Mayor tells Observer he supports direct cash payments
By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Editor-in-Chief
As more Americans face up to America’s racist past and 246 years of slavery, the lynching of 3,446 African Americans between 1882 and 1968, a century of racist Jim Crow laws and housing discrimination, a national movement to provide African Americans with reparations has been picking up steam.
While the late Detroit Congressman John Conyers had been trying for 32 years to get Congress to pass a slavery reparations bill, the process has already begun regionally. On May 6, California became the first state in the nation to come up with a reparations strategy when Gov. Newsom appointed a task force to explore how to make reparations a reality.
And in June, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg – long a champion of racial justice who worked tirelessly to get a Sacramento Unity Center off the ground – joined 10 other mayors to put their money where their mouths are. Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity (MORE), led by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock pledged to start paying reparations to Black residents in their cities. The progressive college town of Evanston, Ill. has already created a $400,000 fund paid for by cannabis taxes that will be broken into $25,000 housing grants supporting home loans and renovations. Those who can apply include Black residents of Evanston between 1919 and 1969 when fair housing became federal law, and their descendants.
Steinberg sat down with OBSERVER Publisher and CEO Larry Lee and Editor-In-Chief Stephen Magagnini July 19 to share his vision for reparations. This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Tell us about your reparations strategy.
A: Since I started as Mayor in 2016, my agenda has been about the broadest form of reparations…not just in Sacramento, but throughout the entire country, people are expecting much more than basic services, police, fire, parks, garbage pickup, from their municipal government. They want us to lead on racial equity. They want us to lead on economic inclusion. They want us to lead on housing, affordable housing and homelessness.
Sustainable growth is necessary if we’re going to provide more opportunities for people. It means more industries, more jobs, more housing, more entrepreneurship… But growth is only meaningful if it is focused on people, and communities that have been traditionally disenfranchised, we call it inclusive economic development. And that has been the hallmark of everything that I have done. My mayorship has been and continues to be about affordable housing and homelessness, which has a significant racial dimension to it as well.
With the passage of Measure U, in 2018, we expanded the sales tax by another half cent, about $50 million a year, and I promised that we would spend 80% of that money on our communities, especially our communities of color, especially our African American and Latino communities.
And over the course of the last three plus years, since that measure passed, between the city’s general fund and the measure U fund, we’ve invested $119 million in exactly what it is I’ve talked about. And it has been rough, because it was a general tax.
And even though the work is not 10% done in terms of reducing or eliminating gaps that have persisted for decades and longer in our city and in our society, I do think it is fair to say that the expectation, and the culture now around city government is very different. It is now part of the core responsibility of our city to actually attend to growing a modern inclusive economy and backing it up with real dollars.
Q: How will this reparations effort evolve and reveal itself to the community?
A: I’m not going to make the decisions unilaterally…I’m wary of study commissions and that’s not what I’m intending. But I am intending to put together a diverse cross section of leadership in our community, the African American community, to engage in some public process, who advise me and the city council on what a commitment to reparations should look like.
Now, there are many ways to go about this — there is direct payment. And while I think philosophically that’s the right thing to do, I also think that’s going to require the participation — in a very significant way — of state and federal government. I do believe that reparations is an opportunity to expand and intensify our commitment to investing in African American businesses, in African American youth, in African American homeownership, in African American nonprofits and creative economy, and that we ought to fashion a citywide investment plan with city resources that continues to focus on but intensifies our effort to invest directly in our African American families, small businesses, and community-based organizations.
Q: There are different paths being explored nationwide. Some have talked about direct payments, especially for those who can trace their roots back to slavery. Who do you think might qualify for reparations in Sacramento?
A: Philosophically, I support direct payments for anybody who can show that generationally, they have been disadvantaged as a result of the original sin.
Redlining (the systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, loans and other financial services to residents in certain areas based on their race and or ethnicity) is in the patterns of development in our community that doesn’t go back to the Civil War and pre-Civil War. It goes back to the 1960s and 70s. And that is, to me is a perpetuation of the original sin.
And so how do we as a city, with our resource base, fashion a series of remedies that repairs some of what we have done as a city, over the course of even more modern history, that have perpetuated inequality, and perpetuated racism, have perpetuated the pain and suffering that exists today?
I recognize from the very beginning, even after the Stephon Clark shooting, and the George Floyd killing, that the issues of police and African American people, especially African American men and young men, are core issues, obviously.
But it would be a mistake to only focus on those sets of issues, and not focus on basic economics, and the history of economic inequality and economic racism in our country, and in our community.
I know how we have moved the culture over even four years to now. I hope it’s a given that when it comes to budget, we’re going to create a racial equity lens, which is a tool we are still developing, but even more than a lens, to have a very purposeful strategy to invest real city resources in our communities, and especially our communities of color.
I think that is where I begin in terms of fashioning a city response to the call for reparations, and to work with our partners throughout the region, our state and our federal governments to be part of any strategy that would directly compensate people who have suffered the generations long stigma and discrimination of slavery.
