Quest for California reparations enters crucial new phase

California’s reparations task force has officially released its final report and given its plan to the state Legislature for consideration.

The task force includes a mix of scholars, activists and elected officials. Their report, released Thursday, outlines recommendations for ways to compensate African Americans who live in California and can demonstrate their families have been affected by slavery and its lingering harms, which are “innumerable and have snowballed over generations,” the report says.  

“The African American story in the United States,” the authors write, “is marked by repeated failed promises to right the wrongs of the past — both distant and recent — and failure to acknowledge and take responsibility for the structural racism that perpetuated these harms.”

The report, which totals more than 1,000 pages, notes that its findings are undergirded by thorough research, including “substantive analysis regarding international standards; local, state, federal and international examples of reparations; methods for educating the public regarding the critical issues addressed herein; and a catalogue of the racist laws and policies that cumulatively created this nation.”

Along with monetary compensation for eligible applicants, the report endorses a host of policy remedies and also recommends a formal apology from California for its role in perpetuating institutional racism while chattel slavery was legal and after it was abolished. The report notes:

California has issued apologies in the compensation programs enacted for the human rights abuses in its eugenics sterilization program, violence and destruction of tribal communities, and incarceration of Japanese Americans.

That line about previous “compensation programs” is important to understand when thinking about this task force’s proposal. Officials have said it will be difficult to get California’s Legislature to authorize large payments for slavery reparations, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has been noncommittal on whether he agrees that payments should be made. (On that note, check out my 2021 post on how a failure to make the payouts sizable could threaten the very idea of reparations in California and elsewhere.)

As the report mentions, payments have been offered as reparations for previous racist atrocities (including the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II), suggesting that one of the issues this time around likely involves the race of the people receiving them. 

Given the Supreme Court’s hostility to virtually any measure meant to remedy racist wrongs, any attempt at slavery reparations is certain to face legal challenges. On Thursday’s episode of “The ReidOut,” the Rev. Al Sharpton explained how the high court’s new restrictions on affirmative action in college admissions could be used as a legal basis against other policies meant to repair communities harmed by racism.

California’s reparations proposal is still several steps away from being realized. But it didn’t get this far by accident. That’s the result of years of activist work.

Now that work enters its next phase, which is convincing state lawmakers to approve the plan and persuading the governor to give it the historic approval it deserves. 

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