Black woman in front of protest art in Oakland, a city known for producing historical movements and artists. Photo Malcolm Wright Media

California’s Gov. Gavin Newsome signs ‘groundbreaking’ legislation exploring state’s role in slavery and institutionalized racism

3 mins read

State bill addressing racial disparities stemming from slavery on, is the first passed addressing reparations for California’s African Americans.

In a recent online ceremony, Gov. Newsome signed legislation authorizing a nine-person task force to explore the longterm effects of slavery and the residual enfranchisement of African Americans that occurred afterwards. 

“The reparations bill,” a sobriquet for AB 3121 California Commission on the Impact of Slavery in California, is part of a racial justice legislation packet that focuses on closing racial disparities in a state that has the fifth largest economy in the world.

“It’s rather remarkable for all of California’s leadership, for the leadership of so many of you . . . that we still need to be talking about . . . race and relationships,” said Gov. Newsome during the online ceremony which hosted almost 20 activists, elected officials and artists.

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“We’re talking about really addressing the issues of fairness and justice in the country,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber who is the primary sponsor of the bill. Assm. Weber founded the Africana Studies Department at San Diego State University before pursuing elected politics.

“We are no longer afraid of too much justice … [and] rooting out institutional racism in the justice system,” said Assemblyman Ash Kalra.

AB 3121 authorizes a nine-person task force to review reparations proposals for the 2 million African Americans who are residents of the state. Most migrants came from the Deep South during the Great Migration of African Americans in the early to late 20th Century. 

San Francisco and Los Angeles, the state’s largest cities, were once predominantly Black. Today, both grossly lack representation of its earlier settlers who have been largely pushed out, or live at or below the poverty line. Even Sacramento, the state’s capital was formed by one of several Black mining camps. Eventually, the ongoing Black settlers during the Gold Rush and after World War II led to Sacramento being predominantly Black for some time. One mining camp still recognized today is called, Negro Hill on the outskirts of Folsom. But like other cities, African Americans there tell a history of redlining and other forms of economic segregation.

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Before the pandemic, 33 percent of the homeless population in Los Angeles were Black men, while gentrification erased significant acreage of all-Black neighborhoods in the Bay Area and Southern California. In Oakland, a historically Black city on the opposite side of the San Francisco Bay, middle-class African American communities have been reduced to barely visible, small pockets of neighborhoods. 

AB 3121 hopes to remedy the generations of inequity experienced by African Americans, but it is a small step to looking at reparations nationwide. Though Gov. Newsome expressed hopes that the bill provides a “proven paradigm that . . . would resonate all across the United States,” William A. Darity Jr., a leading economist at Duke University says that California is just a piecemeal of what is owed to Blacks throughout the US.

“I have a sense of proprietariness about the use of the term reparations, because I think people should not be given the impression that the kinds of steps that are taken at the state or local level actually constitute a comprehensive or true reparations plan,” Darity Jr. said in an interview with Calmatters.

| Read: Artists, the last disruptors of Oakland 

While Gov. Newsome expressed enthusiasm about the bill on the Youtube stream, he signed the bill on the last day to take action on the legislation. Him dragging his feet resulted in members of nascent group, #ADOS, a movement with the main aim of closing the racial wealth gap, and  hip hop icon Ice Cube, who is now an entertainment sports creator.

A Los Angeles-native who prefers to be called Cube, has been very active in advocating for reparations and Black empowerment. Several months ago he released an agenda for the presidential administration to consider titled, Contract With Black America. Using his social media to talk about racial and economic injustice in the US, Cube presented his CWBA to current presidential tickets, the Trump-Pence GOP ticket and the Democratic Biden-Harris duo. Cube was on the online ceremony along with several #ADOS representatives and assembly members. 

| Watch: Ice Cube under scrutiny for speaking with Trump aides about incorporating Contract With Black America

Along with AB 3121, AB 979 and AB 2542 were signed. While AB 979 will work to have more corporate representation from underrepresented communities, AB 2542 focuses on racial discrimination in sentencing and convictions. Another bill AB 3070, focuses on fair jury selection to maintain the integrity of the court. The jury selection bill:

. . . prohibits a party from using a peremptory challenge to remove a prospective juror on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religious affiliation, or perceived membership in any of those groups. It also outlines a court procedure for objecting to, evaluating, and resolving improper bias in peremptory challenges. 

As far as the implementation of the bill, the governor will appoint five of the nine members on the task force. The team must include experts in history dealing with slavery and someone who has history of restorative justice by way of reparations. According to the bill, Gov. Newsome must meet with the task force before 2021.

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