Jan 24, 2023

The reparations proposal in San Francisco.

Protesters gather in Minneapolis calling for reparations. Image: Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA
Protesters gather in Minneapolis calling for reparations. Image: Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA

The plan calls for $5 million for ever eligible Black resident.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

A reparations plan proposed in San Francisco. Plus, a question about being scared to air my "real" opinion and an important story the Supreme Court leak.

Quick hits.

  1. A former FBI official was arrested on charges of working for Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and faces charges that include money laundering. (The arrest)
  2. Four more members of the Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy by a Washington jury. (The convictions)
  3. U.S. health officials are proposing a shift to once-a-year Covid boosters similar to the flu shot schedule. (The proposal)
  4. At least seven people were shot and killed in Half Moon Bay, California, just three days after a separate mass shooting in the state (The shooting). Separately, two students died and one teacher was injured in a shooting at a Des Moines, Iowa, youth outreach center. (The shooting)
  5. Microsoft announced a "multi-billion dollar" investment into OpenAI, the company behind the ChatGPT language model. (The investment)

Today's topic.

Reparations. Last week, a committee in San Francisco released a reparations proposal for the city that includes $5 million for each qualifying Black resident of the city. The San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee (AARAC) was formed in 2020 and was asked to develop a plan to address institutional harms African Americans have had to face.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will now vote to accept, amend or reject the committee’s plan. According to CNN:

To be eligible for reparations, San Francisco residents must be 18 years or older, have been identifying as Black or African American on public documents for at least 10 years, and meet two of eight additional criteria, including having been born or migrating to the city between 1940 and 1996 as well as showing proof of at least 13 years of residency; Having been incarcerated “by the failed War on Drugs” or being the direct descendant of someone who was; Being a descendant of someone who was enslaved through US chattel slavery before 1865; Having been displaced between 1954 and 1973 or being a descendant of someone who did; Being part of a marginalized group who experienced lending discrimination in the city between 1937 and 1968 or in “formerly redlined” communities within the city between 1968 and 2008, according to the committee’s plan.

Along with the one-time lump sum payment, the plan also recommends the city supplement the income of lower-income households to match the median income for at least 250 years in an attempt to address the racial wealth gap in San Francisco.

Neither San Francisco nor California ever adopted institutional chattel slavery, though the state did embrace segregation. The drafters of the plan say it would cover "the economic and opportunity losses that Black San Franciscans have endured, collectively, as the result of both intentional decisions and unintended harms perpetuated by City policy."

Republican John Dennis, who chairs the San Francisco Republican party, criticized the committee for not fleshing out how it determined the amounts of compensation.

“I think there’s a discussion of good faith to be had about [reparations] and this isn’t the way to do it. I think it’ll also, lastly, if [the plan] does pass, I think it’ll be challenged in the courts aggressively,” Dennis said.

Today, we're going to take a look at some opinions from the right and left about reparations and this plan specifically, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right criticize the plan, arguing that it is an absurd idea that is also ethically questionable.
  • Some call out the poor results of simply giving people money.
  • Others take offense to the idea of rewarding people who have committed crimes.

National Review's editorial board called it a "terrible idea."

"This would be by far the most ambitious attempt yet at reparations, and it lays bare the flaws in the whole concept. Those include deliberately conflating the unique historical injustice of slavery with other forms of legal discrimination," the editors said. "Then there is simple ignorance: 'The United States was wholly supportive of and dependent upon the enslavement of African people and their descendants as the vehicle that established and propelled the country’s economy.' Wholly dependent? The vehicle? In one fell swoop, the Human Rights Commission staff writes the labors of nearly 90 percent of the American population — including generations of small farmers, inventors, and industrialists — entirely out of American economic history.

"The notion that the city of San Francisco, as an entity, owes reparations for slavery is preposterous," the board added. "If one considers the taxpayers of San Francisco, who will actually foot the bill for this, the case for saddling them with financial responsibility for American slavery — or even more recent injustices — becomes even more ridiculous. Over 34 percent of San Franciscans are foreign-born, having no historic ties to the American past. That number has been above a third for four decades, and it was also consistently between a third and half of the city’s population between 1860 and 1910. It’s been 40 years since non-Hispanic whites made up a majority of San Francisco’s population, which as of the 2020 Census was 33.7 percent Asian American (including South Asian) and 15.6 percent Hispanic."

