Will reparations for Black residents in California become a reality? If not, are they likely to happen anywhere else in the United States?

All eyes are on California, long considered the nation’s test tube for progressive policies, and its pioneering reparations task force, which this summer gave the state Legislature its recommendations for repairing the damage of slavery and racism.

Reparations, a topic steeped in historical and contemporary significance, gained new  momentum following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd in 2020. That’s when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law establishing the first-in-the-nation state task force to study historic and systemic racism and develop recommendations to address it.  

After two years of often-intense public hearings, the California Reparations Task Force task voted in May to approve a more than 1,000-page document, including more than 200 recommendations for how to undo centuries of unfair treatment for Black Californians, especially descendants of enslaved people. It recommended California formally apologize for its role in enabling slavery, and for the many tentacles of white supremacy in its history.

It also recommended the state make cash payments to those whose ancestors were enslaved. CalMatters’ reparations calculator, based on economic modeling in the task force’s report, estimates an eligible Black resident who has lived seven decades in California could be owed up to $1.2 million. 

But while a majority of California voters surveyed support an official apology, they are wary of cash reparation payments. A September, 2023 poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies showed them opposing payments by a 2-to-1 margin. 

Advocates say reparations are not only a matter of justice but a necessary step toward healing deep-seated wounds. Critics counter that reparations are an impractical and divisive concept — questioning the fairness of determining eligibility, the cost, and the potential it would open the floodgates to other aggrieved groups to seek repayment for government-sanctioned harms. 

What are reparations?

Reparations programs acknowledge and address harms caused by human rights violations such as slavery, segregation, or the systematic denial of fair housing, education, or employment opportunities. 

The United Nations identified five components to an effective reparations plan: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition. 

The five components of reparations


This should restore victims to their original situation before the violation occurred: restoration of liberty, reinstatement of employment, return of property.


This should be provided for any economically assessable damage, loss of earnings, loss of property, loss of economic opportunities, moral damages.


This should include medical and psychological care, legal and social services.


The injured community should feel satisfied with the actions taken. Can include public apologies, sanctions and memorials or commemorations

Guarantees of non-repetition

This should include the cessation of continuing violations, and the promise that it won’t happen again.

Source: United Nations

Compensation could take many forms, according to scholars. They could include direct cash payments, infrastructure investments in historically underserved communities, and vouchers for housing, college or medical insurance. California’s task force also proposed hundreds of policy recommendations falling under such categories as justice and law, voting, education, health, business, and housing. 

Was there slavery in California?

Yes. While California did not have large-scale plantations like the Southern states, slavery existed in various forms during California’s early history. 

California was not legally a slave state, yet more than 2,000 enslaved people were brought to the state from 1850 to 1860, typically by plantation owners, to work in gold mines, according to the task force. State and local government officials also at times upheld fugitive slave laws.

Click through the slideshow to see more examples of slavery in California.

A closer look at California's Reparations Task Force

The first state-appointed task force in the nation exploring how a state could make reparations to African Americans hurt by slavery and discrimination. It held close to 200 hours of public hearings and produced hundreds of pages of public documents. 

The 9-member panel did not always agree, but its work likely will be considered historic and could serve as a blueprint for the rest of the nation.

Who would be eligible for California reparations?

Figuring out who would be eligible for reparations is expected to be a complicated process. 

The task force in March 2022 voted to limit potential compensation to descendants of free and enslaved Black people who were in the United States prior to 1900. To qualify a person would have to trace lineage. The reparations panel narrowly rejected a proposal to include recent immigrants. The eligibility debate dominated the task force’s first year of work and highlighted a cultural schism within the Black community. 

The task force also voted to recommend the Legislature create a California American Freedmen’s Affairs Agency — an updated version of the Freedmen’s Bureau instituted by the federal government in 1865, after the Civil War, to assist formerly enslaved people. The new agency would help California residents trace their lineage. 

Kamilah Moore, chairperson of the task force, said nearly 80% of California’s 2.8 million Black residents would be eligible for reparations.

Some task force members predicted a large percentage of Black Californians would have trouble proving eligibility, including children in the state’s welfare system, incarcerated people and those suffering mental illness or homelessness.

 “Our most vulnerable could be left out,” said task force member Cheryl Grills. 

Where would the money come from?

Task force economic experts say the current wealth disparity between Black and white California households — pegged at $350,000 per person — is the best indicator of the impact of racism. 

