California

California’s first-in-the-nation reparations panel limits compensation to slave descendants

California’s first-in-the-nation reparations panel 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, rejecting previous proposals to include all black people.

The group also opened eligibility to free black people who migrated to the U.S. in the 19th century, citing difficulties in documenting genealogy and the risk at the time of becoming enslaved. 

Compensation could include free college, assistance buying homes and launching businesses, and grants to churches and community organizations. 

The motion passed 5 to 4 after hours of heated debate, with supporters arguing that a compensation and restitution plan based on lineage as opposed to race had the best change of surviving legal challenges. 

Panel members favoring the lineage approach also argued 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.

Some committee members argued in favor of reparations that include all black Americans because they too suffer from systemic racism in housing, education and employment. They also said it was difficult to prove lineage and that slaveholders often shipped people to work in various plantations in and outside the country.  

The divided California task force on reparations may postpone their vote on whether all black Americans should be eligible for compensation or if it should be limited to direct descendants of slaves 

The panel, which delayed voting last month, held a heated meeting Tuesday to address eligibility for compensation as atonement for a slave system that officially ended with the Civil War. Compensation could include free college, assistance buying homes and launching businesses, and grants to churches and community organizations

The panel, which delayed voting last month, held a heated meeting Tuesday to address eligibility for compensation as atonement for a slave system that officially ended with the Civil War. Compensation could include free college, assistance buying homes and launching businesses, and grants to churches and community organizations

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year reparations task force in 2020 with a mission to study the institution of slavery and its harms and to educate the public about its findings.  

California is the only state to move ahead with a study and plan. 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.

However, it was unclear if Tuesday's anticipated vote will proceed after Committee Chair Kamilah Moore (pictured) was accused of acting out of order after she allegedly offered unscheduled testimony about compensation eligibility during the meeting

However, it was unclear if Tuesday’s anticipated vote will proceed after Committee Chair Kamilah Moore (pictured) was accused of acting out of order after she allegedly offered unscheduled testimony about compensation eligibility during the meeting

However, Tuesday’s vote could prove pivotal in next steps as defining eligibility was essential for the economist team’s scope of work.  

The eligibility question has dogged the task force since its inaugural meeting in June. The group, which postponed voting on the issue in February, seemed unlikely to pass the measure Tuesday as their meeting was fueled by bickering.

Committee Chair Kamilah Moore was accused of acting out of order after she allegedly offered unscheduled testimony about eligibility during the meeting.  

‘As chair, I have authority to guide discussion as I see fit,’ Moore defended in wake of the allegations. 

‘You’re the chair, but you’re not the dictator,’ California Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, who raised concern about Moore’s acton, responded to the chairwoman.

Other members, citing time constraints due to Moore’s alleged testimony, argued the group would not have time for witness presentations – which some argued during lat month’s meeting, they needed to hear before voting on eligibility – because she acted out of turn.

Task force member Don Tamaki, an attorney, suggested the group postpone its scope of work until Wednesday, rescheduled witness panels and delay the vote until ‘after everybody has had the opportunity to say what they need to say’.  

Despite the debate, the panel managed to reach a consensus. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year reparations task force in 2020 with a mission to study the institution of slavery and its harms and to educate the public about its findings. California is the only state to move ahead with a study and plan

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year reparations task force in 2020 with a mission to study the institution of slavery and its harms and to educate the public about its findings. California is the only state to move ahead with a study and plan

The committee is not even a year into its two-year process and there is no compensation plan of any kind on the table. The broad agreement among advocates, however, is the need for multi-faceted remedies for related yet separate harms, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and redevelopment that resulted in displacement of black communities

The committee is not even a year into its two-year process and there is no compensation plan of any kind on the table. The broad agreement among advocates, however, is the need for multi-faceted remedies for related yet separate harms, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and redevelopment that resulted in displacement of black communities

The broad agreement among advocates is the need for multi-faceted remedies for related yet separate harms, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and redevelopment that resulted in displacement of black communities. 

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.’

Moore 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.

A reparations plan based on race would attract ‘hyper-aggressive challenges that could have very negative implications for other states looking to do something similar, or even for the federal government,’ Moore previously said.

‘Everyone’s looking to what we’re going to do,’ she added.   

The question of eligibility has dogged the committee 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 people enslaved in the U.S.

The question of eligibility has dogged the committee 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 people enslaved in the U.S.

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber (pictured in June 2020), 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

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber (pictured in June 2020), 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

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. 

She has previously argued that opening up compensation to black immigrants or even descendants of slaves from other countries would leave U.S. descendants with mere pennies.    

During last month’s meeting, members  – nearly all of whom can trace their families back to enslaved ancestors – questioned the need to rush on a pivotal question bound to shape reparations deliberations across the country.

Task force member Lisa Holder shared a poignant story of losing her child at delivery, because the medical staff did not take seriously the concerns of a young black woman who knew something was wrong with her baby.

Holder, a civil rights attorney, argued that in the U.S., black mothers are far more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women.

‘No one asked me if my ancestors were enslaved in the United States or if they were enslaved in Jamaica or if they were enslaved in Barbados,’ she said during February’s meeting. ‘We have to embrace this concept that black lives matter, not just a sliver of those black lives, because black lives are in danger, especially today.’ 

Nkechi Taifa, director of the Reparation Education Project, is among longtime advocates who are thrilled the discussion has gone mainstream, but says 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.’

Jones-Sawyer 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. 

‘It’s in the system, it’s in our laws. It’s in how we treat one another, it’s how we talk to one another,’ the assemblyman argued. ‘And no amount of money will make that go away.’ 

He also stated during Tuesday’s 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. 

California Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (pictured in September 2021), 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

California Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (pictured in September 2021), 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

Reparations critics 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 (Pictured: Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks during the March on Washington on the 57th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 2020)

Reparations critics 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 (Pictured: Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., speaks during the March on Washington on the 57th anniversary of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on Aug. 28, 2020)

Reparations critics 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.

However, 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. 

Witnesses claimed their homes were razed for redevelopment, they were forced to live in predominantly minority neighborhoods and couldn’t get bank loans that would allow them to purchase property.

Currently, black residents are 5 percent of California’s population but over-represented in jails, prison and homeless populations. 

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.

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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