Does America owe Black people reparations for past racism and exploitation? California is attempting to answer that question today.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, YES! Magazine

There is a renewed push for reparations in the United States to repair the harm done to African American families and communities by U.S. policies that upheld enslavement, housing discrimination, and separate but equal practices, and continue to foster racial inequities, including wealth disparities. In April 2021, the House Judiciary Committee passed H.R.40, a bill that would create a commission to study and develop reparations for African Americans. The legislation, which was first introduced in 1989 by the late Congressman John Conyers, took more than 30 years to move out of committee. It has taken Congress a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation to even come close to tackling the idea of redress for the atrocities of slavery and its resulting harms.

Given the glacial pace of federal change, cities like Evanston, Illinois, and Asheville, North Carolina, have begun implementing their own version of reparations. And in 2020, California became the first state in the nation to take on the monumental task of studying the devastation wrought by centuries of racial terror and oppression against African Americans and exploring tangible compensation for harm.

Reparations in California
Photo by Montecruz Foto

California Goes It Alone

Last fall, under the leadership of Shirley Weber, who served as a state assembly member, the California legislature passed AB 3121 establishing the first state-level reparations task force of its kind in the nation. The nine-member task force is expected to “Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, with a Special Consideration for African Americans Who are Descendants of Persons Enslaved in the United States.”

Weber, who went on to become California’s state secretary this January (becoming the first African American to assume that role), addressed the task force earlier this year, saying that its aim is “to heal the injustices of the past and present with tangible action, and to set a course for a better future for African Americans in the state.”

While California—which retains an arguably undeserved reputation for liberalism—might seem an odd precedent-setter on reparations considering that it was not part of the Confederacy, Weber outlined the ongoing effects of slavery still felt today. She said the task force will address “redlining, theft of labor, wealth and capital, over-incarceration, over-policing and systemic discrimination.”

The road toward reparations for African Americans has been a long one. “African Americans and descendants of slavery started to push for reparations immediately upon emancipation,” explains Lisa Holder, civil rights attorney and a member of California’s reparations task force. “Everyone’s heard of ‘40 acres and a mule.’ That was the first known push toward reparations.”

Of the nine members appointed to California’s task force, eight, including Holder, are African American, and one, Donald Tamaki, is of Japanese descent. The group is charged with three tasks: to propose what reparations could look like, to educate the public about the task force’s study of reparations, and to make specific recommendations to the state on how to implement them.

Holder explains that the reparations task force will make “evidence-based recommendations” drawn from two years of gathering testimony and documenting the harms arising from “the original systems of oppression, like slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and the continuing and ongoing systems of oppression that we’re seeing in institutional racism and structural racism.”

“The evidence will be unassailable,” she says.

Among the witnesses who have already testified to the task force is Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. At a Sept. 24, 2021, hearing, Wilkerson said, “I am testifying because not enough Americans know the true and full history of our country or the origins of the divisions that we now face.”

Wilkerson believes “that knowing our country’s history is the first step toward overcoming the challenges we face as a nation.”

The Economic Harms of Racism in California

One of the most powerful stories of financial harm wrought against African Americans in California is that of the Bruce family, who in the 1920s purchased and developed many acres of beachfront property in Southern California. Members of the Bruce family, who testified to the reparations task force, were “pushed out and racially terrorized by the residents of Manhattan Beach and by the government,” says Holder.

Eventually, the Manhattan Beach City Council, using eminent domain, claimed the land, Holder explains, “as a way of making sure that that area was exclusively White.” Today, Manhattan Beach is one of the most expensive places in the nation to live.

The Washington Post related how the seizure of Bruce’s Beach from its Black owners was one of many such cases of land theft across the country, and that this is “a scenario that, repeated many times over, lies at the root of the wealth gap between Whites and African Americans.”

Holder estimated that Bruce’s Beach should have “generated billions of dollars of wealth for this family,” but instead, the Bruce family “has not been able to meet many of their most basic needs.”

It’s not just historic discrimination that the task force is studying. We’re still seeing “virulent White supremacy in this country,” says Holder. The task force has also heard from witnesses about the modern versions of redlining, where homeowners of color see their properties devalued, are quoted too-high mortgage interest rates, or are subjected to other forms of housing discrimination.

For example, Paul Austin and his wife, Tenisha Tate, who live in San Francisco, testified about the discrimination they experienced from an appraiser. The couple made $400,000 worth of improvements to their property before expecting a bank appraisal to reflect the extent of their investment, but their home was appraised at a value far lower than they expected. They then asked a White friend to pose as the owner, and a new appraisal came back half a million dollars higher.

Holder sees Austin and Tate’s experience as proof of the ongoing racial harms in California that exist within a racially biased system, one she says is “based on the notion that White people are essentially better than Black people.” She maintains that “whether or not you consciously believe that, you are unconsciously being given that message every single day, every moment in this country, and that is why we see these legacies of oppression continuing.”

The Psychological Harms of Racism

Cheryl Grills, a professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University and a member of California’s reparations task force, says that when people think about reparations, they immediately think of the economic harms done to African Americans. But Grills points out that the “psychological and emotional harm[s], the community harm that can happen across generations” is just as severe. She sees her role in the task force as highlighting what she describes as “the health consequences of the trauma and racial stress that people experience, in particular Black folks” in California.

Grills says she relates to the “heavy testimony” from people who have been sharing their personal family history and experiences with the task force. “I’ve been seeing the deep scars emotionally that have resulted from this exposure to racism,” she says. The “level of disempowerment, the level of oppression, of intense response, that’s necessary and exhausting to counteract the negative narrative about who we are as Black people.”

Bertha Gaffney Gorman, a Black woman whose family came to California from Clarksville, Texas, by way of New Mexico, shared her story with the task force about the years of racial and gender discrimination she experienced in her educational and employment career in Sacramento. “This has been a very emotional memory trip for me,” she told the task force.

“The negative narrative about who we are as Black people wears and tears on the very fiber of our being,” Grills says.

Can California Successfully Implement Reparations?

Holder describes the process the task force has taken as incredibly comprehensive and expansive. “There’s almost no industry that we’re not pursuing and getting evidence from, and no stone will be left unturned.” So far, it’s too early to tell what form reparations will take, but the task force will continue to gather testimony and evidence until summer 2023, after which members will compile those findings into a report and present it to the California legislature with specific recommendations for compensation.

Because the task force is the first state-level body of its kind on reparations in the country, California could set a significant precedent if the task force’s recommendations are carried out. “It will have a major impact on the reparations movement that we’re seeing in full bloom at the local level,” says Holder.