Earlier this week, the Assembly Judiciary Committee voted 8 to 3 along party lines to set up a Task Force to compile documentation of the institution of slavery in the United States and then issue recommendations on reparations, which includes compensation in cash.
A question of reparations
Assembly Bill 3121, written by Assembly Member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), would have the “Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans” would also look into issues surrounding slavery in California, such as runaway slaves being denied entry into California before the 13th Amendment was passed. The 8-member Task Force, in addition to recommending reparations, would have to set parameters under who in California would be eligible for any reparations and how any reparations would be paid. The Task Force would also have to submit a report and recommendations to the Legislature upon completion of the study and proposal.
“California was nominally a ‘free state,’ but in practice we allowed slavery within our borders even after statehood, while runaway slaves were often denied sanctuary by the courts,” stated Assemblywoman Weber earlier this week. “After emancipation, California and local municipalities allowed or even actively pursued discriminatory practices akin to those found in the South to deny former slaves and their descendants access to housing, quality education, employment, fair wages, voting rights and the practice of professions.”
Assemblywoman Weber also noted that AB 3121 is now the top priority for the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC).
Support for AB 3121
Supporters have pointed out the inequality of the African American population in California and how it partially stems from early discrimination in the 1800’s. One instance pointed out in particular was former Governor Peter Burnett’s 1849 proposal to ‘export’ every African-American out of the state.
“It was a struggle for a long time in California,” noted Oakland African American neighborhood activist Leonard Davis. “Here in Oakland, Watts, Compton. And in recent decades it still comes up with Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, and Oscar Grant. We’re still not seen as worthy of having justice, or the public always goes against the word of an African American.”
“And that has been passed down for generations here when they excluded African Americans, one hundred years before the Civil Rights movement and redlining.”
“Having reparations would be like Japanese Americans getting money for being interned during World War II. It doesn’t make it completely right, but it’s like court. You get money for the pain and suffering endured. And we have because of slavery.”
A ‘potential legal minefield’
Those against the bill have pointed out that while there have been injustices in the past, California had little to do with slavery before the Civil War as it was a free state and that, unlike Japanese American reparations in 1988, slaves that were directly affected have long since died generations ago.
“In school, whenever you learn about the Civil War in California, one of the first things you learn is that California was strictly in the Union and not the Confederacy,” explained legal adviser Richard Weaver. “There was no slavery in California. That alone should invalidate any reparations. If any state gives them it should be the South.”
“There are no living people who were enslaved, especially the zero who ever were in California, so why should descendants get anything? Are we basing this on inequalities now? If we are, then why bring up slavery reparations when it’s been generations removed?”
“And that’s not even getting into who should receive what. It’s a legal minefield. If it’s ‘all black people’, does that include an immigrant who came over from Ethiopia in 1993? Does it cover mixed race people? What percentage until they can’t? How can they prove it? Do they have genealogy that traces it back? What’s the approved method? There’s hundreds of other questions that would pop up too.”
“With Japanese Americans getting money 40 years later because of being interned, we had official records, and I’ll point out again, many were alive. They physically had this happen to them.”
“Honestly, the Task Force will probably do a great job in documenting the history of it and I’d argue that part is worth it because it’s an important part of our history. But I don’t think California would pass any recommended reparations, simply because no one alive was personally in the system or directly affected by it. Plus there are so many ‘what if’s’ here that you could take years in court just to argue over a single wording, let alone the whole system.”
AB 3121 will now go to the Appropriations Committee for a hearing. The bill is expected to be voted on in the next few weeks.