As discussions about reparations for Black Americans gain some ground, the first state with a task force on the issue is hearing that it needs to think bigger.
African Americans in California have been telling the state’s reparations task force that a one-time payout would mean little if they don’t have equal access to education, employment, health care or housing. A payment, they said, wouldn’t stop the over-policing of their neighborhoods or the disproportionate Black Californians in the state’s prison system.
“We’re due reparations — what we want is wealth,” said Malcome Morgan, who also goes by Malcolme Muttaqee, a San Diego resident and organizer with Pillars of the Community and the California Black Power Network, during the task force’s most recent meeting in the city. “Good health, generational wealth, knowledge in the form of good quality education. A payout is a good place to start, but it’s not the definition of true wealth.”
Indeed, the vast majority of recommendations by the state task force appointed to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans will likely look beyond just monetary compensation to address the lasting harms of slavery and systemic racism, according to task force members.
“Reparations is more than financial compensation,” California Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who sits on the task force, said in an interview. “Financial compensation will have an inertia that is immediate. The other things that we’re looking at will have generational change.”
Better educational opportunities, major reform to the criminal justice system, and policies to address political disenfranchisement, housing inequities and health disparities are among the systemic changes the task force expects to recommend.
The United Nations has outlined five conditions that must be met for full reparations. Compensation is just one of them.
The other are assurances that harm won’t be repeated, rehabilitation like medical or psychological care, satisfaction that can include formal apologies for the damage done and reversing the wrongful acts.
“The check won’t solve everything because of how the system is made to drain Black wealth, whether it be through taxes, liens, police systemically pulling people over, insurance companies, health debt,” said Kwesi Chappin, reparations program director for the Decolonizing Wealth Project, which supports reparatory justice initiatives across the country. “The government must address those harms — not just with a check, but how do you change the system so Black folks are able to have a tangible better life?”
Ending modern-day slavery
One of the things the task force hopes to push is the end of a type of modern-day slavery within the state’s prison system: forced prison labor.
California’s Constitution, like many states, outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime.” In 2022, the California Legislative Black Caucus tried to remove this language but couldn’t get enough votes in the state Senate.
One of the task force’s draft proposals calls for closing 10 prisons in the state and using the savings to support a new state agency, a Freedmen’s Bureau, which would oversee and monitor any future reparations legislation as well as process reparations claims.
“The message of slavery is within the public safety realm,” said Jones-Sawyer. “That’s why it has to be put into reparations.”
Mass incarceration is one of the five categories of harm inflicted on African Americans by the state of California, according to the task force. It seemed top of mind for many members of the public attending the task force’s last meeting.
“Here I am, in my 30s, and I was enslaved by the California Department of Corrections,” Muttaqee said. “We see generational trauma via mass incarceration, chattel slavery. You know, to-may-to, to-mah-to.”
A check, Muttaqee said later in an interview, isn’t “going to change the overpolicing of people who get reparations.”
Other speakers relived the moments when they or their relatives were profiled or abused by police.
“These issues are ecospheric in nature,” said Task Force Chair Kamilah Moore in an interview. “If you lived in an environment that was overpoliced, what did that do to your mental health? To your economic position?”
Task force member Lisa Holder presented a proposal to include in the recommendations policies that make the criminal legal system more equitable.
“Again, reparations is not just about a check,” Holder said during the January meeting. “It’s about rehabilitating these systems that have exacted a tremendous amount of harm against Black people. We have to change these systems.”
One of the reforms that Holder suggested is strengthening the provisions of the California Racial Justice Act, which allows individuals to challenge racial bias in criminal charges, convictions and sentences. Holder recommended changes to the law’s uniformity and better data collection to increase prosecutorial transparency. She also proposed creating a Racial Justice Act Commission to track, audit, monitor and analyze that data, focusing on racial profiling in the prosecution of cases.
But amid all the talk of ending mass incarceration and reforming the criminal justice system, African Americans incarcerated in California’s prisons are largely cut off from the task force’s work. Khansa Jones-Muhammed, co-chair of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants and a member of Los Angeles’ Reparations Advisory Commission, said that needed to change.
“Inmates do not have access to these hearings,” Jones-Muhammed told task force members. “There have been no efforts to provide inmates with an email or physical mailing address to provide public comment to this body. Inmates cannot access state websites.”
Task force members acknowledged that this was a shortcoming that they wanted to try to address in the few months they had left before presenting their final recommendations.
Moore said of the thousands of public emails the task force has received, only one has come from someone who is incarcerated. He wanted assistance with a DNA test to see if he was eligible for reparations. In partnership with a community organization, Moore recently visited Lancaster State Prison and was able to speak with some people there about the reparations work. But all the commissioners want to get more input from incarcerated Californians.
“I’m currently thinking through how to do that,” Moore said. “Hopefully we’re able to get a critical mass of engagement from incarcerated people.”
Jones-Muhammed bringing that up “was like an aha moment,” Jones-Sawyer said. He noted that he had an upcoming visit to Donovan State Prison related to his work as a legislator and would ask about reparations while there.
A new wave of the reparations movement
The state’s task force was created by 2020 legislation authored by now-Secretary of State Shirley Weber. In June, the task force issued an interim report detailing the harm inflicted on African Americans by the government. It divided these harms into five categories: housing discrimination, mass incarceration, unjust property seizures, the devaluation of Black businesses and unequal health care.
The group’s final report, due later this year, will include recommendations for the state’s legislators to carry out if they so choose.
Weber said that when she put forth the bill to start these reparation efforts in 2020, she knew the state had a legislature that would support the effort and that California had the resources to accomplish it.
“If we can demonstrate, which we can and we have, that racism and slavery existed in California, all the way from the Mason-Dixon line on the East Coast … it proves that this issue is systemic and across the nation,” Weber said at the task force’s most recent meeting. “It’s not just confined to slave states. The damage is across the nation.”
The state’s task force isn’t the first attempt at reparations in the country. But it’s the broadest of any current effort — and across the nation, people are watching.
Chappin said the scope of California’s reparations task force work is beyond anything proposed before it. He hopes the federal government and other states and localities will look to California as a model.
Evanston, Illinois, became the first U.S. city in 2021 to make reparations available for Black residents, but the effort was more limited, offering housing grants.
In January U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, reintroduced federal reparations legislation that would establish a commission to consider reparations proposals for African American descendants of slavery. Similar bills have been introduced in Congress over the last three decades without success.
In December, the Boston City Council voted to form a task force to study reparations and other forms of atonement to Black residents for the city’s role in slavery and its legacy of inequality. Public officials in Asheville, North Carolina, New York state and several other places around the country are also creating commissions to work on reparations.
“California just skimmed the surface,” Chappin said. “They only had a couple of years and did a lot. I’m now looking at the federal government, at President Biden.”
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