Lakshmi Sarah

Producer, Educator & Writer

‘It Means to Repair’: What You Should Know About Reparations for Black Californians

Updated Thursday, May 12

For KQED News.

Reparations in California is a series of KQED stories exploring the road to racial equity in the state.

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I was born and raised in California, and I feel a certain pride to be a product of this state. I’ve even considered getting a tattoo of the California produce sticker, like the neon orange ones from my youth.

My mother, who self-identifies as an Italian Jew, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. She arrived in California in the 1970s as a divorcée with a young child in tow — my brother. My father was raised in a Catholic family in rural Kerala, India. They had a mixed-faith and mixed-race marriage, but they found a home in California.

My family benefited from government-subsidized housing in Palo Alto, one of the wealthiest cities in the country. My family story and personal trajectory could have been very different had either of my parents been Black.

That’s because the roots of racism run deep in this state.

That’s why I’ve been concentrating my reporting on the California Reparations Task Force, a nine-member body created to study and develop reparations proposals for Black Californians, with special consideration for descendants of those enslaved in the United States. The task force, which began conducting meetings in June 2021, is a result of Assembly Bill 3121, a bill written by Shirley Weber, currently California’s secretary of state.

First in the US — California’s Task Force on Reparations Looks at Harms of Slavery

Academics, who have studied the various ways in which racism and white supremacy have created lasting inequities in the state, have testified before the task force, as have people who have been affected by that racism. The meetings are creating a necessary archive of California’s history that wasn’t taught in most schools.

I chose to cover the task force, not only because it’s groundbreaking and its recommendations could potentially serve as a model for the rest of the country, but also because the hearings are deeply moving. There’s a disconnect between who we say we are as Californians and what we do in practice. We should unpack the history of this state and reexamine it in a way that decenters whiteness and the prevailing sanitized version of our history.

It’s important for the future of our aspiring multiracial democracy to set the record straight — and, as Amos Brown, the pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and vice chair of the task force likes to say, “return to the scene of the crime.”

The egregious discrimination and racism in California can be traced to the state’s founding. It’s necessary to look at the systems put in place by the state’s “founding fathers” that were designed to allow some to prosper and others to fail. So, when people ask me why I’m so interested in reparations, what I want to ask in return is, “Why aren’t you?”

The call for reparations is specifically about race and enslavement, but it touches on basic questions of accountability and fairness.

In 1850, California entered the union as a slavery-free state. Still, the state benefited from the exploitation of enslaved Black and Indigenous people, as documented by Gold Chains, the ACLU’s exhaustive look at the hidden history of slavery in California. The beauty and promise of the state’s beaches and palm-tree-lined educational institutions contrasts starkly with its ugly past.

The ongoing ramifications of slavery are seen in the glaring disparities in the criminal justice system and health outcomes. Historical data also shows that no progress has been made in reducing wealth inequalities between Black and white households over the past 70 years, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

KQED’s coverage of the state’s reparations task force is for anyone who wonders about bigger questions like, why is there a disproportionate number of unhoused Black people? Why are incarceration rates highest for Black people? How do guns make it into Black communities? Why do Black communities lack what’s easily accessible to predominantly white communities?

Grocery stores, libraries, restaurants, banks and basic investment are missing in Black communities, many that were formed because of discriminatory redlining policies. And when investors descend on Black communities, why is it that Black people are displaced?

History provides context, and yet our education system fails to trace the throughlines.

Black and white image of men holding shovels standing next to a pile of rocks with a horse-drawn wagon in the background
Enslaved people work in a California gold mine in 1852. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Why haven’t Black people been compensated for more than two centuries of enslavement and the subsequent restrictive and discriminatory laws enacted to stifle their progress?

“Reparations is an issue, ironically, that’s been used as a divisive issue, but it means to repair relationships — that should be seen as a very positive kind of thing to do,” Charles P. Henry, a professor emeritus of African American Studies at UC Berkeley, told me in an interview.

“Unless you get an agreement on the basic facts of what happened, and then the acknowledgment of what happened, it’s impossible to move to the next process,” Henry continued.

If you feel any sense of pride and appreciation for this state, and the nation as a whole, then examining California’s history is essential to imagining a more equitable future.

I compiled this FAQ to help guide readers through understanding the work of the reparations task force, and how that work fits into the broader local and national conversations. Think of this as a living document, as I’ll be updating this space as the task force progresses.

What’s the definition of reparations?

