After more than two years of fact-finding, reports and public hearings, the California Reparations Task Force on June 29 will hand over to state lawmakers an extensive report and recommendations for compensation to eligible Black people of California for the harms of slavery.
The task force will hold its final meeting on Thursday in Sacramento, and the agenda says that the members will issue final statements and make public the full report.
California was not a slave state, but more than 4,000 enslaved Black people were taken there between 1850 and 1860, typically by plantation owners, to work in the gold mines. Many settled in California after slavery ended, some creating wealth, buying land and building communities, only to face generations of discrimination, land theft or seizure, disproportionate overpolicing, housing segregation, inadequate schools, and other issues that have led to racial disparities in many areas of life.
In 2021, then-Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat, authored a bill to form a task force to examine and develop reparation proposals for the harms of slavery on Black people in California. It is the most ambitious effort in the country to address redress for the impact of slavery on Black people, with task force members saying they want to create a reparations blueprint for the country.
The California Legislature will then have all the power. Lawmakers will review the recommendations and will have the authority to adopt, dismiss or adjust them. Whatever they decide must be approved by both houses before it would be presented to Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign into law.
Here are some fundamental answers to key questions about the reparations efforts for Black people in California.
For many, reparations are about money. When could those eligible expect to receive funds and how much will the task force recommend?
The task force hired four economists to develop data-based determinants for the harms of slavery like housing, education, public health and others. However, task force member Don Tamaki said the committee’s final report will not include any dollar recommendations. Although previous reports indicated that the task force would recommend $1.2 million per eligible person, in installments, Tamaki said the committee decided to have the economists propose methodologies to calculate the harm. “Neither they nor the task force has recommended that the state pay any specific amount,” he said.
That means it will be up to the California Assembly to determine financial compensation to those eligible after reviewing the extensive report.
Tamaki added that should the Legislature want to provide monetary payment to eligible citizens, the task force has recommended that the amount be calculated based on how long such persons lived in California and other factors.
Who would be eligible for reparations?
Figuring out who would receive reparations would be a complicated process. First, they would have to be able to trace their lineage directly to a person who had been enslaved in the United States, or to African Americans who lived in the U.S. prior to 1900. This presumes “that such persons are descendants of enslaved ancestors or free persons who ran the risk of being enslaved during the 246 years that the institution of slavery existed in America,” Tamaki said.
However, determining that lineage may be a challenge. DNA testing from companies like Ancestry.com can establish what parts of Africa someone is from and that person’s dominant gene pool. But DNA testing alone may not determine if someone is a direct descendant of an enslaved African in the United States. Documents like birth certificates and census records can show a person’s lineage, but some may need a genealogist’s help — and hiring a genealogist is not inexpensive.
“But even that is not going to guarantee that someone can establish their lineage through records because the records were messy,” said psychologist Cheryl Grills, another task force member. “Records were destroyed. Buildings burned. Information was recorded incorrectly. Names were changed for various reasons. So that may be a challenge. … Genealogists are going to be in high demand.”
Additionally, there would be tiers to eligibility based on the amount of time one lived in California — currently or in the past — and the calculations of the harms based on, say, the devaluation of Black businesses, financial losses due to redlining, housing discrimination, or the taking of land or property by eminent domain. “There are multiple calculations,” Grills said, meaning each eligible person would not get the same amount, if any at all.
How would California pay for financial reparations?
There are ways that the state could generate funds, Grills said, including tax programs. There’s also the opportunity for the state to pay out in installments rather than in a lump sum. “And in doing that,” Grills said, the California government “can stretch out the hit to the state budget.”
She added: “America is resourceful and California is a resourceful state. When it has come to a need to generate resources to handle a situation, America has found the money. When we had to come up with billions of dollars for Ukraine, nobody asked that question. The same with the 9/11 victims. When we paid out reparations to Japanese Americans, nobody asked, ‘Where’s that money going to come from?’ So, I have to ask the question, why now? It’s a veiled question that questions if Black people deserve to be compensated for what has been done to them. … That’s what California has to do in this case of reparations.”
What programs will be recommended to address the harms of slavery?
The task force has recommended more than 100 programs or policies as redress for the harms of slavery. There are a dozen areas covered in the recommendations:
- Racial terror
- Political disenfranchisement
- Housing segregation
- Separate and unequal education
- Racism in environment and infrastructure
- Pathologizing the Black family
- Control over creative, cultural and intellectual life
- Stolen labor and hindered opportunity
- An unjust legal system
- Mental and physical harm and neglect
- The racial wealth gap
These areas are “as important as compensation for eligible individuals,” Tamaki said. Why? Because the aftereffects of slavery and racial discrimination are long-lasting and deep, leading to massive disparities for Black people in virtually every walk of life, including jobs, health care, education and housing and home ownership. For example, some formerly enslaved people who built wealth through owning land had their property taken, their descendants say, denying the creation of generational wealth.
“The task force has not recommended that individual compensation should be prioritized over any other remedy,” Tamaki said.
The committee recommended that many of these programs be run by or through the California American Freedmen’s Affairs Agency, which would establish an updated version of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the organization instituted in 1865, after the Civil War, to assist formerly enslaved people. Some opposed to the bureau say existing organizations that specialize and have established staff in specific areas should be charged with this task.
Who could be left out of receiving reparations?
Because of the complexity of establishing eligibility, there is potential for many to not receive reparations. Grills said, “our most vulnerable could be left out: children in the child welfare system who cannot trace family heritage; our folks who are incarcerated, who don’t have access to the tools to establish their lineage because they can’t hop on a computer in prison; and our folks who are suffering from mental illness, who aren’t going to have the wherewithal; and our folks who are unhoused.”
In those cases, Grills said, the freedman’s agency would be responsible for helping those who cannot establish lineage. And if that fails, “it is unclear what provision could be put in place to address this,” she added.
When will the California Legislature vote on the task force’s reparation recommendations?
No one is sure. The preliminary report was 500 pages; the final report may be double in size. So Grills said it is likely that the Assembly will digest its content over the summer and address it around September.