In summary

A task force is helping state officials examine how African Americans have been harmed by slavery and systemic racism and, weighing that, how the state should respond. What reparations should there be?

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When California’s first-in-the-nation task force on reparations voted to restrict who would be eligible for reparations to African American descendants of enslaved people, it sparked much debate and many questions about what would happen next.

The vote was contentious and emotional, and the task force was split 5-4.

The majority took a strict interpretation of AB 3121, the bill that established the task force and gave “special consideration” to direct descendants of enslaved people.

Other members argued that reparations should be open to all 2.6 million Black Californians, who through the years likely have faced systemic racism — such as police brutality, bank redlining, neighborhood disinvestment, and school or housing segregation.

Task force members, in preparation for a recommendation to the Legislature, are discussing how reparations might take shape, who the state should compensate and what redress process might occur. The state’s progress on this issue might inform reparations discussions elsewhere, as the US House of Representatives is poised to vote on a federal measure and similar programs in other cities and states are under discussion or taking hold.

Here are a few things to know about reparations, California’s task force and the state’s history with slavery.

What does this vote mean?

The task force voted in March to approve a motion that defines an eligible person as an “individual being an African American descendant of a chattel enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the US prior to the end of the 19th century.” 

This means that Black people who migrated to the US after the end of the 19th century would not be eligible. 

The specifics of how Black people might prove their lineage has yet to be determined. Task force members heard testimony from genealogists who discussed various methods, including using census records, DNA and ancestry tests. 

How many Black Californians would be eligible?

Kamilah Moore, chairperson of the task force, said nearly 80% of California’s 2.6 million Black residents would be eligible for reparations, based on calculations by William Darity, an economist on the task force.

A small fraction of California’s Black community would not be included, she said. According to 2014 data from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, there are about 178,000 Black immigrants in California — hailing primarily from the Caribbean and the African continent — or 6.8% of the state’s total Black population.

What might reparations look like?

A specific plan for reparations in California has yet to be determined, though experts have advocated for a number of options — everything from direct cash payments, to land transfers, to baby bonds, to investments in Black-owned businesses. 

Advocates said a formal apology should be included, similar to the US House of Representatives’ formal apology to Black Americans for the institution of slavery in 2008.

Darity has argued that federal reparations to Blacks could effectively close a racial wealth gap by boosting Black wealth to the level of the rest of the U.S. population, but he and other economists estimate that would mean payments of $300,000 in the hands of every Black American. 

Moore said California’s budget isn’t large enough to accommodate something like that. 

Instead, she said, the task force might recommend the legislature establish a “reparations tribunal”  or what she calls a  “state-specific harms model.” This way, she says, eligible Black Californians who are victims of police brutality or redlining, for example, could file claims and receive compensation for those particular harms through a tribunal. 

What comes next after the task force vote?

The task force will continue to hold meetings, which are open to the public via livestream. It will meet next Wednesday and Thursday to hear from panelists on racism in education and hear from economic consultants about what a state-specific reparations model could look like. 

In June the group will present its first report, which will include preliminary recommendations for what reparations may look like and a comprehensive study of the various forms of discrimination Black Americans face. Moore said the first report is underway at about 600 pages and 13 chapters. 

The final report will be released in July 2023. Moore said it will include specific information on the eligible community, formal recommendations about the forms of reparations and a study of their compliance with international human rights law and standards. 

From there, the California legislature will review the recommendations for possible adoption. 

When might reparations be paid? 

As the task force still has yet to determine what form reparations will take, Moore said it’s difficult to say if reparations — whether cash payments or other programs — will become a reality for Black Californians.

How would they be funded?  

Moore said if the Legislature approves recommendations for reparations, it would be tasked with finding a funding source.

Wasn’t California a ‘free state’?

California adopted an antislavery constitution before it became a state in 1850, but it had a long history of tolerating slavery. 

Stacey Smith, a history professor at Oregon State University and consultant to the task force, estimated that during the Gold Rush there were at least 600 enslaved Black people living in California, based on census records.

