California group votes to limit reparations to descendants of slaves

California’s first reparations task force decided to limit state compensation to descendants of free and enslaved black people who were in the United States in the 19th century, narrowly rejecting a proposal to include all black people, whatever their lineage.

Tuesday’s vote split 5-4, and the hours-long debate was testy and emotional at times. Towards the end, Reverend Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP and vice-chairman of the task force, pleaded with the commission to move forward with a clear definition of who would be eligible for restitution. .

“Please, please, please, I’m begging us tonight, take the first step,” he said. “We must give emergency treatment where it is needed.”

Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year reparations task force in 2020, making California the only state to move forward with a study and a plan, with a mission to study the institution of slavery and its evils and to educate the public about its findings.

Reparations at the federal level came to nothing, but cities and universities are taking up the issue. The mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, announced a city commission in February while the city of Boston is considering a proposal to form its own reparations commission.

The Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, became the first US city to offer reparations to black residents last year, though some say the program did nothing to right a wrong.

The California task force members – nearly all of whom can trace their families to slave ancestors in the United States – were aware that their deliberations on a critical issue will shape reparations discussions across the country. Members were appointed by the governor and the leaders of the two legislative houses.

Proponents of a lineage approach said a compensation and restitution plan based on genealogy rather than race was the best way to survive a legal challenge. They also opened up eligibility to free blacks who immigrated to the country before the 20th century, given the potential difficulties in documenting family history and the risk when becoming enslaved.

Other members of the task force argued that reparations should include all black people in the United States who suffer from systemic racism in housing, education and employment and said they defined eligibility too early in the process.

Civil rights attorney and task force member Lisa Holder offered to ask economists working with the task force to use California’s roughly 2.6 million black residents to calculate compensation while they continue to hear from the public.

“We have to galvanize the base and it’s the black people,” she said. “We cannot go into this reparations proposal without having every African American in California behind us.”

But Kamilah Moore, a lawyer and chair of the task force, said expanding eligibility would create its own cracks and go beyond the committee’s purpose.

“It will hurt the victims of the institution of slavery, who are the direct descendants of slaves in the United States,” she said. “It goes against the spirit of the law as written.”

The committee is not even a year into its two-year process and there is no compensation plan of any kind on the table. Longtime advocates have spoken of the need for multi-faceted remedies for related but distinct harms, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and redevelopment that have displaced black communities.

Compensation could include free college education, help buying homes and starting businesses, and grants to churches and community organizations, advocates say.

The question of eligibility has obsessed the task force since its inaugural meeting in June, when viewers called on the nine-member group to devise targeted proposals and cash payments to return the descendants of slaves in the United States whole. .

Chicago resident Arthur Ward called Tuesday’s virtual meeting, saying he was a descendant of slaves and had family in California. He supports reparations based solely on lineage and expressed frustration with the panel’s concerns about black immigrants experiencing racism.

“When it comes to some kind of justice, some kind of recompense, we’re supposed to step back and allow the Caribbean and the African people to come first,” Ward said. “To take so long to decide something that shouldn’t even be a question in the first place is an insult.”

California Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, who voted against limiting eligibility, said there was no doubt the descendants of slaves were the priority, but he said the group work was also to end the ongoing damage and prevent future damage from racism. He said he wanted the panel to stop “bickering” about the money they don’t have yet and start discussing how to close a serious wealth gap.

“We argue about cash payments, which I don’t think is the ultimate solution,” he said.

Critics of the reparations say California has no obligation to pay since the state did not practice slavery and did not enforce Jim Crow laws that separated blacks from whites in southern states.

But testimony provided to the committee shows that California and local governments have been complicit in depriving black people of their wages and property, preventing them from creating wealth to pass on to their children. Their homes were razed for redevelopment, and they were forced to live in majority minority neighborhoods and were unable to obtain bank loans that would enable them to purchase property.

Today, black residents make up 5% of the state’s population, but are overrepresented in jails, jails, and homelessness. And black homeowners continue to face discrimination in the form of home valuations that are significantly lower than if the home was in a white neighborhood or if the homeowners were white, according to reports.

A report is expected by June with a reparations proposal expected by July 2023 for the legislature to consider turning into law.

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