The term “reparation” comes from “repair.” Scholars often see reparations as a form of redress that can take two forms: restitution or atonement. Restitution is often seen as concrete and monetary, while atonement focuses on the ethical, moral and intangible nature of apology. One without the other wouldn’t fly for true reparations.’Reparations is an issue, ironically, that’s been used as a divisive issue — but it means to repair relationships.’Charles P. Henry, professor emeritus of African American Studies, UC Berkeley

In modern reparations discussions, the focus is on three main principles: acknowledgment, redress and closure. For Roy L. Brooks, who provided expert testimony to the task force in September and is the author of “Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations,” a return of what has been unjustly taken is an essential element of reparations. In his book, he argues no one should be able to benefit from an injustice, and that victims should be compensated and the harm caused by the injustice removed.

Why did California create a task force to study reparations?

A better question might be, why has it taken so long for the United States to study and develop reparations proposals for ancestors of the enslaved? In the wake of protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, Shirley Weber, then a California Assemblymember, authored AB 3121. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill in September 2020, establishing the nine-member task force to examine ways California might provide reparations.

The task force is expected to submit a first report to the state Legislature this summer. A final report, which is expected to include recommendations and proposals, will be submitted next summer.

screenshot of zoom meeting with participants faces
Members of the California Reparations Task Force listen to public comment during a virtual meeting on Jan. 28, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Have reparations been paid before?

Yes, but not on the federal or state level for chattel slavery.

You might’ve heard about “40 acres and a mule” before. It’s the name of Spike Lee’s film production company. Here’s where that comes from: In 1865, Special Field Order No. 15 authorized the distribution of 40-acre parcels of abandoned or confiscated land in the Confederate South to emancipated people. Some were given mules left over from the war — hence, 40 acres and a mule. After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Southern apologist and vice president Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency. He ordered that all the redistributed land be returned to the original owners.

On the federal level, reparations were awarded by the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 in response to the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry, many of whom were American citizens, during World War II. The legislation authorized a national apology, an education fund and individual payments of $20,000 to each surviving person who was imprisoned. Even earlier, in 1946, the federal government created the Indian Claims Commission to respond to more than 100 years of treaty violations and land theft from Indigenous peoples.

How Japanese Americans in the Bay Area Are Carrying Forward the Legacy of Reparations

Several cities across the country, including Evanston, Illinois, and Asheville, North Carolina, have created reparation programs to address harms committed locally. On the state level, in 2021, California allocated financial compensation for survivors of forced sterilization and acknowledged the wrongful sterilization of thousands of vulnerable people.

Why are we talking about reparations now when slavery ended so long ago?

After George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent racial reckoning, a greater awareness of structural inequities seems to have briefly seeped into the national consciousness.

Discussions of systemic inequality and white supremacy gained traction in communities across the country and around the world. In 2020, several Democratic candidates for president issued statements expressing different levels of support for reparations.

Charles P. Henry, professor emeritus of African American Studies at UC Berkeley, noted that public opinion polling has shifted generally to more “pro-reparations among Democrats and independents.” But he credits the development of the Black Lives Matter movement and the “embrace of white supremacy by the Trump administration” for amplifying the quest for reparations.

A young Black protester with pink bandana over their faces raises a fist along with other protesters
Demonstrators march in downtown Oakland on May 29, 2020, during a protest over the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Are reparations needed?

Without some kind of policy change and reparations, wealth inequality will continue to grow. Thomas Craemer — a public policy professor specializing in race relations and reparations at the University of Connecticut who testified before California’s reparations task force in October — has done calculations to understand the financial implications.

“Slavery produced the start-up capital for the rise of the U.S. economy at the exclusive expense of the African Americans who were enslaved,” he said. “Their descendants deserve recognition of this fact through a comprehensive federal reparations program. Whatever California can do to support the call for federal reparations to the African American descendants of the enslaved in the U.S. will be an exercise in the restoration of justice.”

Without any interventions, Craemer said the wealth gap could become even more pronounced. Closing the gap in California alone could cost $778.6 billion, Craemer said.

Has there been federal legislation for reparations for Black Americans?

HR 40, named after the 40 acres promise, is a bill to study reparations on the national level. It was proposed by the late John Conyers Jr., a member of Congress from Michigan, for decades — every year since 1989 until he left office in 2017. In 2018, Sheila Jackson Lee, a member of Congress from Texas, took up the mantle. If passed, HR 40 would establish a 13-person commission to study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States.

Didn’t California enter the union as a slavery-free state?

When California became a state in 1850, enslaved people had already been imported to the state. The ACLU’s Gold Chains podcast and testimony to the state’s reparations task force from Stacy L. Smith, a USC professor and founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, provide an in-depth look at this early history.

California Celebrates Its History As a ‘Free State.’ But There Was Slavery Here.

Smith’s testimony detailed how California’s early state government protected the institution of slavery and severely restricted Black people’s civil rights.

As California’s state constitution proclaimed that “neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State,” little was done to stop the violent exploitation of enslaved people.

What is owed?

