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California reparations task force aims at more than dollars, seeks policies to prevent harm

The task force members are discussing monetary and nonmonetary reparations ideas to compensate for slavery and racism.
Credit: Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This story was originally published by CalMatters.

End legalized slavery in California. 

Adopt a Black studies school curriculum that shows racism’s devastating results.

Stop devaluing Black businesses. 

These are some of the dozens of recommendations California’s first-in-the-nation task force on reparations put into its 485-page interim report. Members say these policy recommendations are not getting the attention that monetary discussions are, even though these policy ideas might have as big an impact. 

“This is the meat —  the actual meat —  of what we’re really trying to do,” said Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat representing Los Angeles who also is a task force member.

“And ultimately … 99% of these recommendations will be the ones, probably, that we’ll be able to enact or to budget for a lot easier than compensation. In fact, reparations is not just financial compensation, but it’s to stop the ongoing harms of racial chattel slavery.” 

The Reparations Task Force is helping state officials examine how slavery and systemic racism have harmed African Americans, and how the state should respond. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the 2020 law creating the task force, which will develop reparations proposals for the Legislature by July 2023.

The state-appointed group of nine experts and lawmakers is holding its next public meetings at San Diego State University Friday and Saturday.

Wealth disparity

About 6.5% of California residents, more than 2.5 million people, identify as Black or African American.

At a meeting in March 2022, the task force voted that Black Californians who are descendants of enslaved African Americans, or of a free Black person living in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century, would be eligible for monetary reparations. 

After later meetings, news coverage sometimes focused on the dollar figures behind potential task force recommendations, such as the $223,000 Black “housing wealth gap” estimate that was suggested as part of reparations for housing discrimination. 

Economists told the task force that Black homeowners were unfairly denied mortgages and their properties were devalued. Studying the years 1933 through 1977, the economists calculated that the average Black Californian’s home was worth a total of $223,239 — or $5,074 per year — less than the average Californian’s home.  

Since then some task force members have tried redirecting public attention to the non-monetary recommendations in the task force report. Kamilah Moore, who heads the task force, said during a meeting in Oakland last month that all dollar figures under discussion were preliminary and no official recommendations have been made.

Reversing harm

Jones-Sawyer pointed to several policy goals of the task force, such as preventing Black health disparities, stopping the over-incarceration of African American males and bridging gaps in the education system. 

“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what we could do to reverse the harms of chattel slavery and what reparations really should be,” he said. “The things I just named, the things we can turn around, will last for the next 400 years and really impact our community in a positive way.” 

One key recommendation, Jones-Sawyer said, is something few Californians are aware of — the wording in California’s Constitution allows for slavery.  

“Today! In 2023,” he said. 

Article 1, Section 6 of the state Constitution outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” 

“More embarrassing is that the California Legislative Black Caucus tried to remove it out of the Constitution and we couldn’t get it through,” he said. “The state Senate couldn’t get enough votes to get it out of the Constitution. But that also tells you how people’s misunderstanding of ongoing racism is still there.”

The California Department of Finance opposed the bill, estimating in June 2022 that it would cost California $1.5 billion to pay prisoners a minimum wage.

The task force may add its recommendation to the Black Caucus’ push to remove that language, Jones-Sawyer said. 

Unlevel field

One of the aims of the task force is to be “inspirational and aspirational,” said Monica Montgomery Steppe, a San Diego City Councilmember who also is a task force member. The group will seek to address political disenfranchisement of Black Californians, the taking of Black-owned land by eminent domain, and the decline of Black-owned businesses in California, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is to move past what California has already done, for instance, with the disadvantaged business program, to tap into solutions that really work and level that playing field,” she said.

The task force’s interim report presents national data showing that in 2017, 3.5% of all U.S. businesses were Black-owned while 81% were owned by whites. 

The median Black household net worth in 2019 was $24,100, less than 13% of the median net worth of white households at $188,200. State data was not available.

Such disparities are why reparations must deal in dollar amounts, advocates said. 

Moore said financial compensation is included in the intent of the legislation that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in 2020 to form the task force. That law mandates the task force develop final recommendations that comport with international human rights standards outlined by the United Nations, which include compensation for human rights violations. 

An apology

There also have been discussions about an official apology. 

“The apology is very important, because it’s an acknowledgement,” said Montgomery Steppe. “And you know, after 400 years, that still has not happened … It can be symbolic and seem symbolic, if there are not action items that are attached to an apology.” 

Task force member and state Senator Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said giving people back what was taken from them doesn’t go far enough. 

“If you steal my car, and then you give my car back to me, that’s not reparations; that’s just giving me back what I bought,” he explained.

How to participate in the public meeting:

When: 9 a.m, all day Friday, Jan. 27, and Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023

Where:  San Diego State University, Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center—Fowler Family Ballroom, 5250 55th St., San Diego

Livestream the meeting at https://oag.ca.gov/ab3121

(Public comments are from 9:10 — 10:10 a.m. Dial toll-free 844-291-5495, then use the 3968101 participant code.)

Alejandro Lazo at CalMatters contributed to this report


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