Landmark California Task Force Calls for “Comprehensive Reparations” for Slavery

California is the only state in the United States to establish a reparations taskforce specifically for Black Americans. The Task Force to Study the Development of Reparation Proposals For African Americans was established June 1. a 500-page document that traces the history of white supremacyFrom slavery to Jim Crow to the present. It calls for “comprehensive reparations” for Black people harmed by a historical system of state-sanctioned oppression.

“Segregation, racial terror, harmful racist neglect, and other atrocities in nearly every sector of civil society have inflicted harms, which cascade over a lifetime and compound over generations,” the report says.

“The California Reparations Commission’s first report is historic,” Chris Lodgson, Lead Organizer with the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California, told Truthout. “It details the atrocities and human rights violations committed against African American Freedmen in California.”

The report does not offer detailed proposals for reparations. It “lays the foundation for the Commission’s work over the next year, which is developing the Reparations Plan, including direct financial compensation, land, and more,” Lodgson said.

The U.S. Constitution and statutory laws sanctioned slavery from 1619 to 1865. More than 4,000,000 Africans, as well as their descendants, were enslaved by the United States. They were deprived of their freedom, citizenship, economic opportunity, and cultural heritage. After the abolishment of slavery, federal, local, and state governmental entities continued profiting from white supremacy. Today, African Americans are suffering from economic, educational, and health inequalities.

The California legislature was enacted on September 30, 2020 AB 3121, which established the Task Force and charged it with conducting an “inquiry into the ongoing effects of the institution of slavery and its legacy of persistent systemic structures of discrimination on living African Americans and society in the United States.”

AB 3121 requires that the Task Force recommend appropriate solutions, including compensation, rehabilitation, and restitution, for African Americans, especially descendants of those who were enslaved in America. The bill requires that the Task Force address how its recommendations “comport with international standards” provided by “various international protocols, laws, and findings.”

Key Findings

“From colonial times forward, governments at all levels adopted and enshrined white supremacy beliefs and passed laws in order to maintain slavery, a system of dehumanization and exploitation that stole the life, labor, liberty, and intellect of people of African descent,” the report finds.

Indeed, 160 years after slavery was abolished, “its badges and incidents remain embedded in the political, legal, health, financial, educational, cultural, environmental, social, and economic systems of the United States of America.” The Task Force cites “[r]acist, false, and harmful stereotypes” that continue to plague African Americans today.

Slave Codes “reborn as the Black Codes, and then as the Jim Crow laws” segregated Blacks and whites “in every aspect of life.” They were emblematic of “a national desire to reinforce a racial hierarchy based in white supremacy.”

In 1852, California enacted a fugitive slave law that was crueler than the federal fugitive slave law “and this made California a more proslavery state than most other free states,” according to the report.

Racial terror which “pervaded every aspect of post-slavery Black life” precluded African Americans from earning wealth and political influence equal to that of white Americans. Lynchings in the South weren’t just isolated hate crimes, but rather “part of a systematic campaign of terror to enforce the racial hierarchy.”

“Today, police violence against and extrajudicial killings of African Americans occur in California in the same manner as they do in the rest of the country,” the report notes.

The Task Force report documents the political disenfranchisement of African Americans, stating that California’s voter suppression laws provided a model for those in the South. It also discusses housing segregation through redlining, zoning ordinances and California’s “sundown towns,” which required that African Americans leave by dusk or face violence.

The report also highlights the disparities in education. Slave states denied education to almost all enslaved citizens, but the North, Midwest, and South segregated their schools, restricting or denying access for free African Americans.

Brown v. Board of Education1954 ruled that racial segregation of public schools was illegal. However, Congress and courts created barriers to integration of schools. California is the sixth most segregated country for African American students.

The report also reveals racism in the environment, and infrastructure. Residential segregation has led to poor-quality housing for African Americans, “exposing them to disproportionate amounts of lead poisoning and increasing risk of infectious disease.” California follows the national pattern, where Black people are more likely than white people to live in overcrowded housing and near hazardous waste sites. Redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and racial abuse led to the exclusion from clean water in California’s agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley by Black Californians.

Pathologizing the Black family is another consequence of racist government policies. In 2019, Black children made up only 14% of American children. However, 23% of American children were in foster care. This is not because Black children are treated more harshly than white children, but because of the racism and poverty in our society. California has foster care disparities that are higher than the national average.

The report points out the lack of protection for Black artists from discrimination by federal and state governments in control over creative cultural life and intellectual life. They have allowed whites “to steal Black art and culture with impunity” and deprived Black creators of valuable patent and copyright protections. California has criminalized African American rap artists and allowed rap lyrics to be introduced as evidence in cases involving “street gang activity.”

