California Reparations Task Force members will serve on a two-year committee.

California task force holds first public meeting considering reparations for Black residents

5 mins read

A first in the nation, California leads in creating a special team to investigate reparations for its African American residents.

A group of nine Californians comprising a special task force made history recently when it held its first meeting about reparations, and what those reparations could be for descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States. The meeting marked the first time the issue was formally addressed in any state.

A lengthy conference that presented each member of the task force and their expectations, it also included presentations by folklorist, art consultant and literary writer, Dr. A. Kirsten Mullen and one of the foremost reparations scholars, economist and researcher, Dr. Sandy Darity. “When we are talking about African American reparations, we are referring to a plan of action that will place America on the path to racial equality,” explained Dr. Mullen who also, along with Dr. Darity, detailed different types of reparation and the history of governments around the world that have issued reparations, including the U.S.

“Your task is to determine the depth of the harm, and the ways in which we are to repair that harm,” said Secretary of State Shirley Weber to task force members after being sworn in. 

Sec’y Weber authored the state legislation creating the task force when she was a member of the California State Assembly.  Last December, Newsom appointed Weber to the position of California’s Secretary of State. She is the first Black person in California’s history to serve in that position, and the fifth Black state constitutional officer in California’s 170 year existence.

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California Reparations Task Force members being sworn in via Zoom on June 1, 2021.

Formed under AB 3121, which was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom last September, the task force is designed to give a sweeping, and thorough examination of reparations for African Americans. “As a nation, we can only truly thrive when every one of us has the opportunity to thrive,” said Newsom at the time of the bill signing. “Our painful history of slavery has evolved into structural racism and bias built into and permeating throughout our democratic and economic institutions.

Newsom had also signed two other bills, AB 2542, which prohibits the use of race, ethnicity or national origin to obtain convictions or impose sentences, and AB 3070, which concerns prevention of discrimination in jury selection.

“I hope that this task force is about doing the right thing in the areas of education, economic empowerment, cultural enrichment . . . [and] making sure that we reclaim these watering holes that these African Americans have had in South Central Los Angeles, [and] here in the Fillmore [District in San Francisco],” said Rev. Dr. Amos Brown who is the Pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church and civil rights activist after the members were sworn in on June 1, 2021

The recommendations of Dr. Brown were several of a list of key directives that the task force put forth. Others include the issuance of a formal apology; a thorough and well-documented report on the generations of discrimination that also includes institutional exclusions; how to address the findings of the report once finished; and who gets compensation if any is granted. 

While people view California as the sunshine state. It’s history in racial discrimination bears a dark past. California was considered a “free state” when it became part of the United States in 1850, but still enslaved Black people, even though the practice was illegal under California law. Enslavement was abolished nationally under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. From Jim Crow ordinances, to displacement, law enforcement brutality and housing segregation, Black Californians suffered under similar treatment as southerners.

Newsome and task force members hope that they offer a template to other states, and lead to federal legislation. “California is one level, but on a national level, we’re talking about ultimately passing H.R. 40 and developing a consensus beyond that . . . at least that was the experience of Japanese Americans . . . the idea is that at least this will be a model for the nation ,” said task force member Attorney Don Tamaki who serves as an expert in reparations for Japanese Americans.

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Although California is the first state to establish a reparations task force, several U.S. cities are considering reparations bills. Among them are Providence, Rhode Island, Amherst, Massachusetts, Iowa City, Iowa, and Asheville, North Carolina. On March 22, the City Council of Evanston, Illinois voted eight to one to provide $400,00 to eligible Black Evanston households to compensate for enslavement and  years of racial segregation and discrimination that followed long after enslavement had ended.

Nationally the reparations issue was first brought before Congress in 1989 when the late Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan), a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, introduced H.R. 40. The proposed legislation was named for the unfulfilled promise to the formerly enslaved Black people that they would be given 40 acres and a mule. The bill called for the creation of a commission to study what form reparations would take. Conyers introduced the bill every year that he was in Congress. This April, for the first time ever, the House Judiciary Committee passed H.R. 40. The measure will be voted on by the full House.

According to a recent UMass Amherst/WCVB-TV opinion poll, opposition to reparations is based on racial and political party affiliation. Sixty-two percent of those who were polled are against reparations. Ninety percent of Republicans oppose it, while 64 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Black people polled are in favor of reparations.

“Disturbingly – and in spite of indisputable evidence of the continuing effects of slavery and Jim Crow on Blacks – the primary stated reason for this opposition is the perception that descendants of enslaved people are not deserving of reparations,” said the poll’s associate director Jesse Rhodes in  the university’s news release about the poll and its findings.

Two years prior to Representative Conyers introducing his reparations bill In Congress, the grassroots organization N’Cobra (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America) organized to build support for reparations nationwide. N’Cobra’s national male co-chair Kamm Howard addressed the first meeting of California’s reparations task force shortly after its members were sworn in.

“You are entrusted to deliver reparative initiatives for centuries of crimes committed against people of African descent who reside in California,” said Howard. “The crimes committed have been many and horrible. We speak of these actions as crimes, not immoral or sinful acts. But crimes, because the United Nations declared the Transatlantic Slave Trade, slavery, and apartheid (Jim Crow in the U.S.) to be crimes against humanity.”

The California reparations task force will meet for two years, during which it will explore the impact of enslavement, discrimination, and segregation on Black people in the state. Then it will determine the type and scope of the reparations.

Of the nine task force members, Governor Newsom appointed five, and the state Senate and Assembly each appointed two. The task force members are:  clinical psychologist Cheryl Grills, director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University; civil rights attorney Lisa Holder; Donald Tamaki, an attorney who worked on the case of Fred Korematsu who refused to be imprisoned when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II; Jovan S. Lewis, a UC Berkley associate geography professor; Amos C. Brown, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco; California Assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles); attorney and activist Kamilah Moore, who chairs the task force; state Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) who chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus; and San Diego City Council member Monica Montgomery Steppe.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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