A commission will be established in New York to look into slavery reparations

New York state has embarked on a groundbreaking initiative by establishing a commission to explore reparations for the enduring and detrimental impacts of slavery within its borders. Governor Kathy Hochul signed the bill into law on Tuesday, aligning the state with a growing national effort to grapple with the dark legacy of slavery. This move follows similar actions in California and Illinois.

Governor Hochul, a Democrat, acknowledged the uncomfortable truth that while slavery is often associated with the South, New York also thrived economically from this institution.

During the bill signing ceremony in New York City, she emphasized the importance of confronting this complex history. The legislation, passed by state lawmakers in June, mandates the commission to thoroughly examine the history of slavery in New York, abolished by 1827, and its lasting impact on the Black community today.

At the heart of this historic initiative is a nine-member commission tasked with delivering a comprehensive report within a year of its inaugural meeting. While recommendations may encompass potential monetary compensation, they will be non-binding. The commission’s findings aim to catalyze policy changes, programs, and projects aimed at addressing the enduring harm caused by slavery.

The proposal to use public funds for reparations may face resistance, particularly from those who question the idea of present-day individuals bearing the financial responsibility for the sins of their ancestors. Reverend Al Sharpton, a prominent civil rights activist, commended Governor Hochul’s courage, anticipating potential political repercussions for convening the commission.

Governor Hochul, along with leaders from the state Assembly and Senate, will each appoint three qualified members to the commission within a 90-day timeframe. Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie stressed that this initiative extends beyond financial compensation, initiating a conversation about recognizing the historical issues affecting Black people and descendants of slaves in the state.

While some critics argue that the cost of reparations would be astronomical and suggest that the bloodshed during the Civil War served as reparations, proponents, including Sharpton and Mayor Eric Adams, emphasize the importance of addressing the ties between venerable institutions and the wealth derived from exploiting enslaved labor.

New York’s move echoes broader national discussions on reparations, with California taking the lead in 2020 by establishing a reparations task force. The momentum, however, faces challenges, as turning proposals into policies encounters budgetary constraints and political hurdles. Cornell William Brooks, a Harvard professor specializing in civil rights and reparations, emphasizes the role of states and municipalities in contributing to a national solution.

Although the U.S. Congress issued an apology for slavery in 2009, a federal proposal for a commission studying reparations has languished. The New York legislation underlines the historical roots of slavery in the state, acknowledging the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the 1620s at the southern tip of Manhattan, where they contributed to building the infrastructure, including the wall that lends its name to Wall Street.

Mayor Eric Adams, expressing support for the measure, underscores the need to reckon with the exploitation of enslaved labor that underpins the wealth of certain institutions in New York and beyond.

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