In The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro said racial reparations "solve nothing."

"This is bad ethics and it is bad social science. It’s bad ethics because the innocent should not be forced to pay people against whom they have not sinned, and because the connection between continued suffering and past discrimination must be measured and clarified rather than merely assumed," he wrote. "It’s bad social science because it ignores the role of individual decision-making in persistent intergenerational inequality, despite the massive intervention of state, local and federal government... Simply put, the preferred solution of San Francisco’s reparations committee – simply cutting checks – has been a dramatic failure in the United States. The federal government has spent in excess of $25 trillion on redistribution programs in the United States.

“The result has been exceedingly poor: while the income gap between the poorest quintile of Americans and the wealthiest quintile of Americans post-transfer payments and taxes is just 4-to-1, the wealth gap between black and white Americans has skyrocketed from approximately $50,000 pre-1960 to well over $130,000 in 2016. Why? Because it turns out that public policy designed to alleviate inequality also alleviates the consequences of bad decision-making... Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that 70% of black children are born to unwed mothers; nearly 8 out of 100 black males drop out of school; black college students tend to major in subjects that result in worse job prospects (just 12% of black students get a bachelor’s degree in STEM, compared with 33% of Asian students and 18% of white students, for example); one third of the American prison population is black."

The Washington Examiner editors criticized the reparations movement as a whole.

"The reparations movement keeps grievances as broad and as multifarious as possible. Reparations advocates want to roll all historical injustices against black people together and homogenize them to justify having somebody — it has to be a government because that's where the money is— pay gargantuan lump sums to everybody, including those not truly affected. It is taken for granted that taxpayers must foot the bill, including the vast majority whose ancestors never owned slaves and perhaps died in the war to end slavery or who had no ancestors in America before the Civil War.

“A separate but equally ridiculous aspect of the panel's recommendation is that it would directly reward people convicted and incarcerated for crimes they committed. Whatever you think of the war on drugs, drug dealing was and for the most part still is a crime,” the editors said. “If someone wrongs you or violates your civil rights, there is already a process to seek redress. The common law and each state's civil code provide remedies that people can pursue in court... If the harm in question is too distant — say, Oliver Cromwell dispossessed your family and drove its members out of Ulster in the 17th century or a Roman nobleman enslaved your Gallic ancestors in the first century — it's likely that you don't have a strong enough claim to win in court.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left supports some form of reparations, though their feelings about this specific plan are mixed.
  • Some say we should think of reparations as multi-racial equality, and broaden the goal to more than just giving Black people money.
  • Others argue that even the plan in San Francisco really doesn't approach making it "even" for slavery’s impacts.

In The San Francisco Chronicle, Justin Phillips called it a "bold plan" to consider.

"A century after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and lamented how 'the Negro still is not free... One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,' he said during his 1963 'I Have a Dream' speech from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King could have been describing today’s San Francisco, a 47-square-mile city that’s home to more than 60 billionaires and at least 7,000 homeless people, around 40% of whom are Black, despite Black people representing only 5% of the population.

"What happens next will show whether San Francisco politicians are serious about confronting the city’s checkered past, or are simply pretending to be," Phillips wrote. "While California was never officially a slave state, slaveholders were protected here, and the committee’s research reveals that segregation, systemic oppression and racial prejudice born from the institution of slavery had a profound impact on the city’s evolution. In the 20th century alone, San Francisco was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, barred Black people from settling in certain areas, kept them out of city jobs and demolished the Fillmore, a Black neighborhood and commercial district, leaving it vacant for decades."

In The Washington Post, Andrew Delbanco wrote about how reparations could work.

"We must proceed with full awareness that the dire challenges of our time — climate change, disparities in health care and education amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, gun violence, state violence in the form of bad policing, misused and inequitable incarceration, to name just a few — all have disproportionate effects on persons left vulnerable by history, notably but by no means only Black persons," Delbanco said. "This version of reparations does not gloss over penalties exacted in the past by racial cruelty, but it looks to a future in which human dignity will count for more and more and race will count for less and less... Today, a great many White Americans feel as demeaned and discarded as Black Americans, and just as forgotten. In the grim metrics of poverty rates, infant mortality and maternal deaths in childbirth, Black Americans and Native Americans continue to hold the lead.

