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California lawmakers take action on reparations

 March 6, 2024 at 1:41 PM PST

S1: It's time for Midday Edition on Kpbs. For today's show , we're talking about California's latest bill package on reparations. I'm Jade Hindman. Here's the conversations that keep you informed , inspired , and make you think. The case for reparations.

S2: We're talking about repairing generations of harm. When we're talking about reparations. And that's why it's more than just a check.

S1: Assembly Member Akilah Weber tells us about the bill she authored and the bill still to come from California's Legislative Black Caucus. Plus , two L.A. columnists join us to talk about reparations as a possible solution for homelessness. That's ahead on Midday Edition. Welcome in San Diego. It's Jade Hindman today. We're talking about the latest bills for reparations and how reparations could actually be a solution to homelessness. This is Kpbs Midday Edition. Connecting our communities through conversation. The California Legislative Black Caucus has introduced a package of bills on the subject of reparations , which they call a starting point to address our state's legacy of discrimination. The package is based on last year's recommendations from a first in the Nation Reparations Task Force , which spent two years researching systemic harms against descendants of slavery. The 14 bills cover everything from criminal justice to protective hairstyles , but none of the proposed bills include direct cash payments. A point of controversy for some reparations advocates. Today on the show , we'll discuss the bills and the broader conversation around reparations in California. Also , the link between reparations and solving the state's homelessness crisis. We're joined now by Sophie Austin , a reporter for the Associated Press who covers California government and politics. Sophie , welcome. Hi.

S3: Hi. Thanks for having me. Glad you're. Here.

S1: Here. So. All right , Sophie , bring us up to speed with the latest package of reparations legislation. I understand these proposals are years in the making. So what is the significance of this package ? Sure.

S3: Yeah. So this is a package of more than a dozen bills that the California Legislative Black Caucus introduced earlier this year. And some of the proposals included in this package were already circulating through the legislature last year. So that includes a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that would get rid of an exemption to involuntary servitude. The goal of that is to combat prisoners from from being forced to work for wages that are often less than a dollar an hour. It also includes newer proposals , like you were mentioning. For example , there's a proposal from state Senator Stephen Bradford , who's a Democrat representing the Los Angeles area who introduced a bill to create a whole new agency to process , uh , reparations claims to help black families do genealogical research and carry out some of the other recommendations that that the Reparations Task Force came up with.

S1: Well , and notably , this bill package does not include direct cash payments. And we'll discuss that later with Assembly member Akilah Webber. But another thing I want to talk about is skepticism among black voters. A Washington Post poll last spring found 75% of black Americans absolutely think the government should compensate descendants of chattel slavery , but just 14% believe it'll actually happen in their lifetime. This is something you've reported on.

S3: And so we wrote a story last year after the Reparations Task force , um , put out its final recommendations for for how they think the state should atone for its legacy of discriminatory policies against African Americans. And so we were asking black residents and advocates for their thoughts on the recommendations coming from the task force and what they think will happen with them if they think that they will come to fruition. And kind of a common theme that that we were hearing was that they were concerned that this would become kind of another broken promise from public officials saying that we're going to do something to offer recompense for discrimination and not actually see it come to fruition. Yeah. And I guess.

S1: A lot of that skepticism stems from once emancipation happened. Descendants of enslaved people were promised 40 acres in a mule for reparations. That never happened. But actual slave holders instead were given reparations , uh , for the for the ending of slavery. So that's something that really sticks in a lot of people's mind.

S3: Some of the bills would have to be acted on by voters before going into effect. For example , the proposal to allow the state to change its constitution to get rid of exemptions to involuntary. Servitude , and the proposal to allow for exemptions to the state's , um , affirmative action policy. That's something that voters would take up in November of this year. But in general , if their bills that are successful and get signed into law by September of this year , a lot of them could take effect as soon as January 1st of 2025. That being said , a lot of proposals that move through the legislature aren't successful the first time around , and sometimes they take 2 or 3 times to to end up garnering enough support to pass. So that's something we'll have to just wait and see.

