Interviews & Profiles

Could New York lead in movement for reparations?

In a Q&A with state Sen. Jabari Brisport, the lawmaker discusses establishing a commission that would explore reparations for Black New Yorkers.

City & State caught up with state Sen. Jabari Brisport just in time for Black History Month to discuss the possibilities of what reparations could look like in the state and how slavery is entwined in New York’s past and present.

City & State caught up with state Sen. Jabari Brisport just in time for Black History Month to discuss the possibilities of what reparations could look like in the state and how slavery is entwined in New York’s past and present. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

After over 200 years of slavery in America and its ripple effects of centuries of continued systemic racism, the calls for reparations have intensified across the country. Amid efforts in multiple states to sort out reparations for Black Americans, state Sen. Jabari Brisport believes that New York can be a leader in compensating and reversing the damage of slavery. The Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus member is the sponsor of a bill in the state Senate that would form a reparations commission to study the harm slavery brought to the state and the multiple avenues of restitution for Black New Yorkers.

City & State caught up with Brisport just in time for Black History Month – when he hopes to pass the bill – to discuss the details of the commission, the possibilities of what reparations could look like in the state and how slavery is entwined in New York’s past and present.

Your bill would establish a commission to consider how to implement reparations for slavery in New York state. What is your vision for the commission? Who will be on the commission, and what are the technicalities of it?

So my vision for this commission is to engage in a robust statewide discussion on the harms of slavery and the ripple effects of slavery beyond in New York state. So they’ll be tasked with examining all the laws, the economic motives and all things related to the slave trade in New York state and any interactions that it would have had with other states. In terms of who gets on the commission, it is a community-led commission, which is very important. It’s an 11-person commission with five political appointees, one each from the governor, and the leaders of both houses in both parties for that five, and then six from community-led reparations groups, two from the Institute of the Black World, two from N’Cobra, which is the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, and two from the December 12th Movement.

What led you to create a bill that would establish this commission? Has there been an increased call for reparations from the public?

What led me to this was really seeing the incredible work that former Assembly Member Charles Barron had been working to get this through and wanting to ensure that we actually saw it passed in both houses of the state government. But I’ve also always been a strong supporter of reparations for years, and this is one area where the federal government should be doing it, but it’s not doing it, and so individual states need to lead. And New York state is in a position to lead on this.

What’s holding up the bill in the state Senate? The bill is still in committee, and the chamber has never voted it out of committee in previous sessions, even though it passed the Assembly.

This is a bill that will begin a process of repair for hundreds of years of racism and anti-Black legislation policies and society. And we wanted to make sure we took every step possible to be very clean and clear on what we were doing to be very thorough, and I am working hard to make sure we do it, that we pass it this month in Black History Month.

Native Americans and Japanese Americans have received reparations in the United States in the form of a public apology and compensation from the government. What does reparations look like to you for Black Americans?

It’s those things and more. I mean, the apology is absolutely necessary, financial compensation is absolutely necessary, but it’s not limited to those. We must work to make sure these things never happen again. And that means changes to education, especially the history that is taught, the correct history. Things that help to restore the deep wealth imbalances, and that may not just be immediate financial compensation but access to building things that others were entitled to. So it can take a variety of forms, and we’ve seen many attempts to start reparations like in California or in other municipalities around the state. And so what this commission is to do is after a year of vigorous research and engagement with communities across New York is (to have) a list of proposals. I think in California, after their commission, they produced a 600-page report of various proposals. So I’m expecting to see something very robust.

How long do you think it would take to disperse reparations in the state? 

That’s up to the commission, because reparations is not just financial. So if there are policy changes, policy changes can be done on a dime, but also in terms of money, there’s no fiscal commitments in this bill. It’s up to the commission. But you know, New York is one of the richest states in America, and billionaires were able to enrich themselves by tens of billions of dollars in the first several months to a year of COVID-19. So it’s definitely possible for billions of dollars to move in the state.

Why do you think it is taking a long time for the government to find a way to compensate Black Americans for slavery?

I think it’s extremely complicated. And also, I think a lot of politicians have not found the political will. And in terms of the complication, it’s widely accepted that it’s not simply just slavery leading up to 1865, but that Black Americans have been systematically disenfranchised. Even with all the ripple effects of slavery, whether it was Jim Crow, it’s going to be sharecropping immediately after the Jim Crow era, redlining, and for-profit policing and prison systems. Even now, with the political moment we’re in with the protests over Tyre Nichols, it’s worth remembering that a lot of our police force had their roots in slave-catching patrols. And so slavery extends into today. So I think it’s addressing this much larger question of not only how do we repair from slavery but also repair from slavery and the aftereffects? And then also just the lack of political will from a lot of politicians to really dig into this and make it a priority.

How will the commission determine which Black people in the state receive reparations since not every Black person in America has lineage that ties back to slavery in this country? For example, people who immigrated to America from the Caribbean after slavery may not have ancestors that were enslaved in America, but they still deal with the effects of slavery in their everyday lives.

We need to have a discussion on what the harms were specifically. But, you know, it’s important not to preemptively divide ourselves based on where the slave ships dropped us off. These were deeply intricate and connected systems of operation. And there were people in America and institutions that benefited from the slave trade of sugar in the Caribbean, just as there are people in the Caribbean and economies that benefited from the slave trade of cotton in America. There were ports, and slaves themselves were traded back and forth between the Caribbean and America. These are extremely intricate systems. And that’s part of what the commission does is just a study, with a broad brush, on how these were connected and make recommendations as to what makes sense based on the research.

What effects from slavery do you see present in New York state?

That’s wide ranging from very blatant things, like the fact that we still have streets that are named after slave owners in New York state, to the way that redlining has played out in New York state and from the years after, to just acknowledging that New York state is also home to Wall Street. And we had a situation where slaves were literally bought and sold as capital just blocks down the street from it. And we can see our current financial system disproportionately empowers white Americans over Black Americans.

As you may know, New York City Mayor Eric Adams backed the push for a reparations bill in Albany, and he said something really interesting: “We need to zero in on some of those corporations and companies that the foundation of their wealth came from slavery.” Will this commission address the companies in New York that profited off of slavery and, if so, how?

In New York, we’re surrounded by companies that have profited off slavery, from Domino Sugar to major Wall Street banks and insurance companies. The commission has a wide scope to conduct research on any entities that profited or engaged with slavery directly or profited from it as an institution, so those corporations would be in the scope.