Friday, January 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California panel calls for giving monetary reparations to descendants of slaves

The "Reparations Task Force" released their first report, with about 100 proposals, including financial restitution to descendants of slaves and Black Californians who'd been financially harmed by racist policies.

(CN) — A much anticipated report by California's "Reparations Task Force," released Wednesday, called for a "comprehensive" racial reparations scheme, including financial restitution to Black Californians whose descendants were either slaves or victims of racist policies.

The interim report lists more than 100 recommendations, ranging from the vague (for example: "Address the severely disparate involvement of Black families within the child welfare and foster care systems") to the wildly ambitious ("Eliminate discriminatory policing and particularly killings, use of force, and racial profiling of African Americans.")

"California is the first state in the nation to study and commit to develop reparations proposals," said task force's chair, Kamilah Moore, an attorney and reparatory justice scholar. She said she hoped the report would be both an educational and organizing tool, a sort of blueprint. "Hopefully anyone in the US can take something form this report and start advocating for racial justice and reparations."

The report proposes giving "financial restitution and compensation to athletes or their heirs for injuries sustained in their work if those injuries can be linked to anti-Black discrimination policies," and reimbursing Black Californians for "businesses and property in California stolen or destroyed through acts of racial terror." It also calls for zero interest business and housing loans to Black families; the repeal of a ballot measure which makes it nearly impossible to build public housing; and the adding of Black students to the state's educational funding formula, which assigns extra money to school districts education low-income students, English language learners and foster youth.

But most of the document's nearly 500 pages focus on the legacy of slavery and racism, on "the horrors and harms perpetrated against African Americans in California and the nation in a number of different areas." Those areas include the transatlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, racial terror during the Jim Crow era, political disenfranchisement, unequal education policies and outcomes, the racial wealth gap in America and a legal system which disproportionately arrests and jails Black people.

Even though California was a "free state," roughly 1,500 enslaved African Americans lived in California in 1852, according to the report. Slaves in California faced "brutal violence," and the state had a fugitive slave law that was harsher than the federal one.

"So thoroughly have the effects of slavery infected every aspect of American society over the last 400 years, that it is nearly impossible to identify every 'badge and incident of slavery,' to include every piece of evidence, or describe every harm done to African Americans," the report reads, adding, "the effects of slavery continue to be embedded in American society today and have never been sufficiently remedied."

Decades after slavery ended, discriminatory housing policies like redlining and certain zoning ordinances forced "African Americans to live in worse conditions in nearly every aspect of life."

Moore said the report was the first government-commissioned study on harms of slavery and racism since the Kerner Commission report in 1968.

California's reparations task force was set up by Assembly Bill 3121, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020. The nine-person panel is a mix of lawmakers, like state Senator Steven Bradford, civil rights activists, attorneys and academics. Eight of the nine members are Black; the ninth, Donald Tamaki, a lawyer, is Japanese.

The task force held 16 public meetings in the last year. In March, they voted to limit reparations to descendants of slavery, rather than all Black people.

One of the report's proposals is to establish the "California African American/Freedmen Affairs Agency," a cabinet-level office tasked with implementing the task force's recommendations. Among other things, the agency would include a "genealogy branch in order to support potential claimants with genealogical research and to confirm eligibility" of reparations; a "reparations tribunal in order to adjudicate substantive claims for past harms"; and a "cultural affairs branch" to, among other things, "advocate for removal of racist relics" and "provide support for African Americans in the entertainment industry."

This is only their first report. Moore said a second report, to be released later this year, will contain "a comprehensive reparations plan," including specific plans for financial compensation.

Moore said that initially, the task force was contemplating a plan that would give every descendant of a slave in California a set amount — say, $300,000. But the task force's team of economists said that proposal would be far too expensive. Instead, she said, the second report will recommend various cash awards for specific harms suffered by slavery or racial discrimination. For example, descendants of chattel slavery who are homeless will get a certain amount; Black Californians whose descendants land was taken away by eminent domain will get a certain amount; victims of "police terror" and their descendants will get a set amount. And so on.

"There is a moral obligation for America to make amends for the unjust and inhumane way that African Americans were made to undergo to build this nation," said Reverend Amos Brown, the task force's vice chair.

A spokesperson for Newsom said, in a written statement, that his office was still reviewing the lengthy document, but praised California for "leading the nation... on issues of racial justice and equity, which is a long overdue discussion we must have."

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.