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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

California Law Opens Door to Slave Reparations

Updated: Jan 18

Before, during and after the transcontinental railroad's construction from 1863 to 1869, thousands of enslaved blacks and, then, freedmen, and emigrant Chinese graded lines, built bridges and blasted tunnels.


California became the first state to adopt a law to set up a task force to study potential reparations to the descendants of slaves, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Governor Gavin Newsom signed the measure on September 30, the day after President Donald Trump declined to denounce white supremacy in the first debate with presidential hopeful Joe Biden.

“After watching last night’s debate,” said Newsom, according to Deadline. “This signing can’t come soon enough.”

A nine-member committee will make non-binding recommendations as to the form of reparations to more than 2 million African Americans. “The Governor shall call the first meeting of the Task Force to occur no later than June 1, 2021,” the bill states. One year after its first meeting, the committee must submit a report to the state legislature.

“As a nation, we can only truly thrive when every one of us has the opportunity to thrive,” Newsom said in a statement. “California’s rich diversity is our greatest asset, and we won’t turn away from this moment to make right the discrimination and disadvantages that Black Californians and people of color still face.”

The signed bill, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (Democrat-San Diego), directs the study of California’s complicity in slavery by the task force, which will consist of five gubernatorial appointees, two members chosen by the President pro Tempore of the Senate and two by the Speaker of the Assembly. The governor’s appointees will include one member from academia with civil rights expertise and two appointees from major civil society and reparations organizations.

Reparations are controversial, partly because assumptions are made as to their constitution. California’s committee will deliver a concrete and debatable proposal for the state.

The bill, specifically, calls out insurance companies:

“Existing law requests the Regents of the University of California to assemble a colloquium of scholars to draft a research proposal to analyze the economic benefits of slavery that accrued to owners and the businesses, including insurance companies and their subsidiaries, that received those benefits, and to make recommendations to the Legislature regarding those findings.

“Existing law requires the Insurance Commissioner to request and obtain information from insurers licensed and doing business in this state regarding any records of slaveholder insurance policies issued by any predecessor corporation during the slavery era. Existing law requires insurers to research and report to the commissioner on insurance policies that provided coverage for injury to, or death of, enslaved people.”

California entered the United States as a “free state” in 1850, 11 years before the U.S. Civil War. However, its relationship with slavery is much more muddied than that, according to the California Historical Society.

Although the state constitution proclaimed “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of a crime, shall ever be tolerated”, yet the legislature passed a fugitive slave law “specifically targeting Blacks who escaped in California and had not fled from slave states”, according to The Guardian.

Archives statewide contain evidence that slavery was practiced out in the open, according to Deadline. Advertisements for the sale of enslaved people appeared in local newspapers, according to the California Historical Society.

“In 1848 when the gold rush hit, white southerners flocked to the state with hundreds of enslaved Black people, forcing them to toil in gold mines, often hiring them out to cook, serve, or perform a variety of labor,” said Deadline. “Sometimes fortunes were amassed on the backs of this free labor. Yet California’s place in the nation’s history of slavery is missing from most historical accounts and many are surprised to learn of its practice in the golden state.”

In more recent times, racial discrimination has persisted with school segregation and busing in cities, including Los Angeles into the 1970s, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Only last year, the Sausalito Marin City School District received the state’s first desegregation order in 50 years.

For decades, neighborhood-wide racial restrictive covenants prevented African Americans and other ethnic groups from buying properties.

Homeownership is a key factor in accumulating wealth.

In 1963, the California Legislature passed a law that banned discrimination on the basis of race in the sale or rental of public housing or apartments. However, voters overturned the law the following year.

“It was thrown out so we have had housing segregation which, of course, leads to school segregation,” said Charles P. Henry, professor emeritus of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, in the Los Angeles Times. “It leads to not only the absence of living in better neighborhoods, but also having better schools and all the implications that drove from that kind of discrimination. We could go on down the list in terms of criminal justice, et cetera. This history of California has been heavily documented by scholars throughout California and in the nation.”

(In the United States), “black families’ median and mean worth is less than 15 percent that of white families (in 2016),” according to FEDS Notes of the Board of Governors on the Federal Reserve Board of September 27, 2017.