S1: Sophie Austin is a reporter for the Associated Press covering California government and politics. Sophie , thank you so much for joining us today.

S3: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

S1: Coming up , we sit down with Assembly member Akilah Webber , who is secretary with the California Legislative Black Caucus.

S2: When a harm is done , when a wrong is done , you know you must repair it. And , you know , black Americans and fortunately , those who are descendants of slavery here have not yet received it. And so it is only the right thing to do.

S1: Stay with us , Kpbs Midday edition is back after the break. Welcome back to Midday Edition. I'm your host , Jade Hindman. We continue our discussion on the 14 bill reparations package introduced last month by the California Legislative Black Caucus. I'm joined now by Akilah Weber , assembly member for California's 79th Assembly district. She represents voters in la mesa , Lemon Grove , Spring Valley , leprosy in parts of the cities of El Cajon and San Diego. Assembly Member Weber , thank you so much for joining us today.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: Glad you're here. You're a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus , which introduced the package of reparations bills we're discussing today. It's been a long road to get here. What's the process been like ? Well , yes.

S2: I am a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus. I'm actually currently the secretary for our caucus , and it has been a very long road. This this started many , many years ago with now Secretary of State Doctor Shirley Weber , who at the time was on the Assembly when she introduced the bill that actually kind of got , uh , this whole discussion rolling by establishing the California Reparations Task Force. So in June , they released their report and gave the responsibility over to the California Legislative Black Caucus to then take it. It's kind of like a relay where my mom started it. Uh , the task force took it , and now we have the baton and the California Legislative Black Caucus. And so , you know , that is a report very , very thorough. It is , um , a document that I have told everybody that they need to read at a minimum , the executive summary , uh , it is truly something that California should be proud of that we were able to create.


S2: And even in this situation. So we were the first to establish a California reparations task force. New York has finally , uh , passed one as well recently. So they're just in the baby stages. Um , and so everyone is really looking towards California , um , not only in this nation , but if you look at some of the African countries like Ghana , they're starting to talk about reparations as well , and having conferences and inviting individuals from the California Reparations Task Force to come down and talk about what it is that we have started here in California. So the world is watching to see how will California be able to tackle this issue of reparations that has not been successful yet at a federal level.

S1: And , you know , there seems to be a lack of understanding or awareness around what reparations are and and why they're necessary. So for our listeners who might be unfamiliar , can you walk us through the argument for reparations here in California ? Yeah.

S2: And that's a that's a really good point. And thank you for that question. Because there there is a lot of question like , well , California didn't play a role in slavery. I didn't play a role in slavery. You weren't a slave. Why are we talking about this right now ? And so when you think about reparations , but at the core of reparations is to repair harm that was done. That is exactly the way in which the report looked at it. What has been the harm as a result of the enslavement of Africans in this country , in this state as well , despite the fact that California was brought in as a free state , it did allow for slavery to occur. When you look and you see , um , certain things like redlining , right , um , that certain communities were allowed to flourish and others were not. Uh , what has that resulted in ? What harm has that resulted in ? When you look at the fact that black Californians had their land taken , you know , stated , oh , this is a blighted community , we're going to take this over and now build a park 40 years later. But what has that loss of land resulted in the the inability to create generational wealth ? When you look at our school systems , California's laws stated that it was legal to have separate education. That was before 20 years before Plessy versus Ferguson. And so when you look at those policies that were created , yes , we no longer state that. But the report lays out that California is still the sixth most segregated state when it comes to African American students. So we're talking about repairing generations of harm when we're talking about reparations. And that's why it's more than just a check. It's more than just a focus on land. You've got to tackle everything that has been impacted , whether it's homeownership , civil rights , education , criminal justice reform , health , environmental issues , all of those things are a direct result of slavery and have disproportionately impacted descendants of slavery. Here in California.

