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News / Nation & World

California panel starts historic vote on Black reparations

Report is due July 1; Legislature will decide how, if at all, to act on suggestions

By Sophie Austin, Associated Press/Report for America
Published: May 6, 2023, 3:51pm

OAKLAND, Calif. — California’s historic reparations task force has begun voting on recommendations for possible payments to Black residents and a formal apology for the state’s role in perpetuating discriminatory policies.

The nine-member committee took a series of votes Saturday on its final report to lawmakers, which is officially due July 1. The Legislature will then determine how, if at all, to act on the suggestions.

The first vote approved a detailed account of historical discrimination against Black Californians in areas such as voting, housing, education and the legal system.

Other recommendations on the table include on suggestions for crafting an apology for the legacy of slavery, economists’ reports regarding possible reparations payments and policy suggestions.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who is cosponsoring a bill in Congress to study restitution proposals for African Americans, at the meeting called on states and the federal government to pass reparations legislation.

“Reparations are not only morally justifiable, but they have the potential to address longstanding racial disparities and inequalities,” Lee said.

The California task force’s recommendations range from the creation of a new agency to provide services to descendants of enslaved people to tailored calculations of what the state owes residents for decades of harms such as overpolicing and housing discrimination.

“An apology and an admission of wrongdoing just by itself is not going to be satisfactory for reparations,” said Chris Lodgson, an organizer with the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California, a reparations advocacy group.

The apology crafted by the Legislature must “include a censure of the gravest barbarities” carried out on behalf of the state, according to the draft recommendation to be voted on.

Such a list could include a condemnation of former California Gov. Peter Hardeman Burnett, the state’s first elected leader and a white supremacist who encouraged laws to exclude Black people from California.

Though California entered the union as a free state, it did not enact laws to enforce such freedom, the draft states. The state Supreme Court enforced the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people, until the official end of enslavement in 1865, according to the draft.

“By participating in these horrors, California further perpetuated the harms African Americans faced, imbuing racial prejudice throughout society through segregation, public and private discrimination, and unequal disbursal of state and federal funding,” the draft states.

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The task force could vote for the state to apologize publicly and acknowledge responsibility for past wrongs in the presence of people whose ancestors were enslaved. The acknowledgement could be informed by the descendants recounting injustices they have faced and include a promise that California will not repeat the same mistakes.

The statement would follow apologies by the state for placing Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II and perpetuating violence against and mistreatment of Native Americans.

Saturday’s meeting marks a crucial moment in a long fight for local, state and federal governments to offer recompense for policies that have driven overpolicing of Black neighborhoods, housing discrimination, health disparities and other harms. But the proposals are far from implementation by the state.

“There’s no way in the world that many of these recommendations are going to get through because of the inflationary impact,” said Roy L. Brooks, a professor and reparations scholar at the University of San Diego School of Law.

Documents outlining recommendations to the task force by economists previously showed the state could owe upward of $800 billion, or more than 2.5 times its annual budget, for overpolicing, disproportionate incarceration and housing discrimination against Black people.

The estimate has dramatically decreased in the latest draft report released by the task force, which has not responded to email and phone requests seeking comment on the reduction.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a former Democratic assemblymember, authored legislation in 2020 creating the task force. The goal was to study proposals for how California can offer recompense for harms perpetuated against descendants of enslaved people, according to the bill. It was not to recommend reparations in lieu of proposals from the federal government.

The task force previously voted to limit reparations to descendants of enslaved or free Black people who were in the country by the end of the 19th century.

The California group’s work has garnered nationwide attention, with reparations efforts elsewhere experiencing mixed results.

Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb, offered housing vouchers to Black residents, but few have benefited from the program. New York state’s latest bill to study reparations passed the Assembly, but the Senate has not yet voted on the measure. In Congress, a decades-old proposal to create a commission studying federal reparations for African Americans has stalled.

Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor who wrote a book about a formerly enslaved woman’s fight for reparations, said the California task force’s efforts “should be encouraging.”

“The fact that California was able to move this far in order to come up with a positive answer to the question of reparations is something that should … have influence on people in other parts of the country,” she said.