Work of 1st U.S. panel on possible Black reparations moves to the Legislature

Members of California’s Black reparations task force handed off their historic two-year report to state lawmakers Thursday (June 29), beginning the next chapter in the long struggle to compensate the descendants of slavery.

The first U.S. panel of its kind met one last time Thursday, urging supporters to press lawmakers into action on more than 100 recommendations. State legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom must agree for any money to be paid or for any policy changes to be adopted.

“This book of truth will be a legacy, will be a testament to the full story,” said Lisa Holder, a civil rights attorney and task force member. “Anyone who says that we are colorblind, that we have solved the problem of anti-Black animus and racism, I challenge you to read this document.”

The mood was buoyant, but tinged with frustration and anger that hours earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education, programs that have give an advatage to Black students who were historically left out. 

Nine states already have banned affirmative action, starting with California in 1996 and, most recently, Idaho in 2020.

Task force members said their suggestions will pass legal muster because the proposed benefits would only go to descendants of enslaved people, not to all Black residents.

The panel narrowly voted to limit any financial redress to residents who can document lineage from Black people who were in the U.S. in the 19th century.

The 1,100-page report details California’s role in perpetuating discrimination against Black residents. Ideas for repairing the harm range from formally apologizing to paying descendants of enslaved people for having suffered under racist actions such as over-policing and housing discrimination. The panel also recommended creating a new agency to oversee reparations efforts.

Turning the proposals into policies won’t be easy. State Sen. Steven Bradford said there are “a lot of folks” in the Legislature who do not support reparations and a 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that only 30% of U.S. adults favored the concept.

A more recent survey by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 54% of respondents had a negative opinion of California creating a reparations task force, although 59% said they would support a formal apology from the state to descendants.

Reparations now

More than 200 people gathered at the Thursday meeting in Sacramento, with an overflow crowd outside the room. Inside, many stood at one point and began a call-and-response to demand action.

“What do we want?” someone shouted.

“Reparations,” the crowd responded.

“When do we want them?” he asked.


California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who wrote legislation creating the task force, said slavery stripped her of her identity and heritage and that she has visited Africa dozens of times, only to conclude there is nowhere for her to go back to.

“I am an American,” she said. “This country has shaped and formed us and we have given to it. And we have a right to be here. We have a right to have the benefits.”

Rev. Amos C. Brown, a longtime civil rights activist and vice-chair of the task force, said California’s projected $31.5 billion budget deficit should not stop the state from making reparations.

“This state has committed a crime against Black folks, and it’s time for them to pay,” Brown said to cheers from the audience. “Deficits don’t last always.”

The nine-member reparations panel convened in June 2021, the year after Newsom signed legislation creating the group. He and legislative leaders picked the members, including lawyers, educators, elected officials and civil rights leaders descended from enslaved people.

Federal reparations efforts have stalled for decades, but cities, counties, school districts and universities have taken up the cause. An advisory group in San Francisco recommended that qualifying Black adults receive a $5 million lump-sum, guaranteed annual income of at least $97,000 and personal debt forgiveness. San Francisco supervisors are supposed to take up the proposals later this year.

New York may soon follow California by creating a commission to examine the state’s involvement in slavery and consider addressing present-day economic and educational disparities experienced by Black people. Lawmakers approved the legislation earlier this month, but Gov. Kathy Hochul has yet to sign it.

Illinois approved a reparations commission last year.

Complex history

California entered the union as a free state in 1850. In practice, it sanctioned slavery and approved policies and practices that thwarted Black people from owning homes and starting businesses. Black families were terrorized, their communities aggressively policed and their neighborhoods polluted, according to a groundbreaking report released last year as part of the committee’s work.

The panel did not recommend a fixed dollar amount for financial redress, but endorsed economic methodologies to calculate what is owed for decades of over-policing, disproportionate incarceration and housing discrimination. Initial calculations pegged California’s potential cost in those areas at more than $800 billion — more than 2.5 times the state’s annual budget. The estimated cost was cut to $500 billion in a later report, though no explanation was given for the change.

The panel has recommended prioritizing elders for financial compensation.

Economists recommended nearly $1 million for a 71-year-old Black person who lived all their life in California — or $13,600 per year — for health disparities that shorten the average life span.

Black people subjected to aggressive policing and prosecution in the “war on drugs” from 1971 to 2020 could each receive $115,000 if they lived in California throughout that period, or more than $2,300 for each year.

Kamilah Moore, an intellectual property and entertainment lawyer who led the task force, called the last two years a whirlwind.

“It’s been very work intensive, but also very cathartic and very emotional,” she said. “We’re standing in the shoes of our ancestors to finish, essentially, this sacred project.”

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