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Historic California Reparations Task Force Discusses Community Engagement, History of Slavery

© Steven Pavlov

The group, designed to examine what reparations might look like and compile educational resources about slavery and its impact, met late last week.

In California, a historic, first-of-its-kind effort continued this week that could lead to a reparations package acknowledging the extensive, continued harm done to Black people due to their enslavement.

The nine members of a task force dedicated to recommending reparations and furthering California’s understanding of slavery met Thursday and Friday. The goal was to solidify a plan for reaching out to Californians and develop broader context about the history of slavery.

The group, formed after the passage of Assembly Bill 3121 in 2020, will continue meeting seven more times before it delivers a report to the Legislature next June. It will include recommendations for reparations to Black residents of California, with special consideration for African American descendants of slaves.

There’s also currently a federal effort, via H.R. 40 introduced in 1989, to create a similar task force to examine federal reparations.

The task force is composed of Dr. Cheryl Grills, Dr. Amos Brown, Lisa Holder, Donald Tamaki and Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis, state Sen. Steven Bradford (D–Gardena), Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D–South Los Angeles), San Diego City Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe and Kamilah Moore.

Here are some of the major issues discussed this week:

How to engage Black Californians

Grills presented a plan to gather input from Black residents throughout the state, meant to be conducted in partnership with the UCLA Bunche Center for African American Studies.

The plan accounts for up to 12 community listening sessions, facilitated by “anchor organizations” that are well-connected to Black communities in geographic pockets of California. It will flag areas that are likely to be overlooked and include local outreach to ensure that all who are interested can attend. Ultimately, it would result in a report synthesizing comments and description of harms, and it is anticipated to cost $765,000.

Several people in attendance expressed concerns about the selection of those anchor organizations and the inclusivity of the plan.

Brown, vice chairperson of the task force, said that he wanted to see those “in the trenches” included. He specifically named Black educators, psychologists and members of the church as examples of groups whose views were important.

Chris Lodgson, from the Coalition for A Just & Equitable California, echoed that the task force should broaden its scope beyond leaning heavily on groups and take a more direct approach when doing outreach.

“I would also find ways to do and support direct contact to Black folks in California, because quite honestly, not everybody that we need to talk to is going to be touched by these groups,” he said. “We are in many ways disconnected from even the groups and organizations that are here to do us well.”

Dr. Michael A. Stoll, faculty director of the Black Policy Project at the Bunche Center, said that he hoped that the anchor organizations, combined with linkages to media, communications and “boots-on-the-ground” local organizations, could reach people at the margins of participation throughout the state.

Concerns about including a breadth of views resurfaced during a discussion of a Department of Justice update, in which a spokesperson for the department said that the task force could not hold Saturday meetings due to a lack of resources.

Multiple members of the board expressed concern about the lack of accommodation. Some groups that were cited as being potentially unable to attend were Black residents who worked multiple jobs and Black students who were in school on weekdays.

Bradford, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said that the task force was an opportunity to make history for the state and the country, and limiting meetings to Monday through Friday diminished that impact.

“As an individual who’s been elected for 22 years, I think public input is critical,” he said. “And to silence that voice, whether unintentional or not, by saying that we can’t hold some kind of meeting on a weekend, I find it somewhat insulting, especially in light of our current budget situation.”

California currently has a budget surplus.

A discussion of California’s history of slavery

Another major focus of the committee’s work is to compile a history of the institution of slavery and its impacts, past and present, to be shared throughout the state.

While California was a free state, that didn’t mean slavery wasn’t present in California.

Before the state entered the union in 1850 with its anti-slavery constitution, enslaved Black people had already been present in, brought to the state by Americans during and after the Mexican-American War, according to Oregon State University history professor Stacey Smith. The state did nothing to stop what had already taken root, and brutal violence akin to that in the South happened to slaves in California.

“The exact number of enslaved Black people in California is difficult to determine,” she said. “But given the fragmented records, I support the findings of a historian named Rudolph Lapp, who estimated that at least 500 to 600 enslaved Black people lived in California during the Gold Rush.”

