What could reparations look like? California task force seeks answers.

A first-of-its-kind task force in California met Wednesday to discuss how reparations could work. The task force has a July 1 deadline to complete its final report though lawmakers will need to pass legislation for policy changes to take place. 

Jeff Chiu/AP
Morris Griffin holds up a sign during a meeting by the task force to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans in Oakland, Calif., Dec. 14, 2022. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in 2020 creating the task force.

After more than a year delving into history and studies to make its case for reparations to California descendants of enslaved Black people, a first-in-the-nation task force began deliberations Wednesday to quantify how financial compensation might be calculated and what might be required to prove eligibility.

Conversations for how to determine payments are in the early stages, with task force members acknowledging they have more questions than answers. Economists hired by the task force are seeking guidance in five harms experienced by Black people: government taking of property, devaluation of Black-owned businesses, housing discrimination and homelessness, mass incarceration and over-policing, and health.

California’s task force met Wednesday at City Hall in Oakland, a city that was the birthplace of the Black Panthers but has lost some of its African American population as rising home prices forced people out.

The task force must determine when each harm began and ended and who should be eligible for monetary compensation in those areas. For example, the group could choose to limit cash compensation to people incarcerated between 1970 – when more people started being imprisoned for drug-related crimes – to the present. Or they could choose to compensate everyone who lived in over-policed Black neighborhoods, even if they were not themselves arrested.

The task force has a July 1 deadline to complete its final report for the Legislature listing recommendations for how the state can atone for and address its legacy of discriminatory policies against Black Californians. Lawmakers will need to pass legislation for payments and other policy changes to take place.

Earlier this year, the committee made the controversial decision to limit reparations to descendants of Black people in the United States as of the 19th century, either as freed or enslaved people.

Task force member Monica Montgomery Steppe said Wednesday they need to take more time addressing time frames, payment calculations, and residency.

“This is the foundation of all the other recommendations,” she said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in 2020 creating the task force, giving hope to reparations advocates who had despaired that anything might happen at the federal level. Since then, reparations efforts have bubbled up in cities, counties, and at colleges.

On Wednesday, the Boston City Council voted to form a task force to study reparations and other forms of atonement to Black residents for the city’s role in slavery and its legacy of inequality. Lawmakers in other parts of the country have pushed their states and cities to study reparations without much progress. But Evanston, Illinois, became the first U.S. city last year to make reparations available for Black residents, and public officials in New York will try anew to create a reparations commission in the state.

About 60 people attended California’s meeting, nodding in agreement as task force members spoke of the generational trauma suffered by Black children amid inaccurate and ongoing depictions of white families as ideal and Black families as not.

Max Fennell, a coffee company owner, said every person should get $350,000 in compensation to close the racial wealth gap and Black-owned businesses should receive $250,000, which would help them to flourish.

“It’s a debt that’s owed, we worked for free,” he said. “We’re not asking; we’re telling you.”

Demnlus Johnson III, a Richmond City Council member, said it’s remarkable that the issue is even being talked about publicly.

“You have to name a problem in order to address it,” he said. “Of course we want to see it addressed now, the urgency is now, but just having it all aired out and put on the line is a major feat.”

Members of the committee will make preliminary policy recommendations, such as audits of government agencies that deal with child welfare and incarceration with the aim of reducing disparities in how Black people are treated.

The group discussed how the state may address its impact on Black families whose property was seized through eminent domain. The topic garnered renewed attention after lawmakers last year voted to return a beachfront property known as Bruce’s Beach to descendants of the Black residents who owned it until it was taken in the 20th century. 

Officials from Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and other California cities spoke about local reparations efforts.

That included Khansa T. Jones-Muhammad, vice chair of Los Angeles’ Reparations Advisory Commission, created last year under then-Mayor Eric Garcetti. The goal of the commission is to advise the city on a pilot program for distributing reparations to a group of Black residents, but it doesn’t have a timeline set in stone for finishing its work.

In September, economists started listing preliminary estimates for what could be owed by the state as a result of discriminatory policies. But they said they need more data to come up with more complete figures.

Kamilah Moore, the task force’s chairperson, said the group has not decided on any dollar amounts or what form reparations could take, nor where the money would come from.

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a former assemblywoman, authored the bill that created the state’s task force, and the group began its work last year. The bill was signed into law in September 2020 after a summer of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota.

In June, the task force released a 500-page report describing discriminatory policies that drove housing segregation, criminal justice disparities, and other realities that harmed Black Californians in the decades since the abolition of slavery.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Sophie Austin reported from Sacramento, California. She is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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