California Takes Major Step Forward in Leading the Nation on Reparations

A new report details the years of harm that trailed the descendants of the victims of slavery in America and proposes several paths forward
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A sweeping and long-gestating report from a task force created by Governor Gavin Newsom was issued this week, detailing the role of the state in perpetuating discrimination against Black Americans, which could elevate California as a guiding force and national leader in the movement for reparations.

The nearly 500-page interim report from the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans was handed over to the California Legislature on Wednesday. The sweeping report details the years of harm that trailed the descendants of the victims of chattel slavery in America and sets the stage for a potential official apology from the state, as well as possible restitution—monetarily and otherwise. 

“Racial terror pervaded every aspect of post-slavery Black life and prevented African Americans from building the same wealth and political influence as white Americans,” the report states in its introduction, which goes on to outline the political disenfranchisement and housing segregation experienced by Black Americans since the abolition of slavery and through today. 

In California, segregation was ensured through federal, state and local policies. Redlining, zoning, school construction site decisions, and discriminatory mortgage policies are just some of the everyday aspects California used to oppress and diminish the potential of Black residents. Until the 1960s, “sundown towns” were found outside L.A. and San Francisco; here, municipal signs—mostly in the ‘burbs—announced that Black Americans must leave by dusk.

Historically and through today, school segregation in California has been especially egregious. The California Supreme Court ruled segregation in its public schools legal in 1874—a full 22 years prior to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that set up the national, bogus “separate but equal” policy. By the mid-1960s, 85 percent of Black Californians were educated at mostly minority schools; then, only 12 percent of Black students and 39 percent of white students attended racially balanced schools. As the report points out, nationally, nonwhite school districts overall see about $23 billion less in funding than white districts. California, the report states, has the fifth-largest Black population in the nation, following Texas, Florida, Georgia and New York.

A bevy of issues—housing discrimination, the lack of, or sub-par educational opportunities, legal and employment discrimination, L.A.’s police and lawmakers’ ties to the KKK—are covered thoroughly in the report. It all leads to a conclusion that California must now create a plan to attempt to make some of this right. 

The wheels on this movement for reparations, at least in California, began to spin when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year Task Force in 2020; they began meeting in early 2021. However, the current movement was arguably sparked by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case For Reparations.” Now, many are waking up to how much of America’s wealth was gained, and is still made in 2022, off the backs of Black Americans; slavery, our nation’s original sin, is now understood as central to America’s global economic dominance. 

So, what is to be done now in a city like Los Angeles, where in 2014, the median liquid assets for native-born Black households was $200, but $110,000 for whites? Can anything approaching equity to be achieved? We will have to wait to find out until at least some point next year to learn what the new Task Force will recommend. But we do know the scope of eligibility will not include all Black people but is limited to those descended from African Americans who were living in the U.S. in the 19th century.

Wednesday’s report does, however, offer a handful of initial recommendations: Fair wages for the labor of Black inmates in state prisons, with work being optional; free health care; state-subsidized mortgage program for Blacks; free tuition to California’s universities and scholarships for Black High School graduates; a new Cabinet-level state secretary position to oversee an African American Affairs agency.

Opposition to such recommendations is all but certain. California, after all, was never home to the plantations where the horrors of chattel slavery largely played out. Nor did the state participate in the widespread daily discrimination of the Jim Crow-era South. But California’s policies, for over the past century and a half, as thoroughly detailed in the Task Force report, hindered Black prosperity at almost every turn. 

In the current climate, as states like Florida make legislative moves to walk back rights on how race and identity are taught in schools, and the reconsideration of how Black Americans contributed to the nation’s wealth are banned and demonized, California seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Recommendations around what we should do to repair at least a little of its racist legacy may become a guiding light for other U.S. states or perhaps the entire nation. 


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