Berkeley may explore making reparations to Black residents

If Berkeley proceeds, it will be one of the few municipalities to directly grapple with the country’s legacy of enslavement.

Reparations Now! mural painted on Ellis Street in South Berkeley
Reparations Now! mural painted in 2020 on Ellis Street in South Berkeley. Credit: Todd Matthews

Update, March 23: The Berkeley City Council voted March 22 to consider hiring a consultant in the next fiscal budget cycle to set up a reparations process.

Original story: Berkeley may take a first step Tuesday toward acknowledging the harm slavery and systemic racism has done to Blacks by hiring a consultant to develop a reparations process for the city.

If the city council votes to allocate $350,000 in next year’s budget cycle, Berkeley will be one of the few U.S. municipalities to directly grapple with the country’s legacy of enslavement and how that has led to a host of ills, including lesser generational wealth for Blacks, poorer education, shorter life expectancies, higher incarceration rates, higher exposure to pollution, redlining and a host of other issues.

“While federal and state reparation proposals are moving through the legislatures, it is time that municipalities also address the injustices, brutality, racism, and discrimination that the Black community has faced in the past and the present,” a report prepared by City Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who is spearheading the measure, states. Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Council members Terry Taplin and Sophie Hahn are also co-sponsoring the item, which will be considered on the March 22 consent calendar. “Berkeley City Council must join the conversation and take responsibility to adopt programs, policies, and practices that effectively bridge the generational wealth gap and boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community.”

Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett, Dec. 11, 2018. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Bartlett said people in his south Berkeley district have long advocated for reparative payments, but the call has grown more robust in the two years since George Floyd’s murder led to renewed cries for racial justice in the U.S. In 2020, people living near Ellis Street and Ashby Avenue painted a huge “Reparations Now” mural on the asphalt.

The measure calls for a consultant to design short, medium, and long-term recommendations for reparative policies. The process would have four parts: reckoning, acknowledgment, accountability, and redress.

For the reckoning part, Bartlett envisions a series of community gatherings and “truth-telling” events where experts could present statistics about how slavery and structural racism have affected Blacks. This could include testimony about the impacts of redlining, environmental racism, high arrest and incarceration rates, economic injury, intergenerational trauma and other topics.

Berkeley residents would also talk about their own life experiences, said Bartlett. Many residents are unfamiliar with the racist aspects of Berkeley’s history, said Bartlett. He sees the community dialogue modeled somewhat like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process.

“The goal for Truth, in a Berkeley context is to establish a common understanding of the history of Black Americans in Berkeley,” according to the report.

This 1940s Thomas Bros map shows how Berkeley was divided into different colored zones indicating the “soundness” of lending in those zones. The red areas, where Blacks were congregated, were “redlined.” Banks would not lend to people buying property there.

Other steps could include a formal recognition by the city of Berkeley of the harm it has inflicted through the laws and policies it has adopted, such as zoning that led to segregated neighborhoods or disproportionally awarding city contracts to white people, as a recent consultant’s report revealed, and racial disparities in police stops, said Bartlett.

After that, the community could come together, and working with Berkeley city officials, develop recommendations for redressing the harms from racism and discrimination. This could include economic remuneration.

“We’d make something lasting, something that could really take our community to the next level and close the door on the past,” said Bartlett.

Derethia Duval, who has been a homeowner in South Berkeley since 1993, thinks the Berkeley community would benefit from a public process where the ills of racism and discrimination are openly explored.

“I don’t think people really understand the harm the transatlantic slave trade has had all these years,” she said. “The way history is taught, people think racism is a thing of the past. They don’t understand that the U.S. ideology is built on the idea that black people are inferior. That is the foundation of our country. All the laws are built on that foundation.”

Chip Moore, a cannabis business owner, member of the planning commission and the Police Accountability Board, said it makes sense for Berkeley to lead the way in exploring reparative payments.

 “We are one of the last progressive bastions in this country,” said Moore, who lives in South Berkeley. “If it isn’t us to take on the hardest questions, who will? That’s Berkeley values. Let’s start the dialogue.”

Uneven government attempts at addressing reparations

At the end of the Civil War, formerly enslaved people had a brief hope that the federal government would provide them with assets to make the transition out of slavery. The hope came from General William T. Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 of January 1865 which allocated land for Black people in South Carolina and Georgia that had previously been owned by white people. In March 1865, Congress passes the Freedman’s Bureau Act to provide land, among other things, to newly-freed African Americans. But President Andrew Johnson ordered land that had been seized to be returned to its former owners. The promise of 40 acres and a mule died, forcing many former enslaved people to return to plantation work which offered little opportunity for economic advancement. The end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow laws, among other policies, continued that economic disadvantage.

Those policies have contributed to the huge wealth gap between Black and white people, according to Bartlett’s report. White people have nearly 10 times as much wealth as Black people. In 2016, the net worth of a typical white family was $171,000, compared to $17,150 for a Black family.

