The New York City Council is currently discussing a set of bills that focus on the city’s historical involvement with slavery. The proposed legislation aims to evaluate the possibility of reparations for the city’s black residents and reassess public art perceived as racially offensive.
Brooklyn Councilwoman Farah Louis has taken the lead in promoting a reparations proposal. This plan involves creating a nine-member task force assigned to study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination on the city. Within a year of its formation, this task force is expected to provide a report. The potential recommendations of this endeavor would be purely advisory and non-enforceable, much like a similar bill recently passed by the state Legislature in Albany.
That corresponding state bill, now pending Governor Kathy Hochul’s review, has a broader scope as it intends to examine the impacts of slavery and racial discrimination on the entire state.
The city appears to be following in the footsteps of California which, in 2020, became the first state to establish a reparations task force. The task force in California suggested the state formally acknowledge and apologize for its racist past and set up a body to offer a wide range of services to black residents. The task force did not specify any amounts for reparation payments.
However, the Californian reparations team assessed in their report that, owing to long-lasting discriminatory practices such as redlining, mass incarceration, and excessive policing, the state was liable for upwards of $500 billion. To put this into perspective, the budget for the state of California last year was $308 billion. Therefore, potential reparations in New York could similarly involve a substantial financial commitment.
The reparations legislation in New York is part of a larger package introduced by several council members of color who say the bills are designed to redress historical injustices. Brooklyn Councilwoman Crystal Hudson has proposed a bill requiring the city’s Commission of Racial Equity to establish a “Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation” process. This process would document the city’s historical relationship with slavery and suggest changes to prevent a recurrence.
Councilwoman Sandy Nurse has also proposed a bill requiring the city’s Public Design Commission, along with other city agencies, to devise a plan for removing monuments and artwork on city land that celebrate individuals who profited from slavery or committed systemic crimes against indigenous peoples or crimes against humanity.
This move echoes the controversy stirred by former Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017 when he established a commission to assess monuments citywide after white supremacist violence erupted in Charlottesville, VA.
These proposed bills have not gone without criticism, as more moderate and conservative council members like Minority Leader Joe Borelli and Robert Holden have voiced their opposition. The legislation is currently under review in Mayor Eric Adams’ office.
Lawmakers in other states, like New Jersey and Vermont, have also discussed the possibility of studying reparations, but no concrete legislation has been passed in these jurisdictions so far. Evanston, a suburb in Chicago, Illinois, led the way at the municipal level by implementing a $10 million housing initiative in 2021 as reparations for Black residents.