SAN FRANCISCO -- Members of California's Black reparations task force presented their historic two-year report to state lawmakers Thursday, challenging critics to read the hefty tome and reconsider redress for the descendants of slavery.
The final report spanning more than 1,100 pages summarizes California's role in anti-Black racism perpetuated from the lingering effects of chattel slavery and propose a series of sweeping fixes to repair the harms done to the state's African American population.
Here's what you need to know about reparations.
California created the first-in-the-nation state-level reparations task force in September 2020 with the passage of Assembly Bill 3121, authored by then assemblymember Shirley Weber. The bill, enacted after a summer of protests in response to the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, called for the study of the institution of slavery and its lingering negative effects on living African Americans, with a special consideration for the descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. The task force was also charged with recommending appropriate remedies potentially in the form of statewide policies, rehabilitation, and compensation.
The task force is comprised of nine members: five appointed by the governor, two appointed by the President pro Tempore of the Senate, and two appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly. The group has had more than a dozen meetings over the two years it has been at work-the first half of the meetings were conducted over zoom as California continued to limit mass gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the second year of meetings happening in-person with public forums that have traveled the state.
California's task force marks the most significant body to study and develop reparations since the proposals of H.R. 40, a bill to create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans, introduced by the late Congressman John Conyers in 1989.
The "40" in the name references the famous "40 acres and a mule" promise made to formerly enslaved people during the Civil War, a promise that was unfulfilled.
While the task force is expected to release its final panel of reparations proposals on Thursday in Sacramento, the group has publicly debated and voted on the proposals that will be presented in the report. Some of the proposals were revealed in the task force's 500-page interim report released in the summer 2022. The report details twelve areas of harms to be addressed from the unjust legal system to housing discrimination, separate and unequal education, to racism in the environment and infrastructure.
Of the dozen harms identified, the task force highlights policy changes to address seven areas and a combination of policy and cash payments to address the other five.
"We are not giving people money. We are returning monies taken, returning monies stolen, returning the monies that had been lost based upon the kinds of dispossession and disenfranchisement faced by Black Californians," said Jovan Scott Lewis, Ph.D., member of the reparations task force.
The team of economists working with the group has calculated that a Black Californian at least 71 years old that can trace their lineage back to an enslaved person could receive up to $1.2 million in cash payments if the recommendations set forth are voted into law by the legislature. The total amounts to $966,000 for health harms that disproportionately affect Black Californians, $159,000 for mass incarceration and over-policing, and up to $148,000 for housing discrimination. The drafts of the report released to date make it clear that these numbers are subject to change as new information becomes available.
The work of the task force was not to conduct a feasibility study. There's no mention of how these payments would be funded. It's important to note the proposals expected to be finalized in the task force's final report are just that: proposals. The state legislature will ultimately decide to take up some, all, or none of those proposals and create policies that must pass both chambers and be signed into law by the governor.
Although the reparations task force has created calculations for potential direct cash payments, members of the taskforce and experts have made it clear that reparations will be proposed in a number of forms including targeted policy changes and programs directed to benefit Black Californians that have long been disadvantaged.
Proposed policy changes could include:
The task force calls for the establishment of a cabinet-level secretary position over an office of African American Freedmen Affairs Agency tasked with implementing the recommendations.
In a contentious vote, the task force affirmed that reparations should be limited to descendants of enslaved or free Black people who were in the country by the end of the 19th century. The task force could also propose additional residency requirements for certain programs or cash payments.
Didn't California enter the union as a free state? Why should California be responsible for reparations?
Despite California entering the Union in 1850 as a free state, the task force's interim report suggests, the state's early government supported slavery. The interim report points to estimates by scholars that as many as 1,500 enslaved African Americans lived in California just two years after the state became a part of the U.S. By 1852, the state enforced so-called fugitive slave laws that were harsher than federal laws. The Golden State also banned non-white people from testifying in a court case involving white people.
The Ku Klux Klan established local chapters in the state by the 1920s with many members being prominent Californians who held positions in civil leadership and police departments. Additionally, the interim report points out that California did not ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting the equal rights of all citizens until 1959 or the Fifteenth Amendment prohibiting states from denying a person's right to vote on the basis of race until 1962.
"The idea that California has a role to play in this is, is actually very straightforward," Scott Lewis said. "We think about lingering effects, we are thinking about things like Jim Crow racism. We're thinking about the use of eminent domain in the dismantling of African American communities, in many ways to facilitate the development of the state."
Lewis suggests that those "lingering effects" of slavery, anti-Black racism and exclusionary policies are still felt by Black folks today. "The kind of principles that were first enacted during slavery found themselves showing up in various ways, soon thereafter, and have in many ways continued to impact the lives and opportunities for African Americans in the state of California," he added.
That is ultimately up to the California legislature to decide, however we won't see any reparations related bills introduced before 2024. While California's current legislative session adjourns in mid September, the deadline to introduce new bills was February 17. Any reparations-whether policy or cash payments-will have to first be proposed as legislation, then passed by both chambers, and finally signed into law by the governor.
It's unclear exactly how much reparations will cost the state of California, if enacted, because a specific bill has yet to be introduced. Some estimates from economists have projected that the state could owe upwards of $800 billion, or more than 2.5 times its annual budget, in reparations to Black people. It's important to note that any payments, if ever approved, are likely to be paid by the state over time, not in the form of lump sum payment.
As to whether reparations payments or programs would mean higher taxes that, too, remains unclear. Senator Steven Bradford, one of the members of the nine-person task force, floated the idea of putting what he calls "budget dust"-a half percent of the state budget-into a reparations account annuity to fund programs or payments. That's $1.5 billion of California's annual budget of $300 billion.
Yes, the U.S. has paid reparations in the past, most notably to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan, issued a formal apology and paid $20,000 to each surviving victim of the internment camps. This was in recognition of the injustices and violation of civil liberties that Japanese-Americans faced in the years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
As the work of the task force nears completion, Don Tamaki, the only non-Black member of the group says it will take Californians of all walks of life to see reparations happen.
"It's a matter of justice. It's a morality issue," said Tamaki. "I'm Japanese American and we know something about being incarcerated, losing our property. I think we have a duty basically, to speak out." Tamaki's parents were among the 80,000 Japanese Americans who receive compensation thru the Civil Liberties Act for being incarcerated during and after WWII.
Similarly, the U.S. government has also made various forms of compensation to Native American tribes for land seizures and treaty violations, although these have often been controversial and many argue they fall short of full reparations for historical injustices.
The U.S. has not paid reparations for slavery or the broader impacts of racial discrimination against African Americans.
While California is the first state in the U.S. to create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals, several local governments have started paying out reparations or creating programs to directly benefit Black residents on a smaller scale. Take Evanston, Illinois for example where a small number of Black residents have received $25,000 toward home improvements, a down payment or mortgage assistance.
San Francisco, Alameda County, Sacramento, Los Angeles are among the California municipalities considering reparations on a local level. Additionally, places from Fulton County, Georgia; to Boston, Massachusetts; and Kansas City, Missouri are among the cities and counties to study reparations.