A first-in-the-country task force in California to study and recommend reparations for African Americans is conducting its inaugural meeting, launching a two-year process to address the harms of slavery and systemic racism.
Tuesday's meeting of the first state reparations committee in the U.S. came as President Joe Biden commemorated the lives of hundreds of Black people killed by a white mob in what was then a thriving African-American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a century ago. It also comes just over a year after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer in Minnesota.
A federal slavery reparations bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee in April, but it faces steep odds. The bill, commonly referred to as H.R. 40, was first introduced in Congress in 1989 and refers to the failed government effort to provide 40 acres (16 hectares) of land to newly freed slaves as the Civil War wound down.
Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who as a state assemblywoman authored the state legislation creating the task force, noted the solemnity of the occasion as well as the opportunity to right an historic wrong that continues today, in the form of large racial disparities in wealth, health and education. African Americans make up just 6% of California's population yet were 30% of an estimated 250,000 people experiencing homelessness who sought help in 2020.
"Your task is to determine the depth of the harm, and the ways in which we are to repair that harm," said Weber, whose parents were sharecroppers forced to leave the South.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who signed the bill into law last year, issued a formal apology to Native American tribal leaders in 2019. He also announced the creation of a council to examine the state's role in campaigns to exterminate and exploit indigenous people in the state.
Critics have said California did not have slaves and should not have to study reparations — or pay for it. But Weber said the state is an economic powerhouse that can point the way for a federal government that has been unable to address the issue. It would not replace any reparations agreed to by the federal government.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation providing $20,000 in redress and a formal apology to every surviving Japanese American incarcerated during World War II.
Members of the task force pointed out Black Americans have heard all their lives they need to improve themselves, yet the truth is that they have been held back by outright racism and discriminatory laws that prevented them from getting conventional bank loans and purchasing homes.
Slavery might not have flourished in California as it did in Southern states, they said, but African Americans were still treated harshly. Their neighborhoods in San Francisco and Los Angeles were razed in the name of development.
"We have lost more than we have ever taken from this country; we have given more than has ever been given to us," said task force member and state Sen. Steven Bradford. He would like to model a reparations program on the GI bill, allowing for free college and assistance with home-buying.
The nine task force members, appointed by Newsom and leaders of the Legislature, include the descendants of slaves who are now prominent lawyers, academics and politicians.
The task force also will craft an apology.
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