New York to Consider Reparations for Descendants of Enslaved People

New York will undertake an ambitious effort to address the state’s history of slavery and racism, establishing the United States’ second statewide task force to examine whether reparations can be made to confront the legacy of racial injustice.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday signed a bill that empowers a commission to study not only the history of slavery, which was outlawed in New York in 1827, but also its subsequent effects on housing discrimination, biased policing, income inequality and mass incarceration of African Americans.

New York joins California at the forefront of reparations efforts, a complicated endeavor that will immerse stakeholders in a contentious political and budgetary conversation about the past and its dictates for the future.

It is far too early to tell what type of restitution, cash or otherwise, the commission in New York will recommend for descendants of enslaved people, or even if it will make such a recommendation. But in California, a multibillion-dollar price tag has already threatened to stymie the reparations project, highlighting the distance between the state’s goals and its fiscal reality.

“I know the word ‘reparations’ brings up a lot of conflicting ideas for people,” Ms. Hochul said on Tuesday before signing the bill. “A lot of people instinctively dig in when they hear it, without really thinking about what it means or why we need to talk about it.”

“Today, I challenge all New Yorkers, to be the patriots and rebuke — and not excuse — our role in benefiting from the institution of slavery,” she said.

A nine-member task force appointed by the governor and State Legislature will produce a report with nonbinding recommendations for ways to correct centuries of discrimination. State lawmakers could then pass legislation to enact any of the recommendations.

The California commission approved a report in May that recommended a sweeping statewide reparations program, as well as a formal apology to the state’s millions of Black residents. The payments, which could reach more than $1.2 million per person, would cost billions of dollars at a time when the state faces fiscal challenges, including a $68 billion revenue shortfall.

It is now up to state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California to agree on any money to be paid or any policy changes recommended by the commission. So far, lawmakers have not passed any legislation, although the legislative Black Caucus has pledged to introduce a package of measures for consideration next year.

That commission went beyond slavery and sought to put a price tag on the effects of systemic racism as it applies to felony drug arrests, housing discrimination and eminent domain seizures, as well as differences in life expectancy. The reparations in California would apply only to residents descended from slaves or from free African Americans who lived in the United States before the 20th century.

In San Francisco, a separate 15-member task force issued a series of 111 recommendations and one of the most ambitious, if elusive, restitution proposals: a one-time, $5 million payment to anyone eligible.

But the city’s budgetary limitations and political division highlight the political challenge that reparations projects face: The proposed payments could amount to more than $100 billion, or about seven times the annual budget of San Francisco. The city’s mayor, London Breed, who is Black, has not committed to cash reparations and her office has indicated that the federal government is better suited to handle reparations.

New York has similar budget issues. After two years of record-setting state budgets following an influx of federal pandemic-era aid, state officials in New York are now projecting a budget deficit of $4.3 billion for the 2024 fiscal year, and even larger deficits in the years ahead. Cuts could be on the horizon, renewing calls from left-wing lawmakers to hike taxes on the rich to bridge the budget gaps, a step that Ms. Hochul opposes.

An unusually expansive Ms. Hochul appeared to acknowledge the difficult negotiations ahead, admitting that she had concerns about the bill at the outset.

She further acknowledged the political risks of jumping into a conversation about historical wrongs, though she concluded that truly standing against racism would mean “more than giving people a simple apology 150 years later.”

The Republican Senate minority leader, Robert Ortt, said that New York had already paid its debt for slavery with the “blood and lives” of Americans during the Civil War.

“A divisive commission to consider reparations is unworkable,” Mr. Ortt said in a statement. “As we’ve seen in California, I am confident this commission’s recommendations will be unrealistic, will come at an astronomical cost to all New Yorkers and will only further divide our state.”

The bill signing drew an assortment of the state’s many Black political leaders, including the bill’s sponsors in the State Senate and Assembly, as well as Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie and the Senate majority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

The Rev. Al Sharpton thanked Ms. Hochul for having the “audacity and courage” to back the proposal, calling the signing “the beginning of a process to repair damage done.”

“You cannot heal unless you deal with the wounds,” he said. “And this bill will put a commission together to be healing the wounds.”

Now that the bill has been signed, Ms. Hochul and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly will each appoint three members to the task force.

The group which will have one year from the date of its first meeting to produce a report of its findings and recommendations to the Legislature.

Shawn Hubler contributed reporting from California.

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