Jan 8, 2024 - Politics & Policy

The reparations movement is having another moment

 New York Gov. Kathy Hochul holds up signed legislation creating a commission for the study of reparations in New York on December 19, 2023.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul holds up signed legislation creating a commission for the study of reparations in New York. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

A growing number of states and local municipalities are launching task forces and programs to examine possible reparations for Black American descendants of enslavement and Jim Crow-era discrimination — a once-fringe idea that's increasingly going mainstream.

Why it matters: "This is no longer a niche conversation. This is something that we have to do," New York State Rep. Michaelle C. Solages (D) tells Axios.

  • "Talking about racial inequality is an uncomfortable conversation for some people. They feel that it's decisive, but this is actually a path to begin to heal our communities."

Driving the news: New York became the latest to join the movement after New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill last month to establish a commission for the study of reparations.

  • The commission calls for a nine-member panel to make recommendations within a year on reparations in the state of New York, a state where enslaved people built the wall for which Wall Street is named.
  • New York joins California in examining what reparations should be considered to close today's wealth and education gaps connected to the legacy of enslavement and racial violence.
  • "Black Americans continue to feel the intergenerational impacts of slavery and of the historic injustices that have occurred since then. It is due time for compensation and redress," California civil rights attorney Areva Martin said in a statement after Hochul signed the New York bill.
  • Martin represents Black families whose homes were burned by the city of Palm Springs, California, in the 1960s to make way for luxury tourism.

How we got here: Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, state and local governments began taking a serious look at how reparations could help Black Americans make up lost ground.

  • The social justice protests of 2020 drew attention to systemic racism as universities faced a reckoning over their connection to slavery and cities confronted their histories with redlining.

The intrigue: A year before Floyd's death, Evanston, Illinois, became the first U.S. city to enact a government-funded reparations program, aiming to address the historical injustices faced by Black residents.

  • In 2020, the city council of Burlington, Vermont, voted in a resolution to create a task force to study possible reparations for the state's involvement in the slave trade.
  • The city council of High Point, North Carolina, followed in 2022 by establishing a commission to study the history of racial injustice in the city and recommend reparative actions.

Zoom out: San Francisco, Detroit, and St. Paul, Minnesota, are all mulling their own reparation proposals after establishing commissions.

  • In almost every case, governments have to contend with the cost of adopting ambitious recommendations and a backlash from conservative factions that dismiss the idea of reparations.
  • Recent proposals, like the task force in New York, garnered bipartisan support since all forms of reparations, like loans, apologies, and memorials, will be examined.

What's next: States and local governments will face pressure to see that reparations go beyond small housing grants or low-interest business loans.

  • Large sum payments, like the proposed $5 million payouts to each eligible person in San Francisco, are expected to face fierce opposition.
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