Eric McDonnell
Eric McDonnell

‘Teach-In on Reparations’ will take movement for Black reparations to synagogue

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Eric McDonnell grew up in a low-income housing development in San Francisco’s Fillmore District.

The Martin Luther King–Marcus Garvey Square apartments where he lived were part of what once had been a thriving African American neighborhood nicknamed the “Harlem of the West.” But during McDonell’s childhood, many neighbors were being displaced.

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s “urban renewal” plan of the 1950s and ’60s saw more than 20,000 Black residents displaced to make way for a gentrified, mostly white neighborhood.

In the early years, public investment in McDonnell’s neighborhood was sorely lacking. Recalling the nearby park he played in as a kid, he said it sat “completely unkempt.”

“The merry-go-round didn’t go round. There was a swing structure, but no swings. The grass was brown all the time. That was all my youth until the first set of [high-endl] condos were built on O’Farrell and Eddy,” he added. “Almost overnight, lights were put up in the park, and grass started to grow.”

McDonnell, 57, understands how discrimination has plagued Black Americans for centuries, and that is why he advocates for the concept of reparations. Today a successful management consultant, he chairs the African American Reparations Advisory Committee, which was established by the Board of Supervisors in 2020 to study San Francisco’s history of discrimination against Black residents and to make recommendations for reparations.

His committee has allies, including some in the Bay Area Jewish community, who support reparations.

On Sept. 18, the San Francisco Black and Jewish Unity Coalition will hold a reparations teach-in at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. One of the speakers will be California’s first Black secretary of state, Shirley Weber, author of an Assembly bill that established a state Reparations Task Force to develop proposals.

RELATED: Atonement: The Jewish case for black reparations

McDonnell and the Rev. Amos Brown also will speak, and Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf, Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi, will be on hand to welcome attendees. Brown is vice chair of the state task force and a member of the S.F. advisory committee.

“Our success is dependent on having allies, especially politically speaking,” McDonnell said. “There is only a 4 percent Black population in San Francisco. So allyship and building of coalitions will be critical. The allyship [with] the Jewish community is incredibly valuable.”

“This is clearly a topic in the public square,” said Gordon Gladstone, executive director of Sherith Israel, adding that his synagogue is glad to provide a space for the event. “For a lot of us, [reparations are] not something we’ve followed as closely as we might be following other topics, and therefore this is an opportunity to become better informed and understand this topic.”

Senior Rabbi Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El, a member of the unity coalition, said she is a proponent of reparations in some form.

The notion of reparations for African Americans “prompts us to study and reckon with our past,” Singer said. “As we study the ongoing impact of the way African Americans were forcibly brought to this country, it’s an eye-opener to see how much that event impacts the lives of African Americans and all of us in our time.”

Reparations is a hot-button issue, as some people feel that financial compensation for slavery, which legally ended in 1865, is too great an ask.

But the moral argument for reparations is a powerful one. Activists such as author Ta-Nehisi Coates have argued eloquently that the racist legacy of slavery has never ended. It endured in the Jim Crow laws that were on the books from Reconstruction through the 1960s, and it endures today in the treatment of Black Americans and inequities in the criminal justice system.

Reparations have been made to oppressed groups before. The United States paid nearly $2 billion to Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated during World War II. Germany has paid out about $90 billion to Holocaust survivors over the past 70 years, via the Claims Conference.

But the issue of reparations to African Americans descended from slaves faces strong political headwinds, especially on a national level.

That’s why some states and municipalities have begun taking their own steps. In the Midwest, for example, Evanston, Illinois, has launched a small-scale reparations program, and St. Paul, Minnesota, is looking into it.

Meanwhile, California’s Reparations Task Force issued a report in June that recommends acknowledgment of and apologies for past harms done to Black citizens, as well as financial restitution and compensation.

The S.F. advisory committee echoed those recommendations in its own report, and also proposed others, such as increasing Black home ownership, investing in health care, and providing a universal basic income and/or a lump-sum payment to African Americans.

Building coalitions will be critical. The allyship [with] the Jewish community is incredibly valuable.

“Political will is what will ultimately determine in every municipality whether anything happens at all,” said McDonell, who knows the challenge of persuading voters and governments.

“The vote the [S.F.] supervisors took in 2020 [to form the committee], which was unanimous, was politically easy,” he added. “They would have been chastised for not voting unanimously.  In June 2023, when we [officially] propose our plan, it will be a different climate.”

Jewish allies such as Singer think society must move forward on the issue, challenging as it may be.

“To me, the call for reparations is a moral call for Jews,” the rabbi said. “It’s on us as a people who have suffered and endured so much to relate closely to the suffering of our Black brothers and sisters.”

McDonnell, whose mother left Mississippi as a girl during the decades-long Great Migration, knows the suffering firsthand. Even in liberal San Francisco, he endured the racism that permeates American society.

“What I experienced was the tale of two cities,” he said of his hometown. “I’ve been pulled over by the police too many times I care to recall, [and] at the time I was executive director of an agency, I showed up at City Hall for a mayor’s office meeting and was sent to the service entry.”

A product of the city’s public schools, City College of San Francisco and then USF, McDonnell has put together a successful career, leading a child development and mental health support agency for 10 years and spending 20 working at United Way.

He hears the arguments from white Americans: I didn’t do it, I wasn’t there for slavery, so why should I pay for it?

To that, he replies, “This country has been complicit since its creation, and not just in the act of chattel slavery. I believe the harms that have been perpetuated on and against Black Americans have both historical as well as present impacts.

“When [White Americans] say I didn’t do it, that may be factually true, but it doesn’t speak to whether they benefited or not, because they are benefiting. And because they have benefited, there is a moral obligation [to] be willing to invest in this.”

Singer hopes many Bay Area Jews sign up for the teach-in, which is being co-hosted by the S.F. Black and Jewish Unity Coalition, Sherith Israel and the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. After 90 minutes of presentations and a Q&A, there will be small breakout discussion groups, both in person and online for virtual participants.

Singer noted that the event will take place a week before Rosh Hashanah begins on Sept. 25.

“It’s happening right as we prepare to enter the High Holy Days and become more introspective and engage in acts of teshuvah [repentance],” she said, “turning toward justice and our better selves, and being God’s partners.”

Said McDonnell: “I hold that the centuries of harm that resulted in the loss of place, promise and prosperity should be met with centuries of repair.”

“Teach-In on Reparations”

2-4 p.m. Sept. 18 at Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F. Free. Registration required. Virtual option available.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.