After decades of debate, a few state and local governments and federal legislators are finally having serious discussions about making restitution to African Americans for centuries of enslavement, discrimination, and racist mistreatment. The California State Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom convened a first-of-its-kind reparations task force in 2020 that has now completed its work and is preparing to submit a final report on June 30 with recommendations for remedies that the state can make.
San Francisco has also convened a reparations panel to examine how the city can correct historical wrongs. Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California has proposed a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation that would examine the effects of institutional racism and look at remedies for restitution. This spring, Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, noting that enslaved people built both the White House and the Capitol, introduced a bill (HR 414) that would address the enormous racial wealth gap.
Some of the commissions have come up with actual financial costs for compensation. The California task force puts reparations at up to $1.2 million per person. The San Francisco commission recommends payments of up to $5 million for each eligible Black citizen. The Bush bill comes with a minimum price tag of $14 trillion dollars.
As you might expect, there is pushback. Newsom was cool to the cash figure suggested by his task force. San Francisco is facing a huge budget crisis and couldn’t make the $5 million dollars payments its commission recommends even if it wanted to, and many city legislators don’t. The Bush and Lee bills remain stuck in the House of Representatives. They have not been scheduled for floor votes.
In addition to the price, there are disparate ideas about who should be paid reparations. The California task force voted 5-4 in March to only pay Black Californians who can prove lineage to free and enslaved Black people who lived in the 19th century. San Francisco’s would pay Black people who meet at least two of eight criteria, which include living there for at least 13 years and being directly descended from someone enslaved through U.S. chattel slavery before 1865.
Polls show that there is heavy resistance to the idea of financial compensation. A poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 39% of Californians support reparations to Black citizens. While I don’t have an exact dollar figure, I do have an idea as to who should be paid and how—and it should start by looking at housing.
I recently had lunch with a white friend of mine who was lamenting the fact that his wife had inherited her family home, free and clear of mortgages, and doesn’t know what to do with it. Her father originally bought the home for $25,000 in 1964. The home is in San Lorenzo, a suburb of Oakland. Zillow currently puts the median home price in San Lorenzo at $816,058. That means my friend’s wife just received a windfall of close to $1 million. My family, like those of most Black Americans, will never have the opportunity to reap the generational benefits of real estate purchased by our families, thanks to government plans and policies that prohibited them from buying.
San Lorenzo, California, is a perfect example of how Black people were denied the opportunity to build generational wealth. Built under a contract with the U.S. Navy in 1944, San Lorenzo was one of America’s first “planned communities” with parcels laid out for specific purposes, such as schools, parks, shopping, and residential areas. The unincorporated village was segregated. The fact that Black people were prohibited from purchasing homes during their sales and resales was actually used as a selling point for prospective homebuyers. As African Americans, my parents were not allowed the chance to buy a San Lorenzo home in 1964 for $25,000 they can pass on to me and my children.
After World War II, as the suburbs were developed to accommodate returning soldiers, several San Lorenzo-type communities popped up across the nation. The most famous of which being the Levittown communities built in New York and Pennsylvania. The Veterans Administration (the VA) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) guaranteed low-interest home loans to vets who qualified. In other words, white people. Black people were not allowed to purchase in those communities. Levittown homes in New York initially sold for $7,990 to $9,500 with the promise of no down payment or closing fees. Today, Realtor.com puts their median price at $839,000. Quite a tidy sum if your parents or grandparents bought and held on to these properties.
As an African American man in my 50s, I am seeing the parents of my peers pass on and leave their children fortunes based on family homes in housing markets that Black people were locked out of. Most generational wealth is passed on through the sale of the family house. According to Statista.com, in 2021 74.1% of white people were homeowners, but only 44.2% of Blacks had that privilege. That is one of the reasons we see a wealth gap where the median net worth of white American households is $188,200 while that of Black American households is only $24,100.
As a Black man who has spent a lifetime working my tail off, it is frustrating to see friends suddenly become wealthy based solely on the fact that they’re white and their folks bought homes that my folks weren’t allowed to. To that end, I have what I think is an equitable solution for paying reparations. Redlining and legal housing discrimination against Black communities were at their zenith in the post-World War II era and lasted well into the 1970s. Those who were locked out of those now lucrative housing markets and their descendants should receive down payments and closing costs financed by the government to buy homes. This plan makes it easy to identify who qualifies, includes people who directly faced discrimination, begins to close the wealth gap, and allows Black families the opportunity to start building generational wealth.
Owning a home has been called “The American Dream.” Isn’t it about time that we all had the opportunity to share in it?