New York state will create a commission tasked with considering reparations to address the persistent, harmful effects of slavery in the state, under a bill signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday.
It comes at a time when many states and towns throughout the United States attempt to figure out how to best reckon with the country’s dark past, and follows in the footsteps of similar task forces in California and Illinois.
“In New York, we like to think we’re on the right side of this. Slavery was a product of the South, the Confederacy,” Hochul, a Democrat, said at the bill signing ceremony in New York City. “What is hard to embrace is the fact that our state also flourished from that slavery. It’s not a beautiful story, but indeed it is the truth.”
Under the law, which was passed by state lawmakers in June, the study commission will examine the extent to which the federal and state government supported the institution of slavery. It will also look at how New York, which fully abolished slavery by 1827, engaged in the transfer of enslaved Africans and the ongoing effects of the institution on Black New Yorkers today.
“The battle for civil rights was not below the Mason–Dixon line. The largest port of slave trade was in Charleston, South Carolina and Wall Street, New York,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who spoke at the signing ceremony. “So this today starts a process of taking the veil off of northern inequality and saying we must repair the damage and it can be an example for this nation.”
The nine-member commission will be required to deliver a report a year after its first meeting. Its recommendations could potentially include monetary compensation but would be non-binding. Its findings are intended to spur policy changes and lead to programs and projects that attempt to remedy the negative effects of slavery on Black New Yorkers.
The idea of using public money to compensate the descendants of enslaved people is almost certain to draw a backlash from some, including some white people who don’t believe they should have to pay for the sins of long-ago ancestors, and other ethnic groups that weren’t involved in the slave trade.
Sharpton said he expected Hochul to pay a political price for convening the commission.
“I want to give credit to this governor for having the audacity and courage to do what others wouldn’t do. And I know she had to wrestle with it. And I know her political advisors told her it’s too risky,” the famed civil rights activist said. “But she did it because it’s right.”
Hochul and other state lawmakers emphasized at the ceremony that the process will help open up conversations about what reparations could look like.
The governor and the legislative leaders of the state Assembly and Senate will each appoint three qualified members to the commission. They have 90 days to make their picks.
“This is not just about who we’re going to write a check to, and what the amount is,” said Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first Black person to hold the position.
“It begins the conversation with one recognizing the issues that affected Black people and descendants of slaves in this state,” he said.
State Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt said in a statement that he believes New York’s recommendations will come at an “astronomical cost” to all New Yorkers.
“The reparations of slavery were paid with the blood and lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans who fought to end slavery during the Civil War,” he said. He added that it’s unrealistic for states to meet the potentially expensive price tag that could come with cash reparations.
California in 2020 became the first state to create a reparations task force. The group handed its two-year report to state lawmakers in June, who then introduced a bill that would create an agency to carry out some of the panel’s more-than 100 recommendations, including helping families with genealogical research. But turning those proposals into policies could be difficult, given the state is facing a heavy budget deficit.
Other states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, have considered studying reparations, but none have yet passed legislation. A Chicago suburb in Evanston, Illinois, became the first city to make reparations available to Black residents through a $10 million housing project in 2021.
The U.S. Congress apologized to African-Americans for slavery in 2009, but a federal proposal to create a commission studying reparations has long stalled.
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