In 1957, baseball great Willie Mays , where his New York Giants . He eventually settled on 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 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 , 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.
"Our downtown is the nation's slowest to recover from the pandemic. Storefronts and restaurants remain shuttered. Muni is a mess and BART is on life support. The streets remain full of potholes, tents and needles, and the mentally ill and drug-addicted run amok," , 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 from businesses and private homes around San Francisco.
"Unfortunately, our city is not all " city supervisor Joel Engardio said at , during which Mays's difficulty in purchasing a home in San Francisco was cited as just one example of injustices so deeply entrenched, 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 commission recently issued a draft report that included , 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 to the rest of San Francisco.
A plan of such scope has never been tried in American history — 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 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," .
Supporters of reparations say that evidence of past harm is plain to see on the streets of San Francisco, where , 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, it is half that. Supporters of reparations say that 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 .
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, .
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 Bay Area’s ports and factories. The Fillmore District came to be known as the “Harlem of the West.”
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 " 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. , 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 ).
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 Francico’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.
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 vice chair of the reparation committee, told city supervisors, who all voiced support for reparations.
As the advisory commission's report noted, none of the recommendations are binding; last Tuesday's hearing saw the council without saying anything about whether it would adopt any of the recommendations. Engardio, the city supervisor, had previously said that 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 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 at Stanford University). Even the local chapter of the NAACP, the storied civil rights organization, , arguing instead for targeted programs.
Leaders of the advisory committee lament that the national focus on the proposed $5 million lump sum has been nothing more than an effort by conservatives to derail the process.
San Francisco is by far the biggest and most significant American city to try reparations, though it is not the only one. Evanston, Ill., was the first city to actually approve a reparations program, . Legislators in New York state have submitted a reparations bill, and the Washington, D.C., city council .
On the federal level, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduced the in the House of Representatives in 1989.
The reparations effort has gained currency in recent years. In 2014, the writer Ta-Nahesi Coates published an influential article for the Atlantic. That same year, 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 than they had previously been of systemic inequality, polls found. Even so, as the best way to redress the wrongs of slavery and segregation.
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 isn’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 .
Jean-Pierre added that many of Biden’s legislative aims had 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 , 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 party leaders would rather avoid. Proof of concept materialized several weeks ago, when a bipartisan coalition in Congress 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.
Republicans in the Senate only need 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 here 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 plainly grasped this point.
During the public comment portion of the hearing, a San Francisco 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.”