Berkeley City Council launches 1st phase of reparations to descendants of slavery

Photo of a Black Lives Matter flag at city hall
Kyle Garcia Takata/Staff
Berkeley City Council passed the first phase of reparations to descendants of slavery March 22.

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Berkeley City Council passed the first phase of Berkeley Reparations on March 22 to address the economic injury made to descendants of slavery in Berkeley.

Reparations are “compensation for past labor,” City Councilmember and author of the proposal Ben Bartlett said. He added that Black American victims of slavery underwent both significant injury and the denial of benefits due to forced labor.

The budget item marks the first effort made by City Council to address the economic legacy of that labor, according to a city press release.

“The time for reparations is long overdue. By beginning this process, Berkeley can become a leader in righting the wrongs of our history,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who co-sponsored the item, in the press release. “This action will help foster dialogue on a state and even national level on a topic we can no longer ignore.”

Bartlett added that slavery denied people the opportunity to provide for their descendants by preventing them from gaining from their labor.

Furthermore, Bartlett acknowledged that slaves were prevented from owning property or entering contracts, denying them the opportunity for upward mobility.

“Without this core group of people, the economy is suffering,” Bartlett said. “America will be better as a whole if we can unlock the wealth that these millions of people are rightly owed.”

The council’s next steps will be to allocate funding toward hiring a consultant versed in economic and sociological history, micro- and macro-economic theories and legislative conceptions, Bartlett said.

The consultant’s responsibility will be to guide the community through a process of education and connection. They will also provide policy recommendations to the city council.

“Berkeley is just a small city,” Bartlett said in the press release. “While we may not have the federal government’s resources to pay people what they are truly owed, I do believe we have the thought power and moral conviction to inspire the community and impact the nation.”

The proposal for reparations was positively received by the community, Bartlett noted.

He added the proposal could be instructive to national and global efforts to provide reparations for communities undergoing similar issues of “large-scale injury and suspended redress.”

According to Martha Saavedra, associate director of the Center for African Studies, slavery’s impact reverberated worldwide and continues to do so today.

“We can hope that a meaningful and participatory reparations process in Berkeley might contribute some insights and lessons for the larger debate,” Saavedra said in an email.

Saavedra added that along with reparations, it is important for the nation to fully understand the history and legacy of slavery.

As part of the proposal, one of the consultant’s responsibilities would be to hold “educational events, truth-telling symposiums, sessions, and community gatherings” discussing the inaccessibility to economic mobility and systemic racism faced by Black Americans.

“The United States has never fully reckoned with its history of anti-Black racism, exploitation, and segregation through a truth and reconciliation process,” said City Councilmember Terry Taplin, who also co-sponsored the item, in the press release. “I look forward to seeing Berkeley be a national leader in community-driven reparative justice.”

City Councilmember and cosponsor of the proposal Sophie Hahn said the city had been complicit in discrimination against the Black American community and stated her desire to work toward an equitable future.

Hahn added that the council often hears reports detailing harm done to Black Americans relating to health, police interactions, homelessness, school achievement and more.

“For too long, Berkeley has rested on its laurels, thinking that our historic vote to fully integrate schools in 1968 was enough,” Hahn said in an email. “We are overdue to confront the many ways our City has been active and complicit in discrimination against African Americans and launch a new path forward for the equitable future we all yearn for.”

Kavya Gupta is the lead race and diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.