James Lance Taylor

San Francisco considers slave reparations at $5 million each

February 7, 2023
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A new policy proposal has demanded $5 million payouts for the descendants of slaves and the victims of ‘historical marginalisation’ in San Francisco. But is the West Coast’s cathedral of hyper-liberal politics ready to put its money where its mouth is? The recent launch of a guaranteed income programme for trans San Franciscans suggests it might be just the place to take up such a radical proposal.

Professor James Lance Taylor teaches African American studies at the University of San Francisco and is one of 15 members of the San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee that wrote the proposal. I spoke to him to discuss the case for reparations.

To qualify for a payout under this proposal, San Francisco residents must be a direct descendant of someone enslaved through US chattel slavery before 1865, a victim of the ‘failed War on Drugs’ or a student at a segregated public school during the Jim Crow years. 

It should be noted that California never actually had any slaves, but Taylor justifies it as follows: “California did not have slavery, California created a condition of permanent black fugitivity. […] And so the real injury to black San Francisco is more around housing and job discrimination, police brutality, economic impacts, health disparities. Those are the things that we can actually measure.”

As for his reparations criteria, they remain somewhat vague. For example, it includes beneficiaries who merely “identify as Black/African American” on public documents, which might encourage false claims. Nevertheless, Taylor assures me that historical precedent for reparations has been set, on which a policy could be based, first with Native American reservations and later with the Japanese survivors of internment camps. 

Martin Luther King would have no time, Professor Taylor says, for the ‘colourblind’ progressives of San Francisco. King wanted to “cash a cheque” for Black Americans and to sanitise this part of his project is an insult to his legacy: “Reparations are the original black politics. We got distracted by integration. And now we’re coming back.”

The eye-watering figure of $5 million has dominated headlines. When I asked how the board came up with this number and how they justify it, Professor Taylor concedes that it is an arbitrarily large number based on a speech by John McCain on the cost of becoming ‘middle class’ in America. San Francisco might be expensive, but Taylor doesn’t have much more justification for catapulting a select few into the top tier of net worth in the US, let alone the world.

Who owes this debt to black Americans is a question that the reparations committee is adamant about: America. But not individual Americans, I ask? The case for reparations is only concerned with the relationship between the State and blacks, says Taylor. Any discussion of Americans whose ancestors were in no way implicated in the transatlantic slave trade is extraneous: “I don’t think any group should be referenced with regard to reparations, except the black or injured group. This is about what the State did to a segment of its citizens and the injury, the tort it caused, and how it can fix it and repair it.” 

The logistical, economic reality of implementing the proposal remains hard to grasp. Taylor maintained that the payouts should not be primarily tax-funded but that this money would come from the American state: “Why can’t Biden give $80 billion to a black cause the same way he flippantly gave $80 billion to Ukraine?” 

There is little hope, even from the architects of the policy, that reparations would heal the relationship between white and black people in America. Prof. Taylor concedes that, if anything, reparations “would create greater resentment” by reversing relationships between the poorest in places like San Francisco. But ultimately, his optimism for cashing King’s cheque is unwavering: “America is in a mess but America’s salvation would be reparations.”


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