Berkeley City Council members took a step this week toward making economic reparations to Black people for the years of slavery they endured and the harm caused by the country’s legacy of segregation, a council member said Wednesday.

Councilmember Ben Bartlett introduced the item identified as Berkeley Reparations and its first phase passed the City Council Tuesday night. The item is co-sponsored by Mayor Jesse Arreguin, Councilmember Sophie Hahn and Councilmember Terry Taplin.

The item, which appeared on the council’s consent calendar, calls for up to $350,000 from the city budget to be spent on a consultant to make policy recommendations following meetings where residents can hear from experts and each other. The goal is to create generational wealth in the city’s Black community and boost economic mobility and opportunity there.

“The Law of Compensation is a universal law — people get paid for their work,” Bartlett said in a statement. “Yet government and private industry have denied compensation to millions of American families whose forced labor enriched this country.

“In every field, from housing to healthcare, public safety, transportation, and business, we are confronted by the American Caste System,” Bartlett said. “A caste system we did not create, but we have inherited. Our children demand change. This legislation presents a framework to take us beyond reaction and into true repair — of the person, the community and the nation.”

The consultant once hired will hold a series of truth-telling symposiums and educational events with residents, economists and historians on the history of Berkeley.

“Our children demand change. This legislation presents a framework to take us beyond reaction and into true repair — of the person, the community and the nation.”

Councilmember Ben Bartlett

Experts will use historical and financial data to show the generational wealth gap in Berkeley and describe what prevents economic mobility in the Black community.

The consultant will hold a discussion for community members to talk about their perspective of current conditions and history.

Then the consultant will provide policy recommendations to make the reparations.

“The time for reparations is long overdue,” Mayor Jesse Arreguin said in a statement. “By beginning this process, Berkeley can become a leader in righting the wrongs of our history — from slavery to more modern forms of institutional racism like exclusionary zoning and redlining.

“This action will help foster dialogue on a state and even national level on a topic we can no longer ignore,” Arreguin said.

Getting to the root of a problem

Rita Forte of Black Women Organized for Political Action had similar sentiments.

“Time is past due for the U.S. to give national acknowledgment, accountability, and redress for American descendants of slavery — BWOPA is pleased to see Councilman Bartlett and the City of Berkeley attempting to tackle this locally, to see what can be done here towards this goal,” Forte said.

“We recognize that the root of many problems within our community started as a result of the enslavement of Africans brought to the U.S. thru the transatlantic slave trade over 400 years ago,” Forte said.

“I was brought up on the hopes and promises of the Civil Rights era, but for too long, Berkeley has rested on its laurels, thinking that our historic vote to fully integrate schools in 1968 was enough,” Councilmember Sophie Hahn said in a statement.

“I’m excited about the prospect of a compassionate, participatory process to learn our history, hear stories from those who live it, celebrate what we did achieve, acknowledge what we did not, and consider how we can repair harm to African Americans,” Hahn said.

Hahn added, “The City Council regularly hears reports that document negative impacts to African Americans — relating to health, homelessness, police interactions, school achievement, and almost every other metric our city measures.

“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,” Hahn said.

Bartlett said that while Berkeley may not have the resources of the federal government to make full reparations, Berkeley can “inspire the community and impact the nation.”

Keith Burbank is currently a fulltime reporter covering Alameda County and Oakland news for Bay City News. He has also worked on the Data Points project for Local News Matters, finding trends and stories about the region through data. In 2019, he was a California Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, producing a series about homeless deaths in Santa Clara County. He worked as a swing shift editor for the newswire for several years as well. Outside of journalism, Keith enjoys computer programming, math, economics and music.