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Michael Smolens: Slavery reparations are more than just big numbers, says Shirley Weber

When the reaction of state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom to recommendations by the state task force on reparations was described as “cool,” California Secretary of State Shirley Weber let out a slight, knowing chuckle.

“I hope many of those who supported the work of the task force would still see the value of it and continue to support it,” said Weber, who as a member of the Assembly carried the legislation in 2020 that created the panel.

The bill was passed with broad backing from Democratic legislators and signed by the governor, who had been an outspoken advocate of repairing the damage the legacy of slavery has had on generations of Black Californians.

(Weber, D-San Diego, soon was appointed secretary of state by Newsom and was sworn in to office in January 2021.)

Newsom and many of those lawmakers have since become circumspect in their reactions to the task force proposals, if they have offered any response at all.

The caution grew after estimates surfaced that reparations could cost hundreds of billions of dollars, including direct payments to individuals. Those numbers generated big headlines and triggered contentious debate, often overshadowing the stated reason and need for the recommendations.

“You had some of the same people saying, ‘Oh, my goodness, what is this all about?’” Weber said.

Weber speculated there may be some direct cash payments eventually, but said the focus should be on directing resources toward improving educational opportunities, economic growth, housing availability and improvements, and health care access for Black Californians. All of those are among the task force recommendations.

“To me, that’s what reparations should look at,” Weber said.

Weber said the state already is spending a lot of money in such areas and a process needs to take stock of that and channel those and additional resources in more effective ways. Newsom has suggested such an approach.

“People may be surprised how much we have spent,” Weber said. “Is it headed in the right direction?”

Now the ball is back with lawmakers.

The task force was charged with making proposals to the Legislature on how the state could make up for harm from slavery and centuries of systemic racism. It was the first state-appointed panel of its kind in the nation.

The task force held 200 hours of hearings around the state and last week delivered a 1,200-page report to the governor and legislators.

Weber was not a member of the panel, but was pleased by the result.

“They did better than my expectations,” Weber said. “I found it so comprehensive. I was very impressed.”

In particular, Weber lauded the depth of research that documented the effect of discriminatory policies and societal norms that stemmed, in part, from slavery. Though California was admitted to the Union as a “free state” in 1850, widespread racist policies continued. Among other things, the state agreed to assist slaveholders in recapturing enslaved people who escaped from slave-holding jurisdictions.

“It was eye-opening even for people in favor of reparations,” Weber said.

Weber said “a lot of work needs to be done” and is “excited about what happens next.” However, asked if she was as optimistic about the process as when the task force was created, Weber said, “Probably not.”

Newsom’s absence from the pivotal meeting last week when the task force approved its report was noted by some of its members. Instead, Newsom was at a news conference to discuss the coming wildfire season.

The governor had addressed the panel during its inaugural session.

The governor’s office said it is reviewing the task force report and its 100-plus recommendations.

After the task force gave preliminary approval to numerous recommendations in the spring, Newsom reacted by saying, “Reparations come in many forms.”

“Dealing with the legacy of slavery is about much more than cash payments,” Newsom said in a statement.

“Many of the recommendations put forward by the Task Force are critical action items we’ve already been hard at work addressing: breaking down barriers to vote, bolstering resources to address hate, enacting sweeping law enforcement and justice reforms to build trust and safety, strengthening economic mobility — all while investing billions to root out disparities and improve equity in housing, education, healthcare, and beyond. This work must continue.”

In an informal email poll on the preliminary recommendations of all 120 state legislators conducted by CalMatters, only five members not on the task force responded. Many told the news organization they were waiting to see the final report.

The report did not include a specific price tag, but task force calculations suggested the recommendations could cost $800 billion — with perhaps as much as $1.2 million to certain individuals. That gave many people pause.

For comparative purposes, the governor and Legislature just approved an annual state budget of more than $300 billion, after closing a shortfall of $31 billion.

The final task force recommendations were released on June 29, the same day the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling striking down affirmative action in college admission programs. Analysts have suggested the decision could have impacts beyond higher education.

Weber said that and other recent court rulings will have a negative impact on “the state of the nation,” but did not see this particular decision as a problem for the reparations effort.

“This is not race-based, this is harm-based,” Weber said.

Reparations in California may be facing growing headwinds, but that’s something Weber is familiar with.

Her family fled Arkansas for California when Weber was a child after her sharecropper father was threatened by a lynch mob when he refused to back down in a dispute with a White farmer, according to her official biography.

Weber went on to become a college professor, civil rights leader and San Diego school board president. As an Assembly member, Weber faced off with law enforcement agencies to enact higher standards for the use deadly force by police.

“I deal with a high level of frustration and a high level of hope at the same time,” Weber said.

“I am not discouraged,” Weber added. “I think we’re far better off with this report.”

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