The federal government has never seriously taken up the issue of reparations for Black people, at least until 2021. For more than 30 years, starting in 1989, Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Michigan, introduced HR 40 calling for a commission to examine the lingering impacts of slavery, racism and discrimination. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, became the lead sponsor for the bill after Conyers stepped down in 2017. In 2021, the House Judiciary Committee passed the legislation for the first time, but it has not advanced further. Supporters of the bill now say they have enough votes to pass the bill in the House of Representatives, according to the Washington Post. Getting it through the Senate is a long shot, however.

California is now grappling with reparations

California lawmakers adopted AB 3121 in September to set up a task force to study the institution of slavery and how it still impacts Black Californians today. Among the members of the nine-person task force is Jovan Scott Lewis, a UC Berkeley associate professor in geography. The task force has been holding monthly meetings where experts have testified and the public has had a chance to offer its perspective on reparations. The task force will produce two reports. The one due in June will explain the scope of the discrimination and suggest who should be eligible for reparative payments. A June 2023 report will recommend what those payments should be.

Only a few cities have taken up the question of reparations

While there are many citizen initiatives to make reparative payments to Black people, only a few cities have taken up the question. The city of Asheville, North Carolina, apologized for the city’s role in slavery in 2020 and in 2021 allocated $2.1 million toward funding reparations. The money won’t go into direct payments to individuals but into investing in areas where Blacks face disparities. The city of Evanston, Illinois, has pledged to spend $10 million in the next decade to help Black homeowners acquire and fix up their property or to help pay mortgage costs. Each eligible resident could get $25,000. So far, funds have been distributed to 16 individuals.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the creation of an advisory commission in December 2020 to address the harm to African Americans created by city-sanctioned policies. Detroit is also establishing a task force to develop a reparations policy, as are some other cities. A coalition of 13 current and former mayors have formed Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity, or MORE, to highlight the need for reparations and to push the federal government to take action.

“Our coalition stands on the belief that cities can — and should — act as laboratories for bold ideas that can be transformative for racial and economic justice on a larger scale, and demonstrate for the country how to pursue and improve initiatives that take a reparatory approach to confronting and dismantling structural and institutional racism,” according to the MORE website.

Bartlett’s report on reparations notes that there are precedents for the government to pay reparations, most notably when the U.S. in 1988 paid funds to Japanese-Americans for incarcerating them during World War II. But the issue of reparative payments is complex and will probably face legal challenges, UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky told the California Reparations Task Force on Feb. 23. And in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Chemerinsky even questioned whether reparations would be constitutional.

“Any financial benefits awarded to African Americans in compensation for historical discrimination would collide with well-established Supreme Court precedents,” Chemerinsky wrote.

Under the 14th Amendment, policies to redress past wrongs based on race can only happen if they pass “strict scrutiny” — “that is, if a policy is “narrowly tailored” to meet a “compelling” government interest, through the “least restrictive” means available,” Chemerinsky wrote. Diversity in higher education fits that criterion, although Chemerinsky believes the new conservative Supreme Court will strike down that provision later this year.

“In most contexts, though, the court required the government to show that it was redressing harm clearly caused by a discriminatory policy, and that government had exhausted other remedies before trying race-conscious ones,” he wrote.

That is why paying reparations to Japanese-Americans was constitutional: it addressed a specific harmful government action. For that reason, Chemerinsky told the California task force that making reparative payments to Black people for the harm they have suffered from redlining, environmental racism, mass incarceration and other vestiges of slavery would probably not hold up in court. Chemerinsky recommended that the task force propose paying reparations based on lineage — i.e. whether or not a person is descended from someone who was enslaved. “Race neutral” proposals have a better chance of standing up to a court challenge, he said.

Under that principle, Vice President Kamala Harris, who spent her early years in Berkeley, would not be eligible for payments. Her father was Jamaican and her mother was Indian.

The tasks force will vote on who will be eligible for reparation later in March.

Who would be eligible in Berkeley?

If Berkeley proceeds with developing a reparations policy, it will have to determine who would be eligible for payments and craft a measure that can stand legal scrutiny, said Bartlett. Would it just be for current Black residents or could former residents who left Berkeley because they were priced out be eligible? Certainly, there are many former Black Berkeley residents who are still around. (In 1979, Black people made up 23.5% of Berkeley’s population. Today, Black people make up 8% of the population).

The measure the City Council will consider Tuesday does not address that issue. Bartlett crafted it specifically not to be prescriptive, he said. The community should decide.

“This is meant to come from a process, said Bartlett. “If we sent checks for X dollars on Monday or Tuesday, the community would not move forward. Society would not move forward. But if we understand one another and come to grips with our history and work together to build a new future with a better outcome, there’s no limit to the transformation that could occur.”

Update, March 19: This story originally said former President Barack Obama, whose Black father was Kenyan and whose white mother was American, would not be eligible for reparations since he does not have slave ancestors. Apparently, he does. The line was removed.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.