First-of-its-kind reparations panel issues report in California

A nine-member task force in the US has published a 1,075-page report identifying ways to redress the harms of slavery.

Four people stand against a blue curtain, smiling as they hold up a copy of a thousand-page report released on Thursday.
From left: State Senator Steven Bradford, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, task force member Lisa Holder and Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer present Thursday's final report [Haven Daley/AP Photo]

A California task force has released a 1,075-page final report outlining proposals for how the state can make reparations for the harms done to Black families throughout the history of the United States.

The report, released on Thursday, coincided with the task force’s final meeting, culminating nearly three years of research and community panels.

It also marked the most ambitious effort to date to redress the long legacy of slavery and racial discrimination in the US.

“We must believe that reparations can come to fruition. We’ve come such a long way, and this work must not be in vain,” Monica Montgomery Steppe, a San Diego City Council member and task force appointee, told an audience of hundreds at the final meeting.

The report itself does not specify a dollar amount for how much its proposals cost, but it suggests calculations for estimating financial losses due to discriminatory policies.

It also calls for actions like a formal apology from the state of California and safeguards to ensure further abuses do not occur.

With the task force set to dissolve, it is now up to the California state legislature to evaluate the report and enact its recommendations — or not.

“This task force makes numerous worthy and important recommendations on what reparations could include,” said state Senator Steven Bradford, also a member of the task force.

“It could include cash payments. It can include free tuition to our UCs [University of California campuses] and CSUs [California State University campuses]. It can be a first-time homebuyer assistance down payment. Interest-free loans. State tax relief. Free health care.”

But Bradford brushed aside anticipated criticism about the costs of such measures. He pointed out that California had recently passed a $310.8bn budget — and that the state has allocated billions for controversial initiatives like a long-delayed high-speed rail system.

“Let’s be clear and honest: The cost of reparations will be high,” Bradford said. “But make no mistake. The harms that are done are just as high. And the harms and the disparities it created continue to this day.”

Outside San Francisco's city hall, a crowd has gathered. Two people hold yellow umbrellas, with the handwritten words "reparations now" inscribed on them.
A crowd rallies for reparations outside San Francisco’s city hall on March 14, 2023 [File: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo]

It remains unclear how much political backing the report’s recommendations will have in the legislature, despite outward support from Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.

Earlier this year, Newsom called the task force’s recommendations “a milestone in our bipartisan effort to advance justice and promote healing”.

But he declined to go further in his comments, instead highlighting efforts already under way to minimise barriers to voting and reform the criminal justice system.

“Dealing with the legacy of slavery is about much more than cash payments,” Newsom said, leading some critics to speculate he may not embrace monetary compensation as an option.

The task force made headlines earlier this year when an economist presented a rough estimate that reparations could cost California $800bn, a sum more than twice the state’s annual budget.

But for the members of the nine-member panel, numbers like those emphasise the grave injustice done to Black people in the US.

“I’ve lost count of the number of bills that we dealt with regarding wage theft,” Bradford said of his time in the legislature. “Well, slavery was 250 years of wage theft.”

A man at a podium labelled "ready for wildfire" speaks and stands in front of an emergency helicopter
Governor Gavin Newsom, seen on Thursday in Grass Valley, California, has called the task force’s work a ‘milestone’ [Adam Beam/AP Photo]

Montgomery Steppe, the San Diego City Council member, likewise pushed for concrete action to come from the report.

“We are not asking for performative justice but demanding reparations in all categories: satisfaction, restitution, compensation, apology and guarantee of non-repetition,” she said, listing off sections of the report.

“It is not unreasonable. It is not unattainable. And it is not unjustifiable for this state to address the immense harm done to descendants of enslaved people.”

The report illustrates that harm by offering a wide-ranging discussion of discrimination in the US, from the effects of mass incarceration to the unequal health care treatment many Black people receive.

It also tries to pin a dollar amount to how much those acts of discrimination cost Black families over the long run. One section about redlining — the practice of exclusionary real estate tactics — estimates that the average Black family in California lost $161,508 in homeownership wealth as a result.

The task force had previously voted in March 2022 to limit reparations to recipients who can trace their lineage to enslaved people, rather than opening any potential benefits to all Black Californians.

A woman, wearing a face mask and glasses, leans across a panel table, listening.
Task Force Chair Kamilah Moore listens to public comment during a meeting on December 14, 2022 [File: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo]

But that too came under scrutiny in Thursday’s final meeting, as families presented their experiences with discrimination before the panel.

Yvette Porter Moore, a San Diego-based genealogist, explained that she was adopted — and it was only through research that she came to understand her family’s history with enslavement and disenfranchisement.

Part of her family, she explained, had been enslaved on a plantation in Noxubee County, Mississippi. Other members of her family were born free, only to have their property seized by the government through eminent domain.

“Since qualification for reparations is going to be determined through lineage-based research, there needs to be legislative law changes to open sealed birth and adoption records,” Moore said.

“We as adoptees do not have access to our original birth certificates. We as adoptees have been cut off from our legal rights of claiming our heritage and ancestry. So then what?”

She also explained that DNA and lineage tracing could be “costly” for families — and proposed that be covered through reparations as well.

Source: Al Jazeera