S1: And the first step you've taken in efforts to address those harms is to author the resolution ACR 135 Assembly Concurrent Resolution 135. It formally acknowledges the human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants. Why is this piece of legislation important to reparations efforts ? Yes.

S2: So the first thing before you can even start to talk about how are we going to repair a harm , is to acknowledge that a harm has been done. If you don't know about the role that California played. Then the question is always there. Why are we talking about this in California ? So the first step is learning and recognizing and acknowledging the role that we played in these harms. And so that's why the resolution was the was the first step. That is the foundation. So we can start from here. Because if you're not here we cannot even get to the place where we start talking about how we're going to fix it. Then the next step is to apologize. And that is with anything. You know , if you wronged someone , you acknowledge that and you apologize. I , I apologize for the fact that I did X , Y , and Z. I acknowledge my part in this situation and I apologize for that. And so once we get past the acknowledgement and the apology , then we can start talking about some of the other legislative policies that that are a part of the package.

S1: And I want to talk about some of that. I want to ask you about your bill , AB 1815. Um , and this one has to do with natural and protective hairstyles and youth sports.

S2: So first of all , California was the first state in the nation to pass the Crown Act , which was SB 188 , which prohibited racial discrimination in schools , workplace. As far as your ability to , uh , your dress and your hair. However , it did not cover non-school extracurricular types of sporting events. And I'm a mom of two boys that are very active in sports , and they've never played sports for school. They always are in a league. A lot of their friends are in travel or club. I want them to be able to wear their hair however they want to wear it naturally without there being any kind of discrimination. And we've seen clips and videos and stories across the country where people are like on a wrestling match and having to cut their locks before the match. That is not only traumatic , it is also unnecessary because this is a part of who that particular individual is and their culture. And so we want to ensure that here in California , whether you're at school , whether you're at work , whether you're playing amateur sports or club sports , that you don't have to worry about having to change your hair in order to be able to participate. Mhm.

S1: Mhm.

S2: This is essentially a newer form of slavery for those who are incarcerated. And nowhere here in California should we have in our Constitution the fact that we allow for slavery , whether someone is incarcerated or not. Similarly , AB 280 by Assemblymember Holden restricts solitary confinement. It is not only physically detrimental , it is mentally detrimental. It is honestly barbaric. The way in which we treat , uh , these individuals within solitary confinement and there are no restrictions on who can go there , meaning that pregnant patients can be sentenced to voluntary confinement. Those who are , um , disabled or differently abled can also be sent to solitary confinement. Another one , from a health standpoint , is AB 1975 , which would essentially make food as medicine. So , uh , make medically supportive food and nutritional interventions a permanent part of Medi-Cal benefits here in California. Unfortunately , um , you know , the black community , along with other , uh , minority communities , are disproportionately impacted by living in food deserts , um , being unable to purchase the healthier options for foods , along with some other issues within their communities and within their framework that ultimately make them sick and decrease their overall life expectancy. So , you know , when you look at our 14 bill package , even though it deals with reparations , it is actually something that not only improves lives. Lives of black Californians , but it actually improves the lives of all California. Right.

S4: Right.

S1: Um , I want to ask you about something the bill package does not have , and that's direct cash payments. Some critics are saying that's a non-negotiable part of reparations.

S2: And so , to me , there is no question about whether or not there needs to be some kind of financial , um , compensation at some point. This particular bill package does not have that in it for a couple of reasons. One , we need to make sure that we're establishing a agency that can actually determine who is eligible and who is not eligible. That's number one. Number two , before we start giving out money , we need to ensure that we have other policies and procedures in place so that we're dealing with issues of redlining and lack of the inability to get home loans and working on our education system so that when you have the money , you're able to keep it , allow it to grow so that it doesn't just impact one person and one generation , that it is able to grow and be multigenerational. So if I get it , I want my great grandkids to be able to benefit from it as well. And there's a lot of work that we need to do before we can actually get to that point. So it's not a part of this bill package. It will be something that the caucus fights for in the future. But there's a lot of groundwork that we need to do before we get to that point. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. Um , you know , I want to talk about this , too. Some polls also show reparations , skepticism , um , among Latino and Asian American voters in California.

