California’s slavery reparations movement took a major step forward with the release Wednesday (June 1) of a document that makes the case for an official government apology and restitution for African Americans, The Associated Press reports.
The report details discriminatory policies and practices the descendants of enslaved people suffered that continue to impact them today, including the areas of housing, education and the criminal justice system.
“Four hundred years of discrimination has resulted in an enormous and persistent wealth gap between Black and white Americans,” the report states.
“These effects of slavery continue to be embedded in American society today and have never been sufficiently remedied. The governments of the United States and the State of California have never apologized to or compensated African Americans for these harms.”
Although California entered the union as a free state in 1850, the early state government supported slavery, according to the report. An estimated 1,500 enslaved African Americans lived in the state in 1852, working under dangerous conditions and subjected to violence. In that year, California passed and enacted a harsher version of the federal fugitive slave law, which mandated the return of escaped slaves to their owners.
“To have an official detail of these histories coming from the state is important. I know a lot of people say we don’t need to keep doing studies, but the reality is until it comes from some source that people think is objective, then it is going to be harder to convince everybody of some of the inequalities described,” Justin Hansford, a Howard University law professor and director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, told the AP.
In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted legislation that created the two-year reparations task force to study the institution of slavery and its harms and to educate the public about its findings.
"As a nation, we can only truly thrive when every one of us has the opportunity to thrive. Our painful history of slavery has evolved into structural racism and bias built into and permeating throughout our democratic and economic institutions," Newsome commented when signing the legislation.
The governor on Wednesday applauded his state for leading the country on a long-overdue discussion of racial justice and equity, the AP reports. It marks the first government-commissioned study on harms against the African American community since the 1968 Kerner Commission report.
In March, the task force considered the thorny issue of reparations eligibility for the state’s Black residents. The task force members voted 5-4 to limit compensation for slavery to the descendants of free and enslaved Black people living in the United States in the 19th century.
That means Black Californians with a lineage of immigration from the Caribbean or Africa would be ineligible to receive reparations. Advocates for wider eligibility point out that the history of slavery is complex in terms of proving lineage. Ancestry is not easy to document, partly because slave owners frequently moved their enslaved people among plantations in the U.S., the Caribbean and South America.
Meanwhile, it’s still unclear exactly what reparations would look like in California. Proposals for compensation include free college, assistance buying homes and grants to community-based organizations. Although monetary compensation is explored in the document, no specific monetary amount was established.
Attempts to pass similar reparations legislation have failed at the federal level. At the city level, Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb, in 2021 became the first city to make reparations available to Black residents. There are no direct cash payments involved. Compensation for slavery includes funding housing programs.
Looking ahead, the task force plans to release a comprehensive reparations plan next year that includes recommendations for compensation, as well as crafting an official state apology.