California’s first-in-the-nation task force on repairs is at a crossroads, with members divided over which Black Americans should be eligible for compensation as reconciliation for a slave system that officially ended with the Civil War but resounds until today.
Some members want to limit financial and other compensation to descendants of addicted people, while others say that all Black people in the U.S., regardless of descent, suffer from systemic racism in housing, education, and employment. The task force could vote on suitability on Tuesday after postponing it last month.
Governor Gavin Newsom has signed legislation created by the two-year recovery task force in 2020, making California the only state to continue a study and plan, with a mission to study the institution of slavery and its harms, and to educate the public about the findings.
The committee is not even a year into its two-year process and there is no compensation plan of any kind on the table. But there is broad agreement among proponents of the need for versatile drugs for related yet separate harms, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and redevelopment that have led to the displacement of black communities.
Compensation can include free college, help with buying homes and launching businesses and grants to churches and community organizations, advocates say.
Yet the fitness question has plagued the group since its first meeting in June, when viewers called in the nine-member group to devise purposeful proposals and cash payments to heal the descendants of people addicted to the US.
Kamilah Moore, the committee’s chairperson, said she expected strong discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, which would include testimony from genealogists. She prefers fitness based on descent, rather than race, and says it would have the best chance of surviving a legal challenge in a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.
A race-based recovery plan will “attract hyper-aggressive challenges that could have very negative implications for other states that want to do something similar, or even for the federal government,” she said.
“Everyone is looking at what we’re going to do,” she said.
California State Secretary Shirley Weber, who wrote the legislation creating the task force, passionately argued in January for prioritizing descendants for generations of forced labor, broken family ties and police terrorism. The daughter of accomplices forced to flee Arkansas in the dead of night, she remembered how the legacy of slavery broke her family and delayed their ability to dream of anything beyond survival.
Opening compensation to Black immigrants or even descendants of slaves from other countries would leave American descendants with mere pennies, she said.
But members at February’s meeting – almost all of whom can trace their families back to addicted ancestors – questioned the need to rush to a crucial question related to the formation of recovery deliberations across the country.
Task Force member Lisa Holder shared a moving story that she lost her child during birth because medical staff did not take seriously the concerns of a young Black woman who knew something was wrong with her baby, she said. In the US, black mothers are much more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women.
“No one asked me if my ancestors were addicted to the United States or if they were addicted to Jamaica or if they were addicted to Barbados,” said Holder, a civil rights lawyer. “We have to accept this concept that black lives matter, not just a piece of those black lives, because black lives are in danger, especially today.”
Critics say California has no obligation to pay up, as the state did not practice slavery and did not enforce Jim Crow laws that separated Black people from white people in the southern states.
But evidence given to the committee shows that California and local governments were complicit in robbing Black people of their wages and property, which prevented them from building up wealth to pass on to their children. Their homes were destroyed for redevelopment, and they were forced to live in predominantly minority neighborhoods and could not get bank loans that would enable them to buy property.
Today, black residents make up 5% of the state’s population, but are overrepresented in prisons, prisons and homeless populations. And black homeowners continue to face discrimination in the form of home valuations that are significantly lower than when the home was in a white neighborhood or the homeowners are white, according to evidence.
Nkechi Taifa, director of the Reparation Education Project, is one of longtime advocates who is delighted that the discussion has become mainstream. But she was stunned by the idea of limiting damages to people who could show descent when ancestors were not easy to document and slave owners regularly moved people between plantations in the US, the Caribbean and South America.
“I think I tend to be more inclusive rather than exclusive,” she said, “and maybe it’s a fear of limitation, that there is not enough money to go around.”
California lawmaker Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a member of the task force, said there was no doubt that descendants of slaves were the priority, but he said the task force should also stop ongoing damage and prevent future damage by racism.
“It’s in the system, it’s in our laws. “This is how we treat each other, this is how we talk to each other,” he said. “And no amount of money will make it go away.”
A report must be submitted by June with a recovery proposal payable by July 2023 for the Legislature to consider changing into law.