After groundbreaking slave reparations report, what next?
Reparations experts and advocates largely welcomed a move by California to publicly document its role in perpetuating discrimination against African Americans but wondered if the slew of recommendations in its report released this week will result in measurable change.
“The danger here is that everyone reads it and nods their heads and waits on the task force to initiate the response,” said Justin Hansford, a longtime reparations advocate and professor of law at Howard, who called the report an exciting development. “We need to have universities, local governments, businesses and others working together to do their part to address some of the recommendations," said Hansford, who also serves as the director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center in Washington, D.C.
The 500-page document released Wednesday details the harms suffered by descendants of enslaved people and how federal, state and local laws, public officials and the courts were active in sustaining systemic racism in all facets of life for African Americans, despite the abolition of slavery in the 19th century.
The California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, which was created by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020, recommended a long list of actions the state can take to address the racial wealth gap, including housing reforms, reducing mass incarceration, creating a state-subsidized mortgage program for qualifying African American applicants and by offering free tuition to California colleges and universities and expanding scholarship opportunities.
“This country has ignored the harmful history the African American community has faced in this country and the inequities the community continues to face for far too long. This is a monumental moment not only for the State of California but the United States," said Rick Callender, president of the California Hawaii State Conference NAACP in Sacramento, California.
“When reports such as these are created for the first time in the nation’s history, they are a compelling model for other states to address the same issues. As California goes, so goes the nation,” Callender said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The task force, which began meeting in June 2021, will release a comprehensive reparations plan next year. The committee voted in March to limit reparations to the descendants of African Americans living in the U.S. in the 19th century, overruling advocates who wanted to expand compensation to all Black people in the U.S.
But activist Yvette Carnell said she worries that the California report and others like it could be used as a scapegoat for the federal government to avoid its responsibility to fund a national reparations movement.
"I'm not opposed to this, because I think it is all for a good reason, but I would rather see these reparations commissions use that as leverage to force the federal government to do something,” said Yvette Carnell, president of ADOS Advocacy Foundation. The Georgia-based grassroots organization, which began in response to a question about Black wealth, has advocated for reparations since 2018.
“My fear is that all of these states will end up maybe doing something and the government at the federal level will say we support local reparations initiatives. When, truthfully, the only government that has trillions of dollars to pour resources into our community and pay us what was owed is the federal government," said Carnell.
Carnell said it feels like the report took every recommendation from Black people around the U.S. and put it all in one report, arguing it could be seen as a “Black agenda.” But she said she wants to see specific efforts to financially repay what was taken from enslaved people and their descendants, not just repaying them by creating the kinds of programs and offices that are recommended in the report.
California was the first state to create a task force on reparations. The Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, became the first city to make reparations available to Black residents last year through a $10 million housing project. Cities and universities have since followed.
Evanston Councilmember Bobby Burns, who is on the city reparations committee, commended California for being the first state to take action.
“No one wants to be the first out of the gate and be the first to endure a level of scrutiny that is almost certain when you are doing anything that is truly transformational," he said. "To have now a state step up ... and not only acknowledge wrongdoing but to provide redress for that harm because they're responsible for it is important in the same way that it is important for a city to take the lead on it.”
Hansford, whose organization provided legal and research support to the city of Evanston, said having local communities tell their stories is important for educating people on why reparations are necessary.
California is home to the fifth-largest Black population in the U.S., after Texas, Florida, Georgia and New York, the report said. An estimated 2.8 million Black people live in California. African Americans make up less than 6% of California’s population, although it is unclear how many are eligible for direct compensation.