The Reparations Task Force voted 5-4 on Tuesday to limit proposed state reparations to only those descended from free and enslaved black Americans in the 19th century, rejecting broader limits of all black residents regardless of ancestry and finally ending debate on one of the most debated parts of the proposal.
The Reparations Task Force was created in 2020 when AB 3121 by then-Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, was passed and signed into law. The bill established the “Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans,” with the task force charged with documenting and looking into issues surrounding slavery in California, including denying free and runaway blacks into the state pre-1865. Most critically, the task force is to issue recommendations if any kind of reparations are to be given. Specifically, the task force, comprised of 9 members selected by the Governor, Assembly, and Senate, is also to set parameters on who would be eligible for possible reparations and how reparations, most likely thing like home buying assistance, free college tuition, and business grants, would be distributed.
The task force first met in June of 2021 but soon faced a major issue of who receives reparations. Late last year, current-Secretary of State Shirley Weber said that reparations would only be given to direct descendants of slaves. However, other members of the task force have since said that they would want to back a system where all black Californians would be covered in a tier-like system. While descendants of slaves would be at the top of the tier for receiving reparations, other black Californians hurt by “historic and systemic racism” could still receive funds. Last month, the issue became such a dividing point that they had to vote to delay the decision to obtain more information on the matter, and all the associated contention over who should be included for the proposal.
On Tuesday, both sides debated the matter once again in a Zoom meeting, allowing members of the public to give their opinions. Many pushed for a slave and free ancestor proposal as the only proposal to hold up in court, rather than the proposal giving reparations to all black residents regardless of genealogy. Others also said that this approach would be more palatable to opponents who are arguing that reparations should not be given at all given that California was a free state during the Civil War and reparations are not needed over 150 years after the end of slavery in the U.S.
“By focusing on just descendants of enslaved and free African Americans from that period, freed slaves included because of the prejudice and risks they had of being “recaptured” as a slave due to the Fugitive Slave Act, the state makes it much more easier to pass,” Mike Washington told the Globe on Wednesday. Washington is a reparations advocate keeping track of the California process, as well as others, to help aide other reparations movements in other states. “You have all black people in there regardless as victims of the legacy of slavery, it becomes muddled very quickly. We’ve seen that in California just through these debates for a recommendation.”
“Plus, for many, it really is about fairness. When reparations were given to Japanese Americans in 1988 for the internment camps during World War II, it was only given to those that were there. Now, everyone who was enslaved has long since passed, but by giving it to the descendants as past due compensation, like what happened with Bruce’s Beach last year, that’s something people can understand more. ”
A debate over eligibility
However, others continued to push for including all black residents, with many Task Force members arguing that all black residents should be included because of systematic injustices stemming from slavery, including unfair housing practices and limited opportunities for decades after the Civil War. Those pushing for all black residents to be included also said the goal of reparations was to help fix injustices and harm from racism, and that limiting who gets reparations would defeat the purpose. Alienation from some black residents was a concern as well, with some Task Force members spelling out the need to get all 2.6 million black residents behind a reparations plan.
“We need to galvanize the base and that is Black people,” said Task Force member Lisa Holder on Tuesday. “We can’t go into this reparations proposal without having all African Americans in California behind us.”
Pragmatic Task Force members and speakers on Tuesday said that the issue of who was eligible needed to be decided now, as they noted that the Task Force has still not gone into the actual recommendations, and just needed to get past this hurdle to avoid falling behind and missing next years recommendation deadline. Others pointed out that expanded eligibility would create only more problems in setting recommendations.
“Expanding eligibility would create its own fissures and was beyond the purpose of the committee,” Task Force member Kamilah Moore said. “That is going to aggrieve the victims of the institution of slavery, which are the direct descendants of the enslaved people in the United States. It goes against the spirit of the law as written.”
Task Force Vice Chairman Reverend Amos Brown added, “Please, please, please I beg us tonight, take the first step. Are we going to act like we live in a country where there are no political realities, no laws. Are we just going to go through an exercise and end up at the end of the day coming up with no measurable outcomes whatsoever?”
The discussions led the Task Force voting 5-4 in favor of only allowing reparations for the descendants of slaves and free African Americans in America before the 13th Amendment.
“They can now go more into the nitty gritty with the framework of who is eligible being set,” said Washington. “Bigger decisions, like what kind of compensation will be on the table for the ultimate recommendation, are now on the horizon for them. Bigger arguments no doubt too.”
More Reparations Task Force meetings are scheduled for later this year. Task Force recommendations are due next year.