Reparations Revisited


Date published: Mon, 13 February 23

In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom of California signed legislation creating a two-year reparation task force. California stands as the only state to create a plan to study the institution of slavery, its harms, and to educate the public about its findings. The task force is a body of nine individuals responsible for studying what reparations programs can look like. In late March of 2021, the task force voted to limit state compensation to the descendants of free and enslaved Black people who lived in the US in the 19th century, and in June of 2022, the task force released an interim report that looks at California’s history of slavery since the establishment of the state itself in 1950. 

Reparations loosely are a state apologizing for actions against its own citizens and creating a mechanism to apologize, many times, paying money for injustice. Surprisingly, the US has paid reparations to some groups who were harmed by the state. Under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a letter of apology and a check for $20,000 were mailed to over 80,000 people to apologize for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

During World War II, 13% of the Native American population at the time enlisted to serve in the US military. Many served as code talkers and others fought in the European and Pacific theaters. In 1946, Congress created the Indians Claims Commission, an entity created to hear historic grievances and compensate tribes for lost territory. This commission granted $1.3 billion to 176 tribes. On average, however, the funds averaged to $1,000 per person, and were put in trust accounts held by the US government. Further, only in 2009 did the US apologize for what it had characterized as “many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”

The US has yet to tackle any reparations of the enslavement of Africans from the beginning of settler colonialism in the US to today. In 2009, the US apologized for slavery and segregation. However, in a country where systemic racism permeates every aspect of society to harm Black Americans, it is not surprising that reparations have not been paid or acknowledged. 

At the federal level, reparations are invisible. Because of the lack of movement on a federal level, many cities and universities have started introducing committees, commissions, and task forces, as in California, to create a proposal for reparations. 

In 2021, Evanston, Illinois became the first US city to make reparations available to Black residents. The task force in California is almost entirely composed of members who can trace their families back to enslaved ancestors in the US. 

Reparation in the form of compensation can include free college, assistance buying homes and launching businesses, and grants to churches and community organizations. 

On the other side, there are those who oppose reparations as a concept. In California, some say that because the state didn’t practice slavery nor enforce Jim Crow, it shouldn’t have to pay reparations. However, California and local governments were complicit in taking away wages of Black people, seizing property, razing homes, and were not allowed to get bank loans to purchase homes. Black residents make up 5% of California’s population but around 28% of the California prison population is made up of Black people – symbolizing and showcasing how racism works in the legal and judicial systems. In the interim report published by the Californian reparations task force, it was found that the 13th Amendment empowered Congress to “remove all badges and incidents of slavery in the United States,” and that California created new types of harm that have accumulated over the years against Black Americans. 

The interim report further expresses recommendations for the Californian state to consider, including, but not at all limited to, the following: 

  • Pass legislation that makes education, substance use and mental health treatment, and rehabilitative programs the first priority for incarcerated people . In addition, allow incarcerated people to make decisions regarding how they will spend their time and which programs and jobs they will do while incarcerated .
  •  Require that incarcerated people who are work- ing in prison or jail be paid a fair market rate for their labor .
  • Estimate the value of Black-owned businesses and property in California stolen or destroyed through acts of racial terror, distribute this amount back to Black Californians, and make housing grants, ze- ro-interest business and housing loans and grants available to Black Californians .
  • Require legislative policy committees to conduct racial impact analyses of all proposed legislation and require the Administration to include a comprehensive racial impact analysis for all budget proposals and proposed regulations .
  • Compensate individuals forcibly removed from their homes due to state action, including but not limited to park construction, highway construction, and urban renewal .
  • Provide funding for free tuition to California colleges and universities .
  • Ensure that state and local allocation of resources to public transit systems is equitable on a per-rider ba- sis for methods of transit that are disproportionately utilized by low-income, urban, and Black residents .
  • Address the severely disparate involvement of Black families within the child welfare and foster care systems .
  • Access the full recommendations list here.

On the federal level, a bill was introduced to Congress in 2021 regarding a formation of a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.The bill further prods an examination of slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present, and to recommend appropriate remedies. 

“The commission shall identify (1) the role of the federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African Americans and society.” 

The bill has not been voted on, but you can call your representatives and ask them to endorse the bill. Furthermore, you can get involved locally and demand for local authorities to give reparations for Black Americans!