New York Gov. Hochul Passes Law Forming Commission to Study Racial Reparations

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
December 19, 2023New York

A new commission is set to study possible racial reparations schemes for New York residents of African descent.

Democratic New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill into law on Tuesday morning, that establishes the “Commission to Examine the Institution of Slavery, Subsequent Racial and Economic Discrimination Against People of African Descent, and the Impact on Living People of African Descent.” The commission will be tasked with studying the impacts of slavery and subsequent racial discrimination against ancestors of slaves and people of African descent, and make recommendations to address those impacts, including changes in law, and potentially financial compensation.

“In New York, we like to think we’re on the right side of this. Slavery was a product of the South, the Confederacy,” Ms. Hochul said at a signing ceremony on Tuesday. “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.”

Ms. Hochul said as many as 20 percent of colonial New Yorkers were slaves at one point in history, and attributed the state’s historic commercial successes in part to the slave trade and commodities produced through slave labor. She said even after the abolition of slavery, African Americans were targeted with racial discrimination and prejudicial attacks even in New York, as in the 1892 mob killing of Robert Lewis by a white mob in the Hudson Valley community of Port Jervis.

“While New York does have an incredible legacy as a cradle of freedom, if we brought all those who are on this journey the early abolitionists and the people who fought and Civil Rights Act—whether they’re black or white—if we all brought them to today in 2023, almost 2024, what would they see today?” Ms. Hochul asked. “Black and brown Americans in segregated cities sometimes choked with dirty air. Black Americans still oppressed by elevated rates of poverty, death, disease, illness, suffering the highest rates of infant, child, and maternal mortality. They would see descendants of slaves still lagging behind white families in attaining generational wealth, home ownership, and higher education. They would come from the past and see today and say ‘your work is not done.'”

The commission to study reparations will consist of nine members, with three chosen by Ms. Hochul; three chosen by the state assembly speaker, Democrat Assemblyman Carl Heastie; and three chosen by the temporary president of the state Senate, Democrat state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Mr. Heastie and Mr. Stewart-Cousins are both black.

“Although we have come a long way from the institution of slavery, its remnants can still be felt and require more insightful thought and change,” Mr. Heastie said on Tuesday. “With the creation of the New York State Community Commission on Reparations Remedies, we can create legislative solutions and political structures that can make lasting impact.”

Ms. Stewart-Cousins thanked Ms. Hochul on Tuesday “for lending her support in helping New York begin our process of reckoning with the past.”

The commission will be required to submit a written report within a year of its first meeting, detailing its recommendations for racial reparations. While the commission may recommend legislative changes and even financial compensation, its recommendations will be non-binding.

Reparations Remain a Divisive Prospect

The bill makes New York the second state to implement a commission to study such racial reparations.

The concept of using public money to compensate the ancestors of slavery and other African Americans has already proved divisive for other states considering such options.

Earlier this year, California’s reparations commission recommended up to $1.2 million in payments to qualifying black residents to compensate them for the historic impacts of slavery, as well as housing discrimination, “excessive policing,” incarceration, and disparate health outcomes. Polling released by the University of California, Berkeley in September found that the reparation plan was widely opposed by Californians, with 58 percent of respondents against the idea of providing cash payments to the descendants of slaves, and 28 percent of respondents in favor of the payments.

The bill forming New York’s commission on racial reparations passed this year with almost no support from Republicans in the state Assembly and state Senate.

During debates on the bill in June, Republican New York Assemblyman Andy Gooddell argued that the reparations plan attempts to relitigate an issue New York settled “almost 200 years ago” when the state granted emancipation to slaves in the state 1827. Mr. Gooddell said he supports existing efforts to bring equal opportunity for all Americans and said the state should “continue on that path rather than focus on reparations.”

Challenging the bill’s signing on Tuesday, New York Republican Senate Leader Rob Ortt argued that the costs of slavery were already paid “with the blood and lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans” who fought in the Civil War.

“A divisive commission to consider reparations is unworkable. As we’ve seen in California, I am confident this commission’s recommendations will be unrealistic, will come at an astronomical cost to all New Yorkers, and will only further divide our state,” Mr. Ortt added. “Instead of advancing a costly and divisive commission, we should direct our resources to places like the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, which educates the public about our history and brings our community together.”

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 Associated Press contributed to this article.

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