"But in the distribution of suffering, as measured by other markers such as opioid addiction, alcoholism and suicide, the racial gap is closing," he wrote. "This multiracial reality can be addressed only with a multiracial response of the sort envisioned by [Martin Luther] King. Beginning with a robust defense of the right to vote, such a response must include subsidized housing for low-income Americans; improved access to health care; investments in public transportation; expanded child tax credits; preschool and wraparound services for all children of the sort that affluent families take for granted. It must include renewed investment in community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, tribal and regional public colleges, where low-income White students as well as Black, Hispanic and Native American students are likely to enroll."

In HuffPost, Sage Howard said we should all be paying attention to what is happening in San Francisco.

"Before we go any further, let’s agree that this nation owes Black Americans reparations, period," Howard wrote. "If you’re unsure about this, immediately dive into some contemporary literature to learn why chattel slavery is the root of America’s most pressing disparities. Many Republicans, who of course hate the idea of San Francisco’s proposal, argue that the plan would be too costly, unfair and divisive. Republican Florida Rep. Byron Donalds called the $5 million lump sum a distraction from solving problems like homelessness and the opioid epidemic. The plan, which would cost the city $50 billion if just 10,000 residents qualified, is indeed ambitious. But even addressing just the financial repercussions of slavery on Black Americans is going to require ambition. And for the record, $5 million is not enough to “call it even” for slavery, especially in a city that’s one of the most notorious in the country for its history of housing discrimination.

"Whether you agree with the dollar amount it proposes or not, the committee’s plan is innovative because it uses historical and socioeconomic evidence to identify what, exactly, it will take to help the average Black San Franciscan to close the racial wealth gap," he said. "The plan holds the city accountable while offering compensation to help level the playing field and allow Black residents to build generational wealth like their white counterparts do every day. It’s been estimated that the plan would exceed San Francisco’s municipal budget, but there has yet to be any public discourse around what could be done with support from state and federal budgets... The truth can be jarring and expensive sometimes, and we all have to be honest here about what this country has robbed us of."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I would not support this proposal, but not because the harms of slavery aren't present in modern society.
  • Writing checks and continuing to try and define people along racial lines is never going to work.
  • We have more holistic and better options in front of us.

Let me start by stating plainly that America's racial disparities in wealth and incarceration are not random. They aren’t simply a product of bad luck or, as Ben Shapiro put it, bad decision making. African Americans making the case for reparations have a clear, compelling and straightforward argument: “We suffered multiple centuries of horrors, oppression and discrimination, we had our wealth and opportunity stolen from us in a systematic way, and those injustices suffered by our ancestors have cost us today. We should now be made whole.”

Any historical understanding of slavery and its impact on modern day America renders the root of this argument incontrovertible.

This incontrovertible truth, though, doesn't make this plan any more productive, realistic or rational.

Edmund Burke said that society “is a partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Those words resonate with me. Nevertheless, there is an ocean between partnership with my ancestors and responsibility for their actions. I wouldn't take responsibility for the sins of my own father, let alone the sins of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

As it happens, I'm actually a descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, who is best known for advocating religious freedom, separation of church and state, and fair dealings for Native Americans. In a world where reparations existed, should my reparations toll be less than that of a descendant of an unabashed slave owner? Equal to? Greater than? I'm sure there are many ways I benefit from my Anglo-Saxon English heritage (on my dad's side), but are those benefits a wash when you consider the millennia of persecution faced by my Ashkenazi Jewish ancestors (on my mom's side)? Should the centuries of enslavement of my ancestors absolve me of owing reparations for slavery of another’s ancestors?

Questions like these are obviously impossible to answer, and feel silly to even write, which is why the project of retroactively redistributing wealth or harms along racial and ethnic lines is so difficult and would engender so much more division. This plan is particularly fraught, not just for the eye-popping sums, broadly worded guidance, and rather arbitrary lines of qualification, but also because of the diverse makeup (and relative “ancestral innocence”) of San Francisco's current tax-paying population.

Reparations today cannot and should not look like $5 million checks footed by taxpayers, promises to create a nearly six-figure floor for all employment, and redress for any Black person who has been convicted of a drug crime.

A better form of reparations, one not just more rational and just but more unifying, is actually what we are watching unfold before us: A reckoning and acknowledgment of the sordid parts of our racial history, one we didn’t have even 50 years ago. Equal rights under the law, which we didn’t have even 60 years ago. Efforts to improve education opportunities for minorities. Better representation in workforces, college campuses and Congress. Police accountability. Economic opportunity. Expanded voting rights.