There are many different calculations used to determine what the cost of labor would be in today’s terms. Some include calculations for unpaid wages, the purchase prices of human property or the land promised to the formerly enslaved. National estimates range from $10 trillion to $14 trillion.

Who will be eligible?

During the February meeting, the task force voted 5-4 in favor of lineage-based reparations — a decision that has the potential to set precedent and affect other local, state and federal plans for reparations. The definition of the community of eligibility is “based on lineage determined by an individual being an African American descendant of a chattel-enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century,” said task force member Jovan Scott Lewis, chair of UC Berkeley’s geography department, who introduced the motion.

Still, the task force has not yet determined what the formula for proving lineage will be. The criteria outlined by the authors of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” A. Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity Jr., provides one model. Darity, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke, and Mullen, a writer and folklorist, suggest eligibility on a federal level be based on two factors: American citizens should establish that they had at least one enslaved ancestor after the formation of the republic, and they would have to prove they self-identified as Black or African American at least 12 years before a reparations program.

Who has testified to California’s reparations task force?

As of February, over 30 people have provided their expertise. Some names that might be familiar include the following (click a name to watch their testimony):

  • Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Warmth of Other Suns” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”
  • Mehrsa Baradaran, UC Irvine law professor and author of “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap“
  • Safiya U. Noble, internet studies scholar and professor of gender studies and African American studies at UCLA
  • William Spriggs, economics professor at Howard University and chief economist for the AFL-CIO
  • Rucker Johnson, professor of public policy in the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley
  • Daina Ramey Berry, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin
  • Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and urban policy at the New School for Social Research

A full list of those who have testified is available on the California Department of Justice website under each meeting date.

What might reparations look like?

Kamilah Moore, the chair of California’s reparations task force, told KQED in a recent interview that reparations could look like direct payments, subsidies for free mental health care and other forms of restitution such as the return of land, similar to the case of Bruce’s Beach.

A Black Family Got Their Beach Back — And Inspired Others to Fight Against Land Theft

Reparations might also take the form of policy changes in policing and sentencing. People who have testified before the task force have brought up education subsidies, support for genealogy studies, reinvestment and funding for archiving and preserving arts and culture.

How will compensation be granted?

The task force is working with a team of economists to decide how to compensate descendants of enslaved people and what financial models will be used to come up with a number. Many advocates and scholars believe that it would be best to have a federal reparations process instead of multiple separate state and local initiatives for the purpose of compensation.

Do California cities have their own reparations programs?

Some cities have established programs and committees to examine reparatory justice.

San Francisco
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors established the 15-member San Francisco African American Reparations Advisory Committee in December 2020. The advisory committee holds public meetings on the second Monday of the month and submitted its first report in December 2021.

Berkeley
The Berkeley City Council voted in March 2022 to allocate $350,000 for a consultant to design and implement a reparations process. The consultant is tasked with holding symposiums for the public about the generational wealth gap, barriers to economic mobility and systemic racism. They will also work with the community to make policy recommendations.

“I feel it in my DNA. I feel like the people before me … whose bones are in the ground are humming right now,” said City Council member Ben Bartlett, who authored the bill.

Bartlett hopes to have someone in place before 2023.

Hayward
In 2021, the Hayward City Council apologized for the harms from the real estate and banking industry against African Americans and other people of color. The Hayward Community Services Commission also created a list of 10 steps the city could take to address historical racism. Hayward’s formal apology to Russell City residents and their descendants was spurred by the actions of residents like Artavia Berry, chair of the Hayward Community Services Commission.

There are other local initiatives in Oakland, Alameda County, Compton and San Diego. Some argue that programs like Stockton’s universal basic income effort provide a form of reparatory justice. But since UBI programs are not specifically targeted toward descendants of enslaved people, they don’t meet the full definition of both restitution and atonement.

Is there a local initiative in your community or city you would like to share? Let us know: Lsarah@kqed.org

What happens after the task force delivers its recommendations?

It will be up to the Legislature to decide whether or not to implement policy change or act upon the recommendations from the task force.

Who gets to participate?

There are a few different ways to get involved, such as watching meetings online and participating in public comment. But there’s also a bigger push to hear from African Americans in California through listening sessions across the state.

This summer, the state reparations task force, in partnership with the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, will begin conducting sessions to hear from individuals. The session logistics are still being worked out, but the basic goal is to hear from California’s diverse Black communities about how the legacy of slavery has affected their lives and how they’d like to see California work to make it right.

How do I stay informed?

By watching this space, of course. You also can keep an eye on the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California, a statewide coalition of organizations and one of the anchor organizations working with the task force, to stay informed about upcoming events and listening sessions. California’s Department of Justice shares information from each meeting, including meeting materials with a detailed agenda.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2022 by in KQED and tagged .

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