California African American Museum's "No Justice, No Peace: LA 1992" exhibition on LA Civil Unrest. Photo credit: Jeremy Thompson/Flickr

California’s Black state legislators unveil reparations bills against backdrop of national white opposition to concept

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Bills to be considered a few at a time; cash reparations are not among measures.

Black Californians whose ancestors were enslaved in the state, and whose descendants were victims of racist practices, may be eligible for various forms of redress if the state legislature enacts reparations bills into law.

Earlier this year, California’s Legislative Black Caucus held a news conference to highlight the California Reparations Task Force package of 14 reparations bills. Each measure addresses racist institutional barriers  and includes a suggested solution. 

In the recommended legislation, there is a bill that calls for amendments to California’s constitution to prohibit involuntary servitude in the state’s prisons. Another proposed state constitutional amendment allows California to fund programs for certain groups of people that would help increase their life expectancy and improve their outcomes in education.  Other bills call for California to formally acknowledge its role in the physical and emotional damage done to African Americans because of their race.  When speaking on the timeline of how the bills might roll out, news conference participants said passing the bills will be a “multi-year” process.

The fruits of the California Reparation Task Force’s labor

California State Senator Steven Bradford, a former member of the task force, knows about how long it can take to draft reparations legislation. It took the state’s Reparation Task Force three years—from 2020, when Governor Gavin Newsom signed the measure that created it—to June 2023, when the task force issued its 1,100-page final report about its research into racism in California and the impact of slavery. Included in the report were recommendations for alleviating the pain of Black people enslaved in California, their descendants, and Black Californians who endured under race-based policies. While slavery was never legal in California, the state has acknowledged its role in the U.S. slave system, which ultimately impacted Black Californians for generations.

California was not an “enslavement state” in the same sense that Southern plantation owners enslaved hundreds of Africans. But according to the task force, plantation owners brought more than 2,000 enslaved Black people to California between 1850 and 1860 to mine gold. Californians aided plantation owners seeking to capture and re-enslave runaways under the Fugitive Slave Law.

“Through my work on California’s Reparations Task Force, we have documented the historic harms that continue to impact African Americans to this day,” said Bradford in a statement to The Ark Republic. “We made numerous recommendations to address and repair these injustices.

“This legislation and others to be introduced will begin the critical conversation on reparations by creating a new state agency tasked with implementing any reparations passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor,” Bradford wrote. “I know turning reparations into reality won’t be easy. We also know that one bill or the work done in one legislative session cannot address all the harms that have been inflicted on the descendants of chattel slavery.”

Following the creation of California’s Reparations Task Force and proposed bills, there are 10 cities in other states currently considering restorative justice for descendants of those enslaved. Last December, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill establishing a reparations commission.  Nine individuals were appointed to the commission this past February.  But, California was the first state in the U.S. to consider legislated reparations.

The George Floyd factor

For decades, activist groups and a handful of elected officials called for reparations. However, the issue gathered force after a video posted on social media showed the Minneapolis police killing of unarmed Black motorist, George Floyd, in 2020. 

Calls for reparations increased following  the recording going viral around the world. The incident motivated California Governor Newsom to sign a bill into law that created the state Reparations Task Force. The group was charged with researching California’s history with Black residents, and how reparations might remedy years of racism experienced by Black Californians.

Researching remedies for enslaved Africans’ descendants

Reparations in California would benefit the descendants of the 2,000 enslaved Africans, and other Black residents who could verify their links to enslaved ancestors. To qualify, Black Californians’ ancestors, whether free or enslaved, must have entered the state before 1900. Although heeding the outcries, California legislators had to determine what reparations would look like, and whether cash payments to the enslaved Africans’ descendants would be part of the legislative package.

