January 18, 2023 - 1:00pm

San Francisco, long a bastion of extremist progressivism, is currently outdoing itself. The city’s reparations committee has just adopted a proposal to give $5 million — and grant debt forgiveness — to all long-time black residents who can prove descent from slaves. It is a gesture, and one that is unlikely to be adopted at a time when the state is under severe fiscal stress. The city isn’t in much better shape either; San Francisco now stands as among the least recovered of America’s core cities after the pandemic.

Yet as gestures go, this is a particularly baffling one. Slavery was never allowed in California and San Francisco, in particular, was a bastion of pro-Union sentiment. Black Americans never formed a large part of the city’s population but it was hardly off-limits to their ambitions. Indeed, the most important San Francisco politician in the late 20th Century was Willie Brown, who served as the Assembly’s first African American speaker for 15 years and, later, as Mayor for eight years.

More recently, as the city has become ever more “enlightened”, conditions for African Americans have deteriorated. San Francisco’s black population has a lower income on average than African Americans in the nation overall. Some of this decline reflects a job market that has seen a huge drop in manufacturing and traditional business service employment. The big gains, at least pre-pandemic, were among college-educated techies, who tend to be overwhelmingly either white or Asian.

The gaps in real income and homeownership are particularly large: Sun Belt hubs like Atlanta surrounding smaller metropolitan areas may be short on political correctness but remain higher in opportunities. Nor is the region doing much to make life better for the next generation. The test scores for San Francisco’s black students are the worst of any California county.

Unsurprisingly, many African Americans really are fleeing the city. In a recent UC Berkeley poll, 58% of black residents expressed interest in leaving California, a higher percentage than for any racial group, though approximately 45% of Asians and Latinos also considered moving. 

But even in the California context, San Francisco is experiencing a remarkable demographic shift. Since 1990 the city’s black population has been cut in half, to less than 6%, despite the overall growth in the city in the decades before the pandemic. The situation is so severe that there’s even a movie called The Last Black Man in San Francisco that talks about the fading role of African Americans in the famous city.

Of course, if the average African American can count on $5 million and cancellation of debts, they might be persuaded to stay. But given the fiscal realities, this latest exercise in extreme virtue signalling will likely amount to less than nothing. In California, and in San Francisco particularly, this approach of empty moral grandstanding still reigns supreme. It might be greedily embraced by the supposedly enlightened but, to the marginalised, it provides little solace.


Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter.

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