The unimaginable pain felt by a family who buries a loved one lost to negligence or police violence is far too common in our community, but that is only the start of the pain felt by many of these families. They will quickly find out that a New York law enacted before the Civil War says that the lives of Black people are worth less than the lives of white people.
You read that right: New York has a law on the books, passed at a time when there were millions of enslaved people in this country, that says white lives are more valuable than Black lives. How is that possible? Because New York’s wrongful death law, passed in 1847, values the lives of those killed only in terms of how much money they make. As a result, because a significant percentage of Black Americans are underpaid while they are alive, their lives are worth less after they are killed.
The current law is immoral.
That is why 203 of my colleagues and I, from both parties and from every corner of the state, voted to reform the wrongful death law earlier this year. The legislation we passed, known as the Grieving Families Act, which awaits action by Governor Kathy Hochul, will allow the courts to consider grief—not just paychecks. In addition, it will ensure that non-traditional family members are not locked out of the courts.
You are probably thinking, “Surely, nobody could possibly oppose legislation to correct such an obvious injustice.” Unfortunately, you would be wrong. The usual insurance companies and special interests are complaining about costs increasing. However, we know what that really means. They are upset that they might have to pay out the same amount of money for the life of a Black child as they do for the life of a white child.
But it’s not just the insurers. A group known as the NYS Conference of Mayors (NYCOM), which represents cities and villages in Albany, also wants the governor to water down or even veto the bill. Why would local governments want to stop reforms of the wrongful death laws? Because police officers work for cities and villages, and they clearly think that making it more expensive for cops to kill unarmed Black people is a bad idea.
The opposition of insurers and local officials is as divorced from reality as it is immoral.
If municipalities want to limit their liabilities, the obvious solution is to kill fewer innocent people rather than to shortchange the survivors of their victims.
Moreover, the solution for Governor Hochul is just as obvious—sign the Grieving Families Act as it was passed by the legislature. With one stroke of her pen, she can, as the scripture says, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness in an ever-flowing stream.