Restored photo of Judge Mifflin Wistar Gibbs who migrated to California from Philadelphia in the 1850s to seek fortune in the Gold Rush. There, he worked as a carpenter then co-founded a lucrative luxury shoe business. Born free and traveling with abolitionist Frederick Douglas as a young man, Mr. Gibbs was a known critic of California’s anti-Black discrimination. Also, he co-founded the first Black newspaper on the West coast, the Mirror of the Times. Disillusioned by the treatment of Blacks in California, he lead a migration of several hundred Blacks to Canada in or around 1858. The move was based on an invitation from Canada’s Governor James Douglas to settle the colony of Vancouver Island. In Canada for a little more than a decade, Mr. Gibbs was able to vote. In 1866, became the first Black person elected to public office. As well, he grew his fortune in real estate and trading goods. After the U.S. Civil War, he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas where he took the bar and opened a law firm in 1872. Then he served as the first Black municipal. Before his passing at 92, Mr. Gibbs was the US Consul in Tamatave, Madagascar and opened a bank in Arkansas. Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, C. M. Bell Collection, between February 1901 and December 1903.

Where’s my money at?

There is nothing concerning direct cash payments to descendants of enslaved Black Californians in any of the 14 bills. The Legislative Black Caucus decided to table cash payment bills due in part to California’s budget deficit. Another barrier to cash payments is that white Americans oppose them.  An opinion poll taken last year shows a majority of Asians and Latinos are also against reparations.

Whites attitudes regarding reparations

The percentage of whites who are against reparations was uncovered in a January national opinion poll conducted by UMASS Amherst. Participants in the poll were men and women from ages 18 to 55 and up. The poll included many questions about this year’s presidential elections and candidates, immigration policies, and antisemitism. 

It also queried respondents on the “great replacement” fear that is based on Black and other people of color becoming the majority population in the U.S., while the white population diminishes. Sixty-three percent of the poll’s respondents are against reparations. Broken down by age, 57% of respondents between 18 and 29, 42% of 30-to-54-year-olds, and 52% of respondents 55 and older support reparations.

Tatishe Nteta, provost professor of political science at UMASS Amherst, was the director of the poll. He noted that most of the anti-reparations group said that Black people do not “deserve” them. “We conducted a similar poll in 2021, coming off George Floyd’s murder and the [emergence] of the Black Lives Matter [movement],” Nteta said in an Ark Republic interview. In the 2021 poll, he said, 38% raised the “deserve” issue. The percentage went down to 28% in its 2023 poll, then went up again to 29%.

“This notion of whether Black people deserve reparations or not, does have racial overtones,” observed Nteta. “The work ethic of African Americans is linked to the trope of African Americans’ being dependent on social services programs. We consistently conclude that [this stereotype] is informed by negative views of African Americans.”  The issue of which ethnic groups deserve reparations is not raised by poll participants, only when reparations for Black people in the U.S. are involved. 

Asked if Black people would be able to obtain reparations by circumventing white opposition, or generating more white support for them, Nteta replied, “I’m not a soothsayer.” He added that he thinks reparations laws will be passed in cities and states before the federal government ever approves federal reparations. 

Currently, there is a small number of U.S. Senators or Representatives backing the federal reparations bill, HR 40. Its title refers to the 40 acres and a mule promised to Black people post-enslavement—a promise never fulfilled. Nteta said President Biden has not said anything about supporting reparations. “He tends to favor legislation that assists all Americans, based on the premise that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’”

“We don’t need white support to get it done”

An officer for one of the oldest organizations in the U.S. that has been lobbying for reparations says it only takes grassroots organizing and  planning to pass a federal reparations bill.

“I’m not inclined to have to ‘get around’ Euro Americans [to obtain federal reparations],” said Kenniss Henry, national co-chair of N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America). Founded on September 26, 1987, its mission is to broaden support for reparations.  N’COBRA has chapters nationally, as well as in Ghana and London, England. “Besides, whites must come face-to-face with reality. They need to come to the place of understanding the injuries and the harm inflicted on our ancestors in their 246 years of their stolen labor.  Our ancestors’ [unpaid toil] put the U.S. on the map.”