The unfolding story of the 21st century is one of progress, where wages are rising faster for Black Americans than white Americans, racial disparities in state and federal prisons are shrinking, police accountability is increasing, acceptance of a multi-ethnic society is skyrocketing, and opportunity for Black Americans is blossoming in every direction. Every day there are new organizations and government programs fighting to reduce the stubborn wealth gap, advance Black entrepreneurship, or improve housing accessibility.

These programs don't just benefit Black Americans but all minorities, along with many disadvantaged white Americans. This is how an expansive and holistic kind of reparations should work: redress for the poor and disenfranchised, who are disproportionately descendants of slaves, but not exclusionary to those who aren't. Ultimately, it's hard for me to see how the idea of reparations where the government cuts checks to descendants of slaves, or those impacted by slavery, could ever really work.

There is no "getting even" for slavery — no check in the mail or redistribution of wealth organized by federal, state or city government could make our nation whole. And that’s not to say that therefore we should do nothing. In the ‘partnership between the dead, living and future,’ we as a collective society are already living with the repercussions of slavery, and more importantly already trying to reconcile them. A grim consequence of success here is that, as Andrew Delbanco so elegantly put it, the racial gap is closing on the "distribution of suffering," and a race-based solution isn’t the most productive way to close the gap further.

Instead of racially broad payments that foot the bill to today’s “non-qualifying” racial population, we should be discussing economically broad ways to aid the poor and disenfranchised with little to no consideration for race. The task before us is bigger than writing eye-popping checks or creating half-baked qualifications for those checks; it's about resolving to care for the people struggling and suffering in our midst, while dissolving the same racial lines in our country that helped drive us to the horrors of chattel slavery in the first place.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Isaac, do you ever modify or tweak your opinion a bit, especially on a very divisive topic, because you’re afraid you will lose subscribers? I could honestly understand if you do (heck, you are trying to make a living) but wondered if it was something you struggle with continually.

— Julie from Poughkeepsie, New York

Tangle: I try really, really hard not to. Trust me, there are days (like today!) where I worry. What will some folks on the left do when I, a white middle-class guy, call a reparations plan "counterproductive"? Will I be showing my "deeply rooted white supremacy"? How will some folks on the right react to me advocating organizations or government plans that promote diversity? Am I going to be a woke social justice warrior?

Anytime these thoughts creep in, though, I just remind myself of a few things: 1) No matter what I write, some people, somewhere, are going to be offended and unsubscribe. That's the nature of opining on anything political today. 2) Concealing my real opinion insulates me from any honest criticisms, which would both keep me from becoming more informed and make this newsletter supremely boring. 3) Most of my readers are here to be exposed to ideas that challenge them. 4) My take is really only supposed to be one opinion among many.

All this is to say: I know there are times that I soften language or go out of my way to make people I disagree with feel seen, but I do my best to articulate what I'm actually thinking, feeling or seeing.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The Supreme Court has released a long-awaited report on who leaked the opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Eight months, 126 formal interviews and a 23-page report later, the court has failed to discover who was behind the leak, the Associated Press reported. All nine justices were interviewed and the report said nothing had implicated them. However, the report did describe the leak was "no mere misguided attempt at protest," seemingly implying whoever was behind the leak intended to prevent the ruling from being handed down as written. The Associated Press has the story.


  • 84%. The percentage of U.S. wealth held by white Americans.
  • 60%. The percentage of the U.S. population that is white.
  • 4%. The percentage of U.S. wealth held by Black Americans.
  • 13%. The percentage of the U.S. population that is Black.
  • $338,093. Average per capita wealth of white Americans
  • $60,216. Average per capita wealth of Black Americans.

Have a nice day.

Archaeologists in Norway have discovered what might be the world's oldest runestone, a rock inscribed with letters from the Germanic alphabet, which preceded the Latin alphabet. The inscriptions are believed to be 2,000 years old and may be the earliest example of words recorded in writing in Scandinavia. The runestone was found during the excavation of a gravesite west of Oslo, and other items in the cremation pit indicate the runes were inscribed between A.D.1 and 250. Eight runes read "idiberug," which the archaeologists think could be the name of a woman, man or family. “Without doubt, we will obtain valuable knowledge about the early history of runic writing,” Kristel Zilmer, a professor at University of Oslo, told The Associated Press.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.