Enslaved Black people were brought to California while the state was still part of Mexico — between 1821 and 1848 — and during the US-Mexico war, so there was precedent for tolerating slavery, she said.

The state enacted a fugitive slave law in 1852 which deputized slave owners and state officials, allowing them to violently capture and arrest enslaved people. 

Meanwhile the state also passed a law that allowed only white people to testify in court cases involving white people, effectively barring freed and enslaved Black people, as well as Native Americans and immigrants, from any hope of due process.   

A man walks past a Black Lives Matter mural along Broadway in downtown Oakland on Monday, April 19, 2021. Photo by Jane Tyska, Bay Area News Group

How was the task force created?

Among the task force’s nine members, five were chosen by Gov. Gavin Newsom, two by Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, and two by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. The California Department of Justice provides “administrative, technical and legal assistance” to the task force. The department helps coordinate virtual meetings, drafts the task force reports and contracts with experts on the history of slavery, systemic racism and reparations. 

Who are some of the experts working with the task force?

Currently the DOJ has contracted with six experts, including Darrick Hamilton, an economics and urban policy professor at the New School in New York City, who will help research and develop methods to disperse reparations. In addition, the department has hired Marne Campbell, an African American studies professor at Loyola Marymount University; Stacey Smith, a history professor at Oregon State University; William Darity and Kristen Mullins, economists and authors of From Here to Equality, a book that has been described as a roadmap to reparations; and Doreathea Johnson, who is the task force parliamentarian. 

What about a federal program for reparations for Black Americans?

Shortly after slavery was formally abolished in 1865, some freed Black people pushed for early forms of reparations, such as pensions for when they fell ill or for burial services. In 1915 a group of formerly enslaved people filed a lawsuit arguing that the U.S. Treasury department owed them $68 million from profits garnered from cotton sales — but that suit was denied. Time and again various groups brought forth reparations proposals, lawsuits and legislation.

John Conyers, a Democratic Representative of Michigan, first introduced H.R. 40 to Congress in 1987, a bill to establish a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans. California’s AB 3121 borrows language from H.R. 40, which would create a commission to study the role of federal and state governments in supporting slavery and other forms of discrimination against freed Black people, their descendants, and all African Americans. Conyers introduced the legislation at the start of every session of Congress until he stepped down in 2017. 

That same year Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee took over the bill. In April 2021, it was voted out of committee. Now the bill appears to have enough Democratic support to pass the House, some observers say, but with a Republican majority in the Senate, it is a long way from becoming law.

Has the United States ever paid reparations to another group?

In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which included a formal apology and paid $20,000 to many of the more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps across the country during World War II. 

Decades before, in 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission and awarded $1.3 billion to 176 tribes and bands. That averaged less than $1,000 per person of Native American ancestry, and most of it was held in trust and managed by the US government, which was accused of mismanagement.

In 1921 the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act created homesteads to compensate for the overthrow of the island kingdom. About 200,000 acres were placed in a land trust. People who could prove 50% native Hawaiian ancestry could sign up to lease parcels for $1 for 99 years. Critics say much of the land is remote, with no water or utilities and far from roads or development. They also argue that the 50% rule complicates intergenerational land leasing in interracial families.

Why are reparations discussions gaining momentum now?

California’s task force on reparations may be the first statewide program in the country but other cities and counties have already begun the process of determining eligibility and the scope of  similar reparations plans. 

In early 2021 Evanston, Illinois became the first city in the country to approve a form of reparations. Sixteen Black residents will receive $25,000 in home improvement grants and mortgage assistance. Most were able to show they were descendants of residents from 1919 to 1969, a period of historic redlining.

Asheville, North Carolina voted in 2020 to provide reparations to Black residents and to issue a formal apology.  The city has committed $2.1 million but that will not include direct cash payments. Instead the city will boost funding for such things as housing, business and healthcare to address racial disparities, though the city council has yet to determine the exact investments. 

This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Lil Kalish’s reporting, from Myanmar to the deserts of southern California, has appeared in the Guardian, LAist, Bitch Media, ARTnews, and other outlets. Before joining CalMatters, they were a fellow...