (think Jim Crow laws) and socially (think refusals to hire or sell homes to Black individuals). This has disadvantaged Black people in terms of wealth, security and social status. Reparations are therefore justified, in this view, to make Black Americans whole and place them on an equal footing with their fellow citizens.

A large majority of Americans, however, reject this argument. A recent Pew Research poll found that only 30 percent of Americans support the concept of reparations for descendants of enslaved Black people. Majorities of every age, income and educational group are opposed, and even Democrats were split, with 49 percent opposed and 48 percent supportive. Seventeen percent of Black respondents rejected the idea.

The poll also found that reparations supporters are unsure what form reparations should take. Most favor education scholarships to make up for past injustice. But only 57 percent of reparations backers — a mere 17 percent of the entire sample — supported cash payments. Other polls also show that cash reparations are massively unpopular.

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Faced with such daunting odds of success, you might think that advocates for reparations would seek new friends. That might include building a case for dramatic proposals before offering them to the public. They might also tailor their societal critique so as to avoid blaming the current generation of Americans for historical failures.

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But that is the polar opposite of what the San Francisco commission did. It went well beyond damning slavery to criticizing the war on drugs and promoting race-based preferences in academic admissions and government programs. Its report even praises the Black Panther Party of the late 1960s for its efforts to “protect African Americans from the police” and provide “free, community-based healthcare clinics.” The authors seem blissfully unaware that associating their cause with an avowedly Marxist-Leninist and often violent group might be off-putting to people they need to persuade.

The sheer scale of the commission’s proposals is astounding. Each recipient would get a $5 million cash payment. That eye-catching amount alone would cost the United States many trillions of dollars if applied nationally — and that is only the first proposal of 19 pages. Others include supplementing the incomes of Black residents for 250 years to match the area median, comprehensive debt forgiveness for Black households and even paying homeowners association fees and mortgage refinancing fees. It’s simply inconceivable that Americans would pay for such expensive audacity.

Reparations are not limited to descendants of slaves; instead, to be eligible, one need only identify as Black for at least 10 years and fulfill two other conditions, which include residing in San Francisco for at least 13 years, attending public schools during desegregation and being the descendant of someone incarcerated “by the failed War on Drugs.”

Nor is there any assessment of whether the recipient is financially or professionally successful. People as diverse as Martin Jenkins, a California Supreme Court justice, and O.J. Simpson — both of whom grew up in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s — could theoretically be eligible for reparations despite their success or wealth.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew better. He tried to mold public opinion, not override it. He and his allies made the civil rights revolution possible by treating White Americans as friends rather than as oppressors to be overthrown. His achievements, like Nelson Mandela’s similar approach in South Africa, did not immediately erase the effects of an unjust past. But they did make possible the incremental, compounding gains since the 1960s that have significantly improved the lives and prospects for Black Americans.

Change cannot come in a democratic society without the majority’s approval. If the San Francisco approach to reparations is any indication of that movement’s prospects, change won’t come any time soon.