White college graduates have over seven times more wealth than black college graduates, according to Rashan Ray and Andre M. Perry, in Why We Need Reparations for Black Americans, in Policy 2020: Brookings (April 15, 2020).

Governor Newsom said that the new law and bipartisan support for its passage are “a paradigm that we hope will be resonant all across the United States.”

William Darity Jr., co-author of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century (April 2020) with A. Kirsten Mullen, have studied reparations for 30 years. The Duke University economics professor agrees that the creation of a reparations study team will ensure California as a powerful advocate for federal reparations.

However, Darity has reservations about use of the term “reparations”. He believes that reparations should be used to describe a full accounting of the damage of slavery, which only can be accomplished through the federal government.

“I have a sense of propriety 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,” said Darity. “Whatever California does, perhaps, could be called atonement, or it could be called a correction for past actions.”

California law says that state reparations would not be considered a replacement for reparations at the federal level, which have failed to advance for more than a century, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In 1890, the first congressional bill to provide pensions to people who had formerly been enslaved was introduced and failed to pass. In every session since 1989, members of Congress have introduced a resolution to establish a commission to study and develop repatriation proposals.

Weber, the author of the bill, agreed that reparations are the responsibility of the federal government. She said:

“I think it should start at the federal level, but will it? The fact that it didn’t doesn’t mean I need to stand here crying for the next 40, 50 years until it starts at the federal level.”

Last year, state lawmakers proposed a joint resolution to support H.R. 40 and the Path to Restorative Justice, a national congressional bill introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson (Democrat-Texas) to create a federal reparations study commission. Also, last year, the House held a Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the bill, whose next stop is a full committee hearing, followed by a vote in the House.

Also, in 2019, Senator Corey A. Booker (Democrat-New Jersey) introduced a similar bill to the Senate with Representative Ayanna Pressley (Democrat-Massachusetts). In August, the bill had already had 18 cosponsors, wrote Booker, in a letter from his office.

In 2018, Booker introduced the American Opportunity Accounts Act, which would establish federal accounts called “Baby Bonds” of $1,000 at birth for every person born in the United States.

“Money would be added to the account each year depending on the family’s income, so children in less-wealthy families could receive up to $2,000 each year. At age 18, account holders could access the funds in the account for allowable, wealth-building uses like buying a home or paying for educational expenses. According to independent studies, Baby Bonds would considerably narrow the racial wealth gap in the U.S. while simultaneously positioning young people to enter adulthood with more mobility than ever before.”

One of the California task force duties is to put forth a plan to educate the public on its findings. Weber views educating state residents as integral to winning popular support for future federal reparation proposals, partly, by curbing animosity toward repatriation recipients, according to Cal Matters.

“I’m hoping, being an educator, that a lot of this information is shared so that people don’t develop a bad attitude toward African Americans,” said Weber, professor emeritus of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. “(I’m hoping) that the information will be so clear . . . that there would not be this antagonism toward individuals.”

The state bill reads that the task force will deliver several proposals, including:

“How the State of California will offer a formal apology on behalf of the people of California for the perpetuation of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants.”

“What form of compensation should be awarded, through what instrumentalities, and who should be eligible for such compensation.”

Slavery reparations could take various forms, including: individual monetary payments, settlements, scholarships, waiving of fees, and systemic initiatives to offset injustices, land-based compensation related to independence, apologies and acknowledgments of the injustices, according to Allen J. Davis in a University of Massachusetts at Amherst paper.

Scholar Darity believes that payments should be made to people who have identified as black on official documents and who can trace ancestry to an enslaved person in the United States.

Asked about political support for reparations, he said that he was once a skeptic, believing that reparations were justified but doubtful that they would be carried out. However, Darity said that polls have shown an increase in support among whites after the police killing of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd on May 25.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in June, 20 percent of respondents agreed that the United States should use “taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States.” The poll revealed clear divisions along partisan and racial lines.

“Reparations are a program of acknowledgment, redress, and closure for a grievous injustice,” said Darity and Mullen in From Here to Equality.

Four hundred years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia, closure would be embraced by most Americans.

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