S2: You are. That's that's what it is. Because , you know , I am I'm a native San Diego and I'm a native Californian. And I grew up honestly with kind of a chip on my shoulder that , you know , California is better than every other state. And even though both of my parents are from the South , my mother is from Arkansas , my father is from Louisiana. I always felt like it was the South that did this. And that's not us here in California. We did not engage in those kind of behaviors and therefore did not have all of these subsequent , um , repercussions as a result of , you know , slavery and slave mentality. And so it is not surprising that people don't think that we need to have this conversation here in California. And that's where education comes into play. That is where the brilliance of the report comes into play. And so we in the caucus understand that , and we have committed to increasing the education this year. We are going to have a listening tour up and down the state , um , where we will be coming into these different communities , educating people on the , uh , the role that California played and also the fact that we have given reparations to essentially , you know , everyone outside of of of black individuals , you know , Japanese got reparations. The Jewish individuals have received a form of reparations. When a a harm is done , when a wrong is done , you know , you must repair it. And black Americans , unfortunately , those who are descendants of slavery here , um , have not yet received it. And so it is only the right thing to do. But a part of that comes into education in of what we did and why we must stand up. We and Californians reap the benefits of what has happened in the past. Um , and so we also bear the responsibility to repair some of the wrongs.

S1: Assembly Member Webber , thank you so much for joining us.

S2: Thank you so much for having me. This was a great conversation.

S1: Still ahead , we talk with L.A. times columnist Erica Smith and Anita Chhabria on the role of reparations in addressing California's homelessness crisis. The idea of cash payments is the most is like the epitome of saying , no , our system isn't fair.

S3: And we.

S1: Have to actually make that right. You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. You're listening to Midday Edition on Kpbs. I'm Jade Hindman. Today we're talking about the latest reparations legislation package introduced by California legislators. A recent Los Angeles Times column made the case for solving California's homelessness issue through reparations , and how the two are inextricably linked. Joining me now are the authors of that column , L.A. times columnist Erica Smith. Erica , welcome.

S4: Thank you for having me.

S1: So glad to have you here. Also , Anita Chhabria , welcome to you. Thank you.

S5: It's great to be here.

S1: Great to have you both. Anita , I'll start with you. Tell us about the research out of UC San Francisco that inspired your column on homelessness and reparations.

S5: Well , for a number of years , the Benioff school there has been doing some of the deepest surveys of homelessness , not just in California but in the country. They put out a report earlier this year that really gave us an overview of homelessness in California and who that was. And coming out of that survey , we understood for the first time , really , that a lot of the people on our streets are older , their senior citizens who were forced out of their homes based on one life event , like an illness or the loss of a job. And what this latest research shows is that a disproportionate amount of those people are also black Californians. So we really see for the first time that black people in California are bearing the brunt of homelessness. Mhm.

S4: Mhm.

S1: And I mean , you write that in your column that black people are vastly overrepresented in the homelessness or the homeless population , rather.

S5: In our homeless population , 26% of people living on the street are black. And I just really want to stress again that , you know , we are so quick always to say that those on the street are , uh , mentally ill or suffering from addiction. But one thing that this study really found is that among that percentage of black people , that , uh , addiction was actually less than the overall population of homeless people. And that , again , we see a lot of senior citizens on the street. And really , what is at the heart of this is a precarious poverty to begin with that really cannot withstand one setback before becoming homeless. Wow.

S4: Wow.

S1: You know , and those numbers really mirror what we're seeing here in San Diego , with 6% of the population being black and then 27% representing the unhoused population.

