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California Reparations Task Force struggles to define scope of recommended reparations

It remains unclear how or if the nine-member committee will limit the number of Black people to be compensated.

(CN) — California's Reparations Task Force, a committee set up to study the feasibility of giving monetary compensation to African Americans whose ancestors were the subject of racist policies in the state, met in person for the third time on Wednesday (they have met remotely eight other times) to discuss just who they should be repaying.

Despite working for months, the committee indicated it was not yet ready to define who should be eligible for reparations, much less the dollar amounts.

“We’re still in the exploratory phase,” said task force chair Kamilah Moore.

The task force has identified what they called five harms or "atrocities" they'll seek to redress: unjust property takings by eminent domain, the devaluation of black businesses, housing discrimination and houselessness, disproportionate black mass incarceration and "over-policing," and "health harms." Now the committee must decide just who it will recommend to be compensated for such a sprawling set of harms.

"We need better understanding of when imminent domain was used," said Moore, at one point. "There are a lot of unknowns."

Another member of the task force, Jovan Scott Lewis, a geography professor at the University of California, Berkeley, called the session a "preliminary presentation about what we don’t know," adding that until recently, "we didn’t know what we didn’t know."

The task force will issue its final report on July 1, 2023, which will make a (probably large) number of recommendations, including, perhaps, monetary payments. It will also likely suggest a wide range of other interventions and reforms — small business loans, for example, or eliminating charges for phone calls made by inmates in county jails. The scope of the commission's purview is almost unfathomably large. But its report will be advisory only. It will be left up to state and local lawmakers whether or not to act on its recommendations.

It's unclear how or if the task force will limit the number of Black people it recommends be compensated. The panel could choose, for example, to propose payments be given to direct descendants of chattel slavery. It could also limit its list to descendants of Black Californians living in the state before a certain date.

Experts recommended time frames for each of the five atrocities. For example, descendants of victims of mass incarceration would need to show proof that they had an ancestor living in California at some time since 1970. But the task force has yet to approve the recommended time frames.

One thing the panel is not considering: recommending policies that would help non-Blacks.

"We’re not trying to give money to non-African Americans in what we’re doing," said State Assemblyman Reggie Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a member of the task force. "We want to make sure the money is actually getting to African Americans that need it the most."

Earlier this month, a number of media outlets, including both Fox News and the New York Times, reported that the task force was considering giving each qualified Black resident $223,200, which would cost the state more than half a trillion dollars. Committee Vice Chair Amos Brown called those numbers a "bogus projection." Moore aid they were "misinformation" and a "fabrication."

"These are figures that came from our economic team," she said, adding that they indicated what the state's "maximum liability" might be.

Much of the meeting, which took up a full day, was spent going over the past harms perpetrated against Black Americans, including everything from slavery, to "red-lining" (banks refusing to give mortgages to Black people seeking to buy houses in certain neighborhoods), to the War on Drugs and mass incarceration.

Commissioners stressed that such forms of institutional racism have long-lasting effects that can be difficult to quantify. One commissioner suggested that intimate partner violence (or domestic violence) within the Black community was a legacy of slavery. A possible recommendation by the task force would be to "establish and fund early intervention programs that... support the victim(s), the abuser and minor children within the family exposed to violence."

The committee, the first of its kind in the country, was set up by Assembly Bill 3121, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020. Its nine members, appointed by Newsom and the state Legislature, are a mix of lawmakers, academics, attorneys and civil rights activists. All but one are Black, the sole exception being Donald Tamaki, a Japanese-American lawyer.

The first hour of the meeting was given over to members of the public, who were allowed to speak for three minutes. Each of the public commenters were Black. One commenter questioned the idea of limiting the scope of the reparations at all.

"Why you stop at '77?" he asked. "We got knees on our necks today."

Another man proposed that "reparations ought to be paid in gold bullion." Another said: "America owes us the whole goddamn country."

At one point during the meeting, Moore quoted the author James Baldwin, who once wrote, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” She added: "Reparations offer a way to escape."

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