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California Suggests Reparations for Black Residents, a First Step Toward Nationwide Atonement

After hundreds of years, the California Reparations Task Force is finally making headway in reparations justice for Black residents.

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Image: Janie Har/AP (AP)

Just in time for their June 1st deadline, the California Reparations Task Force completed the first step on the path to much-awaited reparations for Black Americans in the state. Led by Chairperson Kamilah Moore, this dedicated nine-member task force has worked for the last two years to chronicle 170 years of systemic oppression by the state and the nation at large. Their research culminated in a 500-page first-in-the-nation report on Wednesday, outlining interim or phrase one recommendations for compensation and retribution to Black Californians.

What we know: Although California entered the U.S. as a freed state in 1850, with over 1,500 enslaved Black residents, the state was inarguably complicit in upholding white supremacist ideals and profiting off the labor of formerly enslaved people, and still benefits from systems of oppression that govern the state—i.e. mass incarceration, educational and medical disadvantages, voter suppression, gentrification, and more. Through extensive research, the committee hopes to refute the common misconception that racism is strictly a Southern state plague and show that the entire nation is infested with the disease.

“We also know that racial violence against African Americans began during slavery, continued through the 1920s, as groups like the Ku Klux Klan permeated local governments and police departments, and peaked after World War II,” Chairperson Moore told Jezebel in a phone interview.

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The groundbreaking Assembly Bill 3121, established on September 20th, 2020, and championed by Secretary Shirley Weber and CJEC, charged the task force with documenting and examining centuries of racial discrimination, from the start of slavery in California in the 1600s to today’s inequities experienced by Black American residents. From wage gaps, redlining, and racial profiling to inadequate health care, police brutality, and more, the findings outline the centuries-long damages and then makes recommendations for repair. This interim report will be the first governmental report hyper-focused on addressing the unique needs of the African American community since the 1968 Kerner Commission.

Moore added, “We’ve suggested preliminary action items that are achievable now, like dismantling harmful monuments and relics, free tuition, access to health and housing opportunities, creating an Office of African American Affairs.”

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The task force told Jezebel there are five official forms of reparations: compensation, retribution, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and most importantly, guarantee of non-repetition.

Within the report, the committee calls for “comprehensive reparations” and for the state legislature to make significant changes, such as police reform, repairing food deserts, advanced educational redevelopment, homebuying and business financial assistance, and grants to churches and community efforts. This preliminary document answers the question, “Why are reparations owed and necessary?,” and the second document answers, “How should reparations be distributed, and what are systematic changes that will repair the damage done to the Black community?”

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But this is no small feat. The committee is stamping their names in history by delivering an extensive 2023 report that will illuminate a comprehensive action plan for reparation distribution.

Who is eligible for reparations?

African Americans who can trace their ancestry back to chattel slavery and descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.

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During the eligibility hearing, task force member and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley, Jovan Lewis, moved that eligibility be based on “lineage of 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.”

Lewis told Jezebel, “Essentially we wanted to provide a document that first highlights the damage done, then the forthcoming report will show how you repair it. Here are action items and steps to accomplish the goal of restoration.”

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These preliminary recommendations merely scratch the surface of the task force’s 2023 report, which will provide a suggested amount for reparations, who is eligible, and how and where it will be distributed. The committee is in a race against the clock to collect testimonies, synthesize data, and submit their full-scope plan to hand to legislation by next year. The California state legislature must turn this report and proposal from recommendations into action, and only the community can hold its feet to the fire to actually implement and see the multi-tier reparations plan through.

“Community organizations like mine were largely responsible for writing the bill, getting it passed and signed into law, and now we have to ensure legislation delivers on their promise.,” Chris Lodgson, Lead Organizer of CJEC (Coalition for a Just and Equitable California), told Jezebel.

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At just 30-years old, Attorney Moore has spearheaded the commission of purely volunteer members that dedicate their time and resources solely to the reparations task force. To underscore their commitment: Every month the task force holds two- day, 8-hour hearings packed with public comment, public and expert testimony, and task force business to ensure that their plan comes to fruition. Lodgson continues,

“This is never been done before. We have never had to created our own reparations plan and presented it on the state level. We have never devised a plan that outlines how much land, how much money, which committee, and government institutions should be in place. We also have never had a state-wide action for restoration targeted to just the descendants of chattel slavery.”

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Over the past year, the task force has met to collect a broad range of both recorded testimonies, as well as in-person lived experiences from local residents at community listening sessions. From local leaders, like Beth Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s grandmother, to authors and actors like Erika Alexander, the common thread is how discrimination has permeated their lives. Genealogist Kelly Farrish has attended meetings to serve as an expert on the complexity of tracing ancestral heritage.

Moore told Jezebel that the conversation of eligibility has been a point of division for months. “At the March hearing, the task force decided 5-4 to define (not restrict or limit) the community of eligibility for compensation to “descendants of enslaved and free Black people who were in the U.S. in the 19th Century,” she said.

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With 6% (2.6 million) of California’s populations identifying as Black, there’s roughly 178,000 Black Californians who would not be eligible under the lineage standard, according to 2014 data from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

Despite these setbacks, Moore says she has no choice but to be hopeful. “I’m hoping that this report is used as an educational tool and an organizing tool, educating the state of California and the United States at large about the harms against the African American community,” she said. Ultimately, the task force is swimming in uncharted waters, and if they are successful, they will have done what many thought was impossible.

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The commission is confident that even though the initial report’s recommendations are targeted to California residents, both the interim and comprehensive plan will used as a reparations model for justice on the state and congressional level, and will be cemented in history for years to come.