S4: I mean , I think that one of the things that came up in the state's reparations task force was housing discrimination. And we've seen that in terms of redlining , um , in terms of racial covenants. Um , were basically black people were , uh , forbidden from basically buying homes in specific neighborhoods. You know , when their homes were bought , they were devalued. Um , coming from , you know , government policies , all the federal government , all the way down through the state. Um , and so people were not able to accrue generational wealth , which is something we see. And we've talked a lot about Anita and I in our columns looking at the poverty rate among African Americans in California and nationally , and seeing how that connection , given the fact that most Americans still build their wealth through property. Um , another part of what the Reparations Task Force talked a lot about was kind of , uh , property takings is the phrase that's used. But really what we're talking about is government and eminent domain , where you have the government to have a city or a county coming in and taking property that belonged to African-Americans , seizing it , um , and then building something else on it or holding it. We saw that in the famous case at Bruce's Beach , where you had the owners of what was a black nightclub , you know , that was seized by the city of Manhattan Beach but a century ago and basically turned into a public park. Um , and so there's a lot of these cases. That one got a lot of attention. But there are cases like that all over the state and all over the country , and they all feed into this idea of , you know , that you have a disproportionate number of black people who do not have property , who do not have wealth. And as Anita mentioned , kind of can are one mistake or one one thing away from homelessness.

S1: Anita , you make the case in the op ed that direct cash payments through reparations would help solve the issue of homelessness. Walk me through that reasoning.

S5: You know , it's so interesting because that really was one of the recommendations from UCSF. And so what I find so fascinating about that is that you are now seeing these really highly respected researchers coming to this conclusion after years of study , that it is these cash. Payments. That might be the thing that we need in order to fix homelessness. And the reason they came to that conclusion was that their research has found that it really , as much as addiction and mental illness are real , and we have to deal with that segment of the population. There is a large chunk of folks on the street who just need cash to get out of homelessness. That's it. It's really , really expensive to get into an apartment once you've once you've lost housing because no one wants to give you an apartment , right ? You have to have first months , last months. And if you have poor credit , there's all kinds of other costs that come with that. And so the researchers found that either a lump sum that got you back into a house or an ongoing , uh , like , basic kind of income really could be the defining thing , could be the thing that actually changes outcomes.

S1: Erica , do you have anything to add to that ? Yeah.

S4: I mean , one of the things we've seen , I mean , the idea of a guaranteed income or a basic income and which is in some ways another way of saying cash payments , um , you know , that was like a foreign concept. And people get really upset about that. We've seen that in the context of the broader reparations debate. But , you know , it was only a few years ago during the pandemic , that a lot millions of Americans got a check from the federal government to use for whatever purposes they wanted. And a lot of people pay bills with it. Um , we've had a series of ongoing guaranteed income experiments here in the state of California , largely stopped starting in Stockton. And one , one of the things that have come out of that research in many cities is that people who are recipients of this cash use it to pay bills. They use it to meet the basic needs that they don't have. And a lot of times it helps them stay out of homelessness or to keep their job. And so , you know , I was fascinated personally that the researchers came up with that , particularly because the idea of cash payments or a guaranteed income has been sucked into this broader debate about reparations. And , you know , I think we're forgetting that we have many , many examples in the last five years that show that it does actually work. And it does keep people , you know , out of poverty and off the streets. Mhm.

S1: Mhm. Anita , one of these proposed bills has to do with involuntary servitude in prisons , which is currently allowed through the 13th amendment. First. Can you explain what that is exactly.

S5: When we're talking about involuntary servitude , we're talking about prison jobs. And in general , you know , I think most people think of prison jobs. That's that's great. It's giving people skills and income and all these kinds of things. But a lot of these jobs are literally paying cents , like $0.18 an hour. And this isn't just about wealth building through real estate. It's about systemic laws that have prevented black people from being equal in society. And mass incarceration is one of those things , because mass incarceration also affects wealth , right ? And so we've had all of these laws coming out of you went from slavery to the Jim Crow era , where there were these laws that basically we allowed violence against black people who did not behave to the old southern norms. Right. And that led to a migration of people out of the South to the north and into the West to California , where we still had this over policing and over enforcement of laws against black people , which has locked up generations and generations of black men especially , and black women. And the problem is , is then once you have a record and you come out of prison with your 18 cent job and absolutely no money in your pocket and $200 gate money , you are instantly homeless. And so there is a through line from the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration to the homelessness we see on our streets. And so when you see reparations and these the Black Caucus doing bills against things like involuntary servitude , it's not just about getting paid in prison. It's about helping people overcome the poverty that comes out of mass incarceration.