According to one meta-study, employment discrimination against African Americans has not decreased from 1989 to 2014. Today, California’s two primary industries — Hollywood and Silicon Valley — employ disproportionately fewer Black people.

The report also documents the inequities in the legal system, citing the “tough on crime” and War on Drugs era, when politicians criminalized African Americans in order to win elections. That criminalization is “an enduring badge of slavery” and has led to over-policing of Black neighborhoods, the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration of African Americans. “Like the rest of the country, California stops, shoots, kills, and imprisons more African Americans than their share of the population,” the report says.

The report also highlights neglect and mental and physical harm. It states that “race-related stress may have a greater impact on health among African Americans than diet, exercise, smoking, or low socioeconomic status.” Black Californians are more likely to get diabetes, be hospitalized for heart disease, die from cancer, and suffer from psychological distress, depression, suicide ideation and other mental health afflictions than white Californians.

The report also describes the wealth gap between Black Americans and white Americans, both in California and nationally. It describes the history of exclusions of African Americans from Social Security, and the G.I. bill and discrimination within the federal tax structure.

Preliminary Recommendations

The Task Force has made recommendations in the report. The recommendations include deleting language in the California Constitution that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for crime; enactment of legislation prioritizing education, substance use and mental health treatment and rehabilitative programs for incarcerated people; compensation for work performed while in prison; and prisoners’ right to vote.

Other recommendations include making it easier for law enforcement officers, correction officers included, to be held accountable for unlawful harassment or violence; governmental acknowledgment and apology for political defranchisement; legislation that prevents redistricting that dilutes Black Californians’ voting power; elimination of anti Black housing discrimination policies; and low interest rate for qualified Black mortgage applicants.

Other recommendations include eliminating racial bias from standardized testing; free tuition at California colleges and universities; college scholarships to Black high school graduates; as well as requiring inclusion and freedom from bias in curricula.

The report advocates a “K-12 Black Studies curriculum that introduces students to concepts of race and racial identity; accurately depicts historic racial inequities and systemic racism; honors Black lives, fully represents contributions of Black people in society, and advances the ideology of Black liberation.”

In order to address the racial injustice in the criminal legal system, the Task Force recommends the elimination of “discriminatory policing and particularly killings, use of force, and racial profiling of African Americans.” In addition, it recommends eliminating racial disparities in police stops and criminal sentencing, the over-policing of predominantly Black communities, and the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, as well as addressing implicit and explicit bias in the criminal legal system.

The report includes recommendations for compensation of “individuals whose mental and physical health has been permanently damaged by anti-Black healthcare system,” including forced sterilization, medical experimentation, police violence, racist sentencing disparities, environmental racism, and psychological damage from race-related stress.

Finally, the Task Force recommends the implementation of “a detailed program of reparations for African Americans.”

Comprehensive Reparations Plan to Issued Next Year

The Task Force voted to limit the amount of reparations for descendants of African Americans who migrated to the United States in the 19th Century. The Task Force is divided on whether direct cash payments should be included.

If the call to reparations for African Americans succeeds, it will not be an ordinary request. Nikole Hannah Jones’s book notes that The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, the only Americans who have ever received restitution by the government for slavery were white enslavers compensated after the Civil War “for their loss of human property.”

Federal Legislation

Federal level HR 40Former Rep. John Conyers introduced the bill more than three decades ago. It finally has enough votes to be passed in the House according to supporters.

The purpose of the legislation:

To address the inhumanity, cruelty, brutality, inhumanity, and fundamental injustice of slavery in the United States and 13 American colonies between 1619-1865. To establish a commission to examine and consider a national apology for slavery and propose reparations.

But, the Senate’s future for HR 40 is not so bright. Supporters are asking President Joe Biden for an executive order to establish a reparations committee. So far, Biden has refused to respond.

The Civil Rights Movement Continues with the Reparations Movement

In his keynote address to the 2006 Thomas Jefferson School of Law reparations Conference, Conyers said, “The reparations movement is grounded in the civil rights movement and the social justice movements of the 1960s – 1980s.” That struggle has continued in response to the public execution of George Floyd and the ubiquitous police murders of Black people.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, issued a report in June 2021 calling for reparations for victims if systemic racist police violence. She wrote, “Reparatory justice requires a multipronged approach that is grounded in international human rights law,” noting that reparations include not only monetary compensation, but also formal apologies, institutional and educational reforms, and memorialization for violations “linked to truth, justice and guarantees of non-recurrence.”

Bachelet cited the April 2021 reportof the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police violence Against People of African Descent in America, for which I was a rapporteur.

As Margaret A. Burnham states in her forthcoming book, “Ultimately, it all comes down to this: By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners, The collective call for a system to reparations must go beyond individual healing. It must engage wide-ranging social transformations and expose the historical underpinnings racial violence.

Real change is not only about reforms but also about tackling the whole system of white supremacy.