Q: There are those who oppose reparations in general, without necessarily having a real understanding of what it is. What would you say to them?
A: I will tell you what I do say: we should take pride in many of the advances in our society around racial equity, gender equity, or LGBTQ equity. The arc of history may bend forward. But it has not bent far enough.
It’s still out there! It lurks just below the surface, and sometimes it raises its ugly head.
If you relent on the fight for racial justice, you are only empowering those who actually want to look backwards and turn backwards. But there’s another reason. And that gets to the heart of the reparations issue.
We are still living the effects of past overt discrimination. Look at our neighborhoods. Look at how people live economically. Look at housing conditions. Look at the percentage of unsheltered homeless people who are African American — way above the percentage of African Americans in our city and our county. And so we are still living with the impacts of legal discrimination, racially restrictive covenants, we’re still living with the impacts of an old style of policing that I think our chief is trying to change and our department is trying to change, that created the fear of police.
When I talk to African Americans about policing, I’m not talking about the defunding movement, which I’m against, I don’t think that’s the right way or the right frame, I think we need police. But when I talk to African Americans, it doesn’t matter what socio-economic category they find themselves in, they largely say the same things: ‘We tell our kids, our teenage boys especially to be very, very careful when they’re out there. And if you’re stopped by a police officer, to not do anything that would potentially provoke.’ And it’s stunning to me how consistent it is.
We’re still living with it. We’re still not post racial, that’s a fallacy. Being colorblind is sort of a floor, not a ceiling. It means that you treat people equally and fairly, regardless of their race. But then you go above the floor, and you say, for people who don’t have the same chance in life as others, what are we going to do to give them a better chance at life? Too many African American people are still living in disadvantaged circumstances as a direct result of slavery, as a direct result of redlining, as a direct result of attitudes from 20 years ago.
You take pride in how far we’ve come. But you have always acknowledged that the work is far from done.
Q: In Evanston, they are going to use marijuana tax money to get started. You have hinted at a pretty ambitious approach, a multi-faceted approach to reparations, from direct payments to the programs you’ve already started. Where is the money going to come from?
A: Vice Mayor Jay Schenirer and I are talking about how do we create a dedicated fund for investing in young people and youth. We see what’s happening out there with young people in old Sacramento, you know, throughout the city, too many kids with guns who seemingly don’t have alternatives.
We’re looking at a revenue source because I don’t want to divide up the existing pie. That’s sort of what we did. Well, with measure U we added a half cent, we added $50 million, but it’s still part of the same pie.
We’re looking at cannabis as a potential revenue source to establish a multifaceted youth investment fund that would be ongoing.
Q: You talked about direct payments, and that might go to people who have maybe lived through discrimination back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Where would that pot of money come from?
A: I think we’re going to need the partnership with the state and federal governments, if we’re going to make payments that are more than symbolic. I think we’re going to have to do that now. You have Measure U and we’re going to decide what is the highest and best purpose. I am, again, open to making direct reparations a priority. I just want to balance that.
I don’t want to over promise just because it’s satisfying or sounds right. I want to balance that with putting that money directly into our Affordable Housing Trust Fund, our Homeless Intervention Fund, our Youth Investment Fund, our African American Entrepreneurship program.
Q: Can it be done without the assistance of the federal government? Do you see a path?
A: Depending upon where you draw the line, you’re right, older people were likely to have suffered the direct impacts of redlining, for example, or a different philosophy in terms of police practices. But young people living in some of our neighborhoods where we have not traditionally invested enough in youth, they’re suffering too.
I am for direct reparations and I commit to finding a way to get that done. I think the role of city government is to have an intentional and purposeful funding strategy to benefit communities of color when it comes to economics, when it comes to jobs, when it comes to industry, when it comes to job training, when it comes to youth programming, when it comes to affordable housing and homelessness.
Q: For decades, the John Conyers reparations bill has been floating out there and just hasn’t been able to move off center. It could maybe move soon, but we don’t know.
A: If we have 70,000 Black people (in Sacramento), we could give a symbolic payment of $500 per person – that’s $35 million almost a year of measure U funding. So direct reparations in a meaningful, more substantial way is going to require a partnership.
Q: The Japanese Americans got $20,000 apiece after being incarcerated for four years during WWII. And that was a federal program, and there should be a federal program for African Americans. What is the path forward?
A: Well, there’s always a path. I just don’t want to come in here and over promise. But I promise a lot when it comes to investing real dollars in our communities. I think we’ve backed it up, but it’s just the beginning. And hopefully, by the end of my mayorship in three and a half years, the culture will be embedded, that investing directly in our neighborhoods, in our disadvantaged communities and workforce, in affordable housing and entrepreneurship. It’s a given part of the city budget, as opposed to something that comes and goes, depending upon the politics of the moment, because I don’t think we can go back.