They also calculated the costs of other harms African Americans endured and estimated Black Californians could be owed more than $800 billion total, for decades of over-policing, disproportionate incarceration, home seizures and housing discrimination. That is more than two-and-a-half times California’s $310 billion annual budget. Yet it does not include a recommended $1 million per person to older residents for health disparities that shortened their average life span.

If those debts were paid, where would the money come from? 

Some people suggested tapping tax revenues from marijuana sales. Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, voted in 2019 to allocate $10 million of its marijuana tax revenues to reparations initiatives addressing gaps in wealth and opportunity for Black residents. 

Others told California’s task force the state should create a “superfund” with taxes and donations paid by wealthy donors.

Some task force members suggested the state make a “downpayment” on reparations or pay installments. Steven Bradford, a Democratic state senator from Gardena on the task force, proposed diverting 0.5% of the state’s annual budget to a $1.5 billion annuity, to fund reparations programs and payments over time.

Ultimately, the governor and Legislature are expected to decide where money for reparations would come from.

Have others been paid reparations?

A town hall meeting at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California. Over 12,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at Manzanar during World War II from March 1942 until November 1945. Photo by Ansel Adams, Library of Congress
A town hall meeting at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California. Over 12,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at Manzanar during World War II from March 1942 until November 1945. Photo by Ansel Adams, Library of Congress

Many times reparations have been paid for human rights abuses in the United States and abroad. The University of Amherst catalogs several dozen cases on its library website.

Indian claims

Congress created the Indian Claims Commission to hear fraud and treaty violation claims against the United States government. By 1979, the Commission had adjudicated 546 claims and awarded more than $818 million in judgments.

Holocaust survivors

Germany agrees to pay $822 million to Holocaust survivors in what is called the German Jewish Settlement.

Tuskegee experiment

In Alabama, Black men with syphilis were left untreated to study the progression of the disease between 1932 and 1972. After the end of the Tuskegee experiment in 1974, the government reached a $10 million out of court settlement with the victims and their families.

Japanese Americans interned during WWII

U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act providing $1.2 billion ($20,000 a person) and an apology to each of the approximately 60,000 living Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II.

Black community of Rosewood, Florida

The state of Florida approved $2.1 million for the living survivors of a 1923 racial program that resulted in multiple deaths and the decimation of the Black community in the town of Rosewood.

Black residents of Evanston, Illinois

Evanston, Illinois began paying reparations to Black residents under their Restorative Housing Program. 16 residents were chosen at random and to receive $25,000 each for housing assistance.

What are Californians' attitudes about reparations?

Reparations payments to Black Californians have garnered mixed support in polls, with some panel recommendations more popular than others. In a 2023 survey by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California, nearly three out of five Californians supported the Legislature and governor offering a formal apology for human rights violations and crimes against humanity for enslaved Africans and their descendants. 

Yet the political calculus is likely to give lawmakers pause. Although most Californians surveyed believe racism is a problem, a majority of adults and a slightly greater majority of likely voters in the same poll said they had an unfavorable impression of the state having a reparations task force.

And a poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Government studies showed 59% of California voters opposed to cash payments to residents who are descendants of enslaved Black people, compared to 28% of voters in favor. The poll, conducted in late August, found Democrats and liberals largely divided on cash reparations while Republicans and conservatives were nearly universally opposed. Two out of three voters who reported no party preference said they are against cash payments to Black residents.

A different poll, by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, showed most respondents agreeing that some form of compensation is warranted. At least 81% endorsed investing in education, health care, and business development to benefit Black residents.

Could other groups pursue reparations?

L.A. County Sheriffs forcibly remove Aurora Vargas from her home in Chavez Ravine in 1959. Bulldozers then knocked over the few remaining dwellings; four months later, ground-breaking for Dodger Stadium began. Photo via Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library Collection
L.A. County Sheriffs forcibly remove Aurora Vargas from her home in Chavez Ravine in 1959. Bulldozers then knocked over the few remaining dwellings; four months later, ground-breaking for Dodger Stadium began. Photo via Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library Collection

A common warning by some opponents of reparations is that it could encourage other historically aggrieved groups to seek payback from the government. 

Even some proponents agree. Task force members Don Tamaki and Reggie Jones-Sawyer, Democratic Assembly member from Los Angeles, have said the task force’s work could become a blueprint for other ethnic groups. 

