California’s first-in-the-nation task force on reparations voted Tuesday to limit state compensation to the descendants of free and enslaved Black people who were in the U.S. in the 19th century, narrowly rejecting a proposal to include all Black people.
The vote was split 5-4 with some members pleading with the commission to move ahead with a clear definition of who would be eligible rather than studying the issue for months.
“Please, please, please I beg us tonight, take the first step,” said Amos Brown, vice-chair of the task force.
Those favoring a lineage approach said that a compensation and restitution plan based on genealogy as opposed to race has the best change of surviving a legal challenge. They also said that Black immigrants who chose to migrate to the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries did not share the trauma of people who were kidnapped and enslaved.
They also opened eligibility to free Black people who migrated to the country in the 19th century, given possible difficulties in documenting genealogy and the risk at the time of becoming enslaved.
Others had argued that reparations should include all Black people in the U.S., regardless of lineage, who suffer from systemic racism in housing, education and employment. They also said it was difficult to prove lineage.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year reparations task force in 2020, making California the only state to move ahead with a study and plan, with a mission to study the institution of slavery and its harms and to educate the public about its findings. The task force members were appointed by the governor and the leaders of both legislative chambers.
The committee is not even a year into its two-year process and there is no compensation plan of any kind on the table. Longtime advocates have spoken of the need for multifaceted remedies for related yet separate harms, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and redevelopment that resulted in displacement of Black communities.
Compensation could include free college, assistance buying homes and launching businesses, and grants to churches and community organizations, advocates say.
Yet, the eligibility question has dogged the task force since its inaugural meeting in June, when viewers called in pleading with the nine-member group to devise targeted proposals and cash payments to make whole the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S.
Chicago resident Arthur Ward called in to Tuesday’s virtual meeting, saying that he was a descendant of enslaved people and has family in California. He supports reparations based only on lineage and expressed frustration with the panel’s concerns over Black immigrants who experience systemic racism.
“When it comes to some sort of justice, some kind of recompense, we are supposed to step to the back of the line and allow Caribbeans and Africans to be prioritized,” Ward said. “Taking this long to decide something that should not even be a question in the first place is an insult.”
Kamilah Moore, the committee’s chair, favors eligibility based on lineage, rather than race, saying it will have the best chance of surviving a legal challenge in a conservative U.S. Supreme Court. She also said it’s clear that the legislation supports restitution based on lineage.
California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who authored the legislation creating the task force, had argued passionately in January for prioritizing descendants for generations of forced labor, broken family ties and police terrorism. The daughter of sharecroppers forced to flee Arkansas in the dead of night, she recalled how the legacy of slavery broke her family and stunted their ability to dream of anything beyond survival.
Opening up compensation to modern Black immigrants or even descendants of slaves from other countries would leave U.S. descendants with mere pennies, she said.
But task force members – nearly all of whom can trace their families back to enslaved ancestors – struggle with a pivotal question bound to shape reparations deliberations across the country. The panel needs to make a decision so economists can begin calculations.
California Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a member of the task force, said there is no question that descendants of slaves are the priority, but he said the task force also needs to stop ongoing harm and prevent future harm from racism.
He said during the meeting that he wished the panel would stop “bickering” over money they don’t have yet and start discussing how to close a severe wealth gap.
“We’re arguing over cash payments, which I firmly don’t believe are the be all and end all,” he said.
Critics also say that California has no obligation to pay up given that the state did not practice slavery and did not enforce Jim Crow laws that segregated Black people from white people in the southern states.
But testimony provided to the committee shows California and local governments were complicit in stripping Black people of their wages and property, preventing them from building wealth to pass down to their children. Their homes were razed for redevelopment, and they were forced to live in predominantly minority neighborhoods and couldn’t get bank loans that would allow them to purchase property.
Today, Black residents are 5% of the state’s population but over-represented in jails, prison and homeless populations. And Black homeowners continue to face discrimination in the form of home appraisals that are significantly lower than if the house were in a white neighborhood or the homeowners are white, according to testimony.
Nkechi Taifa, director of the Reparation Education Project, is among longtime advocates who are thrilled the discussion has gone mainstream. But she’s baffled by the idea of limiting reparations to people who can show lineage when ancestry is not easy to document and slave owners frequently moved people among plantations in the U.S., the Caribbean and South America.
“I guess I tend to be more inclusive rather than exclusive,” she said, “and maybe it’s a fear of limitation, that there’s not enough money to go around.”
A report is due by June with a reparations proposal due by July 2023 for the Legislature to consider turning into law.
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