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. In late March, 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.
Before delving deeper into the task force, let’s first understand what reparations are. 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.
In regards to the specific question voted on in late March, there is division over who should receive reparations. On one hand, a lineage approach based on genealogy is said to have a better chance of “surviving a legal challenge,” but others on the task force have argued that reparations should include all Black people in the US, as they suffer from systemic racism in housing, education, and employment.
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.
“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.” Language from H.R.40 – Commi…
On the federal level, a bill was introduced to Congress 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.