California’s first-in-the-nation task force on reparations is at a crossroads, with members divided on which Black Americans should be eligible for compensation as atonement for a slave system that officially ended with the Civil War but reverberates to this day.
Some members want to limit financial and other compensation to descendants of enslaved people while others say that all Black people in the U.S., regardless of lineage, suffer from systemic racism in housing, education and employment. The task force could vote on eligibility on Tuesday after putting it off last month.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year reparations task force in 2020, making California the only state to move ahead with a study and plan, with a mission to study the institution of slavery and its harms and to educate the public about its findings.
The committee is not even a year into its two-year process and there is no compensation plan of any kind on the table. But there is broad agreement among advocates of the need for multi-faceted remedies for related yet separate harms, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and redevelopment that resulted in displacement of Black communities.
Compensation could include free college, assistance buying homes and launching businesses, and grants to churches and community organizations, advocates say.
Yet, the eligibility question has dogged the group since its inaugural meeting in June, when viewers called in pleading with the nine-member group to devise targeted proposals and cash payments to make whole the descendants of people enslaved in the U.S.
Kamilah Moore, the committee’s chair, said she expects robust discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, which will include testimony from genealogists. She favors eligibility based on lineage, rather than race, saying it will have the best chance of surviving a legal challenge in a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.
A reparations plan based on race would attract “hyper-aggressive challenges that could have very negative implications for other states looking to do something similar, or even for the federal government,” she said.
“Everyone’s looking to what we’re going to do,” she said.
California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who authored the legislation creating the task force, had argued passionately in January for prioritizing descendants for generations of forced labor, broken family ties and police terrorism. The daughter of sharecroppers forced to flee Arkansas in the dead of night, she recalled how the legacy of slavery broke her family and stunted their ability to dream of anything beyond survival.
Opening up compensation to Black immigrants or even descendants of slaves from other countries would leave U.S. descendants with mere pennies, she said.
But members at February’s meeting — nearly all of whom can trace their families back to enslaved ancestors — questioned the need to rush on a pivotal question bound to shape reparations deliberations across the country.
Task force member Lisa Holder shared a poignant story of losing her child at delivery, because the medical staff did not take seriously the concerns of a young Black woman who knew something was wrong with her baby, she said. In the U.S., Black mothers are far more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women.
“No one asked me if my ancestors were enslaved in the United States or if they were enslaved in Jamaica or if they were enslaved in Barbados,” said Holder, a civil rights attorney. “We have to embrace this concept that Black lives matter, not just a sliver of those Black lives, because Black lives are in danger, especially today.”
Critics say that California has no obligation to pay up given that the state did not practice slavery and did not enforce Jim Crow laws that segregated Black people from white people in the southern states.
But testimony provided to the committee shows California and local governments were complicit in stripping Black people of their wages and property, preventing them from building wealth to pass down to their children. Their homes were razed for redevelopment, and they were forced to live in predominantly minority districts neighborhoods and couldn’t get bank loans that would allow them to purchase property.
Today, Black residents are 5% of the state’s population but over-represented in jails, prison and homeless populations. And Black homeowners continue to face discrimination in the form of home appraisals that are significantly lower than if the house were in a white neighborhood or the homeowners are white, according to testimony.
Nkechi Taifa, director of the Reparation Education Project, is among longtime advocates who are thrilled the discussion has gone mainstream. But she’s baffled by the idea of limiting reparations to people who can show lineage when ancestry is not easy to document and slave owners frequently moved people among plantations in the U.S., the Caribbean and South America.
“I guess I tend to be more inclusive rather than exclusive,” she said, “and maybe it’s a fear of limitation, that there’s not enough money to go around.”
California Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a member of the task force, said there is no question that descendants of slaves are the priority, but he said the task force also needs to stop ongoing harm and prevent future harm from racism.
“It’s in the system, it’s in our laws. It’s in how we treat one another, it’s how we talk to one another,” he said. “And no amount of money will make that go away.”
A report is due by June with a reparations proposal due by July 2023 for the Legislature to consider turning into law.