California’s first nation’s taskforce on reparations for African Americans voted to directly compensate the descendants of enslaved and free black people who lived in the United States in the 19th century from the state.
The group said a compensation and restitution plan based on ancestry – as opposed to a race-based plan, which would have opened up the possibility of redress to a broader group – was the best change to survive a legal challenge. They also said that black immigrants who chose to migrate to the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries did not share the trauma of people who had been kidnapped and enslaved.
They also opened up eligibility for free blacks who had immigrated to the country in the 19th century, given potential difficulties in documenting genealogy and the risk at the time of enslavement.
The decision was passed by a vote of 5 to 4 on Tuesday evening after a day of lively debate. Other members of the committee had argued that reparations should include all black people, regardless of their ancestry, who suffer from systemic racism in the areas of housing, education and employment. They also said proving parentage was difficult, and that enslavers often shipped people out to work on various plantations both domestically and abroad.
Established in 2020, the biennial Reparations Task Force made California the only state to advance a study and plan with a mission to investigate the institution of slavery and its harms, and to educate the public about its findings.
The committee is less than a year into its two-year process and no compensation plan is on the table.
Longtime advocates have spoken of the need for multiple remedies for related but separate harms such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, and sanitation that have resulted in the displacement of black communities.
The compensation could include a free college, help buying homes and starting businesses, and grants for churches and community organizations, supporters say.
But the issue of eligibility has haunted the taskforce since its inaugural meeting in June, when viewers called and asked the group of nine to develop targeted proposals and cash payments to heal the descendants of enslaved people across the United States.
The work of the committee was informed numerous testimonials. Arthur Ward, a Chicago resident, called Tuesday to the virtual meeting and said he is a descendant of enslaved people and has family in California. He advocated reparations based only on ancestry and expressed frustration at the panel’s concerns about black immigrants experiencing systemic racism.
“If it’s about some kind of justice, some kind of reparation, we should be at the back of the line and allow Caribbeans and Africans to be prioritized,” Ward said. “It’s an insult to take so long to decide something that shouldn’t even be a question.”
Kamilah Moore, the committee chair, advocated eligibility based on descent rather than race, saying it would have the best chance of surviving a legal challenge in a conservative US Supreme Court.
Shirley Weber, the California Secretary of State who authored the bill creating the taskforce, had campaigned passionately in January to prioritize descendants for generations of forced labor, broken family ties and police terrorism. As the daughter of sharecroppers forced to flee Arkansas in the middle of the night, she recalled how the legacy of slavery fractured her family and inhibited her ability to dream of anything but survival.
Opening up compensation to modern-day black immigrants or even descendants of enslaved people from other countries would leave US descendants with pennies, she said.
But taskforce members, almost all of whom can trace their families to enslaved ancestors, are grappling with a key issue that will shape redress deliberations across the country. The panel had to make a decision to allow economists to start calculations.
Critics say California isn’t required to pay because the state didn’t practice slavery and didn’t enforce Jim Crow laws that separated blacks from whites in the Southern states.
But testimony provided to the committee shows that California and local governments were complicit in depriving blacks of their wages and property and preventing them from building wealth to pass on to their children. Their homes were demolished for redevelopment and they were forced to live in predominantly minority neighborhoods and could not obtain bank loans to buy property.
Today, black residents make up 5% of the state’s population, but are overrepresented in jails, jails and the homeless. And black homeowners continue to face discrimination, according to witnesses, with home valuations significantly lower than if the home were in a white neighborhood or the homeowners were white.
Nkechi Taifa, director of the Reparation Education Project, is among longtime advocates who are excited that the discussion has moved into the mainstream. But she’s baffled by the idea of limiting reparations to people who can prove their lineage, when lineage isn’t easily documented and enslavers often moved people between plantations in the US, the Caribbean, and South America.
“I guess I tend to be more inclusive than exclusive,” she said, “and maybe it’s a fear of limitations, that there’s not enough money to get around.”
A report is due by June with a reparations proposal due by July 2023 for lawmakers to consider turning into law.
The Taskforce decides that California reparations should be limited to the descendants of enslaved people California
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