S1: You know ? And of course , the idea of cash payments as reparations has is controversial. For example , outside of Black Californians , most people in the state oppose them.

S4: I think the messaging , you know , from the very beginning on cash payments and why in the world anybody feels like they should owe cash payments as as taxpayers has been not great. And I think we're seeing the repercussions of that now. Um , we have this fantasy about America that if you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps , that you know you can and if you work hard enough , you can succeed. And that we're all created equal and we all have an equal chance. And that's not really true. And I think that the idea of cash payments is the most is like the epitome of saying , no , our system isn't fair and we have to actually make that. Right in the most , you know , financially , you know , hit way possible. Um , and so I think that , you know , there's going to be a resistance to cash payments. But I think for the legislative Black Caucus , which is , you know , backing , I think 14 bills so far that will be going through addressing different aspects of reparations. They recognize that there hasn't been that public education , you know , campaign yet. You can't put forth a bill that's going to ask people to pay into a fund or however , however the structure , it's going to be structured to pay descendants of people who were enslaved. You have to explain why they should. And you know what ? We as a society , not just as black people in California , we as a society will get out of that.

S1: Yeah , education is a huge component to that effort.

S5: It's it traces the legacy from slavery forward to mass incarceration. And the thing that struck me most is that the whole purpose of the museum and its mission is just radical truth telling is just for us as Americans , to be able to look at slavery and say , yes , the legacy still exists. And for some reason that is so difficult for us just to say , yes , this this horrible , horrible thing happened and we are still dealing with it. I hope many things come out of the talk of reparations , but I hope that that ability to just truthfully say that the legacy of slavery still exists is one of the things we take away.


S4: He's a prisoner of hope. I think that that is probably the mood , I think , among most black Californians , which is , yeah , I think people would love for reparations to go forward. Um , but , you know , and they hope that it does , but they're not optimistic that it will. Yeah.

S6: Yeah.


S4: And less so , among others. I think you see close allyship with , uh , Japanese Americans in particular. There's been a lot of , uh , work on the reparations front between those two communities. Um , but I think , you know , the question of allyship , this I think reparations , particularly the cash payments component of it , is really going to test allyship , I think , particularly between the black and Latino populations. And I don't know how that's going to pan out. I wouldn't say it's been tested yet , because I don't think that cash payments is actually a real policy enough to really start arguing about. But once it does become a bill , once there is something on the table to really debate , I think that's really where things are going to get really interesting and figuring out what that allyship actually looks like.

S1: I've been speaking with Erica Smith and Anita Shabir , both columnist at the Los Angeles Times. You can read their piece at LA Thank you both so much for taking the time and sharing your knowledge about this.

S4: Thanks for having us on.

S1: That's our show for today. Don't forget to watch Evening Edition tonight at five for in-depth reporting on San Diego issues and the latest on election results. Midday edition is back here tomorrow at noon , and if you ever miss a show , you can find the Midday Edition podcast on all platforms. I'm Jade Hindman. Thanks for listening.

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Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, speaks about a package of reparations legislation at a press conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.
Sophie Austin
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, speaks about a package of reparations legislation at a press conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.

The California Legislative Black Caucus has introduced a package of bills on reparations based on recommendations from a first-in-the-nation reparations task force.

The 14 proposals cover systemic issues like criminal justice, housing, education, land theft and health outcomes. One proposal would formally acknowledge California's legacy of slavery and discrimination.

The legislation package does not include direct cash payments to descendants of enslaved people.

On Midday Edition Wednesday, we discuss the bills and the broader conversation around reparations in California. Also, the link between reparations and solving the state’s homelessness crisis.