And California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, and the Legislature actively worked to pass anti-Black legislation, according to Smith. In 1852, they enacted a Fugitive Slave Law, with slaveholders having one year to arrest and deport claimed runaways — and then renewed it for three years. That included any enslaved Black person who had been living in California before it was admitted as a free state in 1850.

State officials were mandated to assist in capture and arrest, and slaveholders, by the law, were authorized to use violent means.

The Legislature also attempted to pass a Black exclusion law four times in the 1850s. While that never made it through, there was several other anti-Black legislation greenlighted, which made it illegal for Black and white people to marry or to testify against white people in a court of law. It also denied state funding for Black children to attend public schools, among other things.

“As with many things, California was ahead of its time,” Smith said. “But in this case, tragically, the state led the way in establishing anti-Black racial oppression throughout the United States.”

An 1874 California Supreme Court decision in Ward v. Flood, where justices ruled that segregation in public schools was legal as long as Black and white children had equal access to similar educational facilities, is an example of some of those more progressive changes. Twenty-two years later, the “separate but equal” principle became national after Plessy v. Ferguson.

Reparations through a different lens

The task force invited Yale University law professor Roy Brooks and Kamm Howard, national male chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, to speak about reparations at a national and international level.

Brooks discussed two different models of reparations: the tort model and the atonement model.

The first is victim-focused and centered on seeking compensation. Conversely, the atonement model is centered on restorative justice — repairing a relationship between victims and perpetrators of an atrocity, via a believable apology and forgiveness.

He said he preferred atonement and rehabilitative reparations, which were “designed to rebuild the community in the aftermath of the atrocity and asset-building reparations.”

“It's a settlement,” he said of compensation. “And the way settlements work in the law is that the defendant doesn't admit to liability.”

“Most contemporary, compensatory reparations are direct cash payments,” he added. “The individual can take that and gamble, go to Las Vegas to gamble it away. … I can tell you this, a check of $25,000, one time, that’s not going to return the victims to the status quo ante.”

Brooks suggested boarding schools as a main focus of rehabilitative reparations, saying that education itself was foundational and that investing in it is more effective than a hodgepodge of reparations.

“What we’ve learned from Thurgood Marshall in the Legal Defense Fund is that focusing on education is a very good way to attack racial injustice,” he said.

But others emphasized the importance of financial compensation.

Committee chairperson Kamilah Moore rebutted the idea that cash payments would be gambled away.

“I think it’s problematic to say that Black Americans descended from chattel slaves here in the United States would just go out and spend it on frivolous things,” she said. “I want to get away from the notion that Black Americans are financially illiterate and that once reparations are there, they won’t have the wherewithal to build their communities or families.”

Howard said that, in order to rebut concerns about reparations being a “race-based remedy” and erasing the history of whites in indentured servitude, he used terms such as “African American” and “crimes against humanity.”

“‘African descendant’ is a specific international designation of people who were robbed on the African continent during a multi-country criminal enterprise they call ‘trade’ all over the West, and submitted to all forms of economic exploitation, abuse and crime,” he said. “Their descendants today are still injured as a result of those crimes. … This legislation is for our people who have a history of criminal activities directed toward them by the federal government.”

“I’m of the belief that if we’re given compensation in the form of interest on direct payments … a significant number of us would work collectively with our resources to build community that we’ve not had in this country,” he said.

Jonathan Burgess, whose great-great grandfather’s home is now a state park, said that for those whose land was taken away by the state, he would like to see that land given back to owners in 200-year leases, an acknowledgment for who it belonged to and back pay for the years it was owned by the state.

“I don’t blame the institutions, because at the end of the day, California is an institution,” he said. “And the institution has never worked for us Black people in America, Black people in California. So how can I expect those people that work for the institution to help me? I’m hoping you guys do that.”

When the committee meets again in October, it will discuss the Jim Crow era and its continuing impact on African Americans, particularly those who are descendants of enslaved people.

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