Two Harvard University scholars argue the United States already pays reparations to a variety of groups, including coal miners with black lung disease, descendants of veterans, farmers, and people who have had bad reactions to COVID vaccines. Researchers Cornell William Brooks and Linda Bilmes said few groups are as deserving of reparative justice as Black Americans.

“When you talk about restorative justice in flesh-and-blood terms, it means how do we restore people in terms of land sold? How do we restore a people in terms of dignity robbed? Bodies violated? Liberty taken?” Brooks said during a podcast.  

One group that might seek reparations are families who had lived on land Dodgers Stadium occupies, now known as Chavez Ravine. The city of Los Angeles moved out hundreds of families, most of them Latino, during the 1950’s to build the stadium. Now some are fighting to get their land back

Other examples could include Native Americans, Mexican American and Chinese Americans  —  who were oppressed at various times in California’s history — as well as undocumented workers, LGBTQ+ community members and women. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom created the California Truth & Healing Council, which is expected to report  on California’s historic relationship with Native Americans and possibly recommend reparations in 2025.

What non-cash reparations did the task force propose?

The original caption written in 1940 reads: "Oakland, California. High School Youth. Two Negro Youngsters look over the shoulders a couple fortunate enough to own amodel plane. The white boys can hope to become aviators." Photograph by Federal Security Agency. National Youth Administration.
The original caption written in 1940 reads: “Oakland, California. High School Youth. Two Negro Youngsters look over the shoulders a couple fortunate enough to own a model plane. The white boys can hope to become aviators.” Photograph by Federal Security Agency, National Youth Administration.

The task force recommends more than 100 programs or policies that do not involve direct cash payments. (They can be found on pages 19-24 of the interim report.) The policy recommendations generally fall under these categories: justice, voting, education, health, business or housing. 

Some policy recommendations would have a defined cost while others, such as the recommendation that California apologize for slavery and systemic injustices, would not have a budgetary impact. 

Other recommendations to the state:

  • Delete language from California’s Constitution permitting involuntary servitude as punishment for crime
  • Make it easier to hold law enforcement (including correctional officers) accountable for unlawful harassment and violence
  • Consider legislation to prevent the dilution Black votes via redistricting
  • Let people with felony convictions serve on juries and prohibit judges and attorneys from excluding jurors for having a criminal record.
  • Identify and eliminate anti-Black housing policies and practices.
  • Repeal Article 34 of the California Constitution, which requires public votes before “low-rent housing projects” can be developed, constructed, or acquired by public entities.
  • Identify and eliminate racial bias in standardized tests, including statewide K-12 proficiency assessments, undergraduate and postgraduate assessments and professional career exams 

What chances do reparations have?

Very few lawmakers have publicly expressed support for the preliminary recommendations of the California Reparations Task Force, but many have said they are awaiting the final report. In CalMatters’ informal email poll of all 120 state legislators, just five not on the task force responded.

Those who expressed support include Assembly members in the Black Caucus — La Mesa Democrat Dr. Akilah Weber, Moreno Valley Democrat Corey Jackson, and Tina McKinnor, a Democrat from Inglewood — and Damon Connolly, a Democrat from San Rafael.

In opposition is Assemblymember James Gallagher, a Republican from Chico, who in a statement asked: “How can we ask new immigrants and low-wage workers to foot the bill for something done 150 years ago, on the other side of the country?” 

Gov. Newsom, who signed the law creating the task force, has signaled caution. “Dealing with the legacy of slavery is about much more than cash payments,” he said in a statement.

Bradford, the Gardena senator on the task force, said he’s not surprised by caution from lawmakers. “This is an issue folks still don’t want to deal with head on,” he said, “and here we are in 2023 and not only California, but America wants to bury their head when it comes to addressing America’s original sin — slavery.”

After the report is delivered, “then we’ll see where our real allies are at, after that,” he added. 

Jones-Sawyer, the Assembly member on the task force, acknowledged: “Not all recommendations may see the light of day, but it is imperative that the ones aimed at undoing racially prejudiced laws are enacted.”

Next steps – any questions?

After the task force hands its historic work over to top state officials, lawmakers will decide which, if any, of the task force’s recommendations to turn into bills. It likely won’t be a single bill. And any legislation the Assembly and Senate pass would still require the signature of the governor to take effect.

That isn’t likely to happen until next year. The first bills would likely be introduced in December, at the earliest, and would be voted on during the next legislative cycle.

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