At the center of enslavement and the U.S. were planters, bankers, merchants and the government selling crops and skilled services by Blacks. Cash crops such as cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane, and craftsmanship such as masonry and shipbuilding—created the nation’s wealth and bolstered the country to be a global superpower. In whole, whites, even if they were not directly involved in the system of chattel slavery, benefited from work that forced millions to labor, for free and in dangerous conditions, from dawn to dusk, for hundreds of years. “Enslavers got reparations from the U.S. government to compensate for the loss of their Black workers [after the Civil War ended],” said Henry.  “That’s why there are whites who are trying to ban books – they don’t want anyone to know the extent of enslavement, and the generational trauma we have suffered” as a result.

A 2002 report shows that Insurance companies in the 19th Century took advantage of the enslavement system to insure enslaved Black people for their owners. Among the insurance companies participating in the financially lucrative practice were Aetna, and the precursor to New York Life.

Henry said N’COBRA has white allies who support passage of reparations legislation. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of  more than 200 Black and white activist groups, sent a letter  to President Biden in support of H.R. 40 in the first weeks of his administration. White organizations in The Leadership Conference include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This April 4, the date when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 56 years ago, 400 people signed another letter urging President Biden to use his presidential powers  to back a number of civil rights and equity measures, including reparations.

Not all Black people are fans of the remedy. “We [at N’COBRA] tried to get Congressman James Clyburn D-SC  to persuade the Senate to pass H.R. 40,” said Henry. “Clyburn was the Majority Whip in the House. The bill had 217 House co-sponsors.” Rep. Clyburn is on record as being against reparations. In an interview almost four years ago, he said reparations “would lead to contested debates about who would be eligible due to the sprawling family trees that have evolved in the generations since slavery was abolished.” 

Henry said last year the organization unsuccessfully attempted to persuade President Biden to enact reparations as an executive order, which would not need House and Senate votes to become law.

Reparations precedents 

Reparations in the U.S. are nothing new, explained Henry. Examples include Japanese Americans being compensated for loss of property when they were wrongfully forced into internment camps during World War II.  

There are numerous examples of the U.S. paying reparations to other groups in the past. Reparative justice has been given to such people who accidentally inhaled pesticides, or coal miners whose constant exposure to coal dust gave them “black lung disease.” Included in compensation are Native Americans, and victims of natural disasters. But, such “daily reparations” are considered “normal.” When this is compared to reparations for Black people, it has been described as “problematic” relative to what form reparations should take, how would they be funded, how would eligibility for reparations be determined, and whether Black people “deserve” them.

“There is even an agency in New York that pays compensation to Holocaust survivors,” said Henry. Since 1997 the New York State Department of Financial Services’ Holocaust Claims Processing Office has assisted in securing and returning  $183 million to victims and their heirs for bank and insurance matters. It also recovers stolen artworks. The program is jointly funded by the New York State Banking Department and the New York State Insurance Department.  “This could be a model for managing reparations for Black people,” Henry suggested.

Next steps for California’s reparations bills

Meanwhile, California’s Legislative Black Caucus is preparing for months of hearings on the reparations bills. Legislative Black Caucus members will use the hearings and other opportunities to educate their colleagues and the public about reparations and what they are meant to accomplish. “California is a test case,” UMASS Amherst’s Dr. Nteta told The Ark. “History shows us that whenever California does something [innovative] the other 49 states take a look at it.” 

He added that because California’s elected officials have term limits on how long they may stay in office, state legislators supporting the reparations bills might “term out” and be unable to participate in voting for the reparations bills.

This is also a concern for State Senator Bradford, who told The Ark in his statement that he hopes the bills are passed before his term ends. “It’s vital for all of my legislative colleagues and every Californian to understand that reparations are not a gift,” said Bradford. “Reparations are not a handout, or charity, but they are what was promised, owed, and overdue.”

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