In summary

A state-appointed panel inching toward recommendations for reparations wants a new state agency to handle compensation and services to Black people.

As a deadline for California’s task force on reparations nears, the state-appointed panel  charged with examining historic racial damage has made few final decisions on its dozens of preliminary recommendations for redress.

Nor did its members decide on specific dollar amounts for reparations during the meetings in Sacramento on Friday and Saturday. 

Instead the task force voted to strengthen the power of a proposed “freedmen affairs’’ agency it says the state should create to help carry out reparations on behalf of California. 

And it decided that Saturday was not its last in-person meeting; it will hold at least one more summit in Sacramento on March 29 and 30 and potentially two more later.

Created by state law after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, the California Reparations Task Force is charged with delivering recommendations for reparations to the Legislature by July 1. State lawmakers will decide whether or not to enact or implement them. 

The task force findings could become a blueprint for similar reparations deliberations, in the federal government and in some states and cities already beginning to explore restitution for eligible Black residents.

“I think everyone knows that the nation is going to be watching … what we do here,” said task force member Donald K. Tamaki on Saturday.  

Fellow member Monica Montgomery Steppe, San Diego’s city council president, later added: “What we are doing — every step of it — is going to have resistance. And it is going to be hard. It’s going to take decades.”

 
During the two days of often intense discussion and public comment in Sacramento’s Byron Sher Auditorium, the 9-member group revisited a vote it took in January recommending the state create a California American Freedmen Affairs Agency.

More powers

In January, the body voted to recommend that the proposed agency function like an oversight commission that would monitor how the state implements reparations. But some members said Saturday they thought they had voted for broader powers for the agency.

The group debated and then unanimously voted to replace the earlier measure. It recommends that California structure the freedman affairs agency as an independent department that would directly implement the task force’s recommendations, including identifying and compensating descendants of enslaved Black people. 

For instance, it would possibly have a genealogy branch to confirm who is eligible for reparations, a legal affairs branch to provide free law services while advocating for justice reforms, and a labor and employment branch to “supervise” discrimination claims, according to a task force summary. 

‘How can we let bygones be bygones when the knee of white supremacy is still on the necks of Black Americans, choking the very life from us?’

Maureen Simmons, legislative aide

The agency also would perform some oversight of existing state departments that provide services aimed at racial equity. It would look at the California Department of Justice’s enforcement of voting rights, for instance, and act if the redrawing of district lines dilutes Black political power, the measure said. 

The new agency also would provide some direct services that other parts of government already provide, if they are not sufficient, the task force said.  

Task force Chairperson Kamilah Moore said Saturday’s vote was necessary to take into account public comments and expert testimony. 

“We have the duty and right to reconsider any decision that we’ve made,” she said.

“No one tells the Native Americans that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is too wonky or bureaucratic or that they don’t deserve it. No one tells our immigrant families and folks that the Office of Immigrant Affairs is too wonky or bureaucratic. So why should that answer be sufficient for the descendants of slaves?” 

Dollar figures

Though the task force has yet to vote on final dollar amounts for reparations, some calculations have been suggested in prior reports. 

One idea under consideration is whether to base individual compensation on the racial wealth gap as an indicator of the losses Black descendants of enslaved people have suffered. The racial wealth gap compares financial assets, such as earned income and inherited wealth.

Economists William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, part of a team of economists and scholars consulting with the task force, wrote in a report: “We view the racial wealth gap as the most robust indicator of the cumulative economic effects of white supremacy in the United States.” 

Darity and Mullen pegged the average per-person racial wealth gap at approximately $358,293, which is what would be potentially owed to each Black descendant of an enslaved person, who was a resident of California at the time the reparations bill was signed into law in 2020. 

An interim report to a task force advisory committee pegs the total debt California owes to Black descendants of enslaved people at more than $600 billion. 

Bishop Henry Saint Williams speaks during a meeting with the state Reparations Task Force at the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Sacramento on March 3, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

“If paid to a conservatively estimated 1.8 million Black Californians with an ancestor enslaved in the U.S. (80% of the 2.2 million) the amount required will be $636.7 billion,” the report states. 

Another calculation would assign a dollar amount to each of five categories of racial damage  identified by the task force. The categories include: the unjust taking of property by eminent domain, the devaluation of Black businesses, housing discrimination and homelessness, mass incarceration and over-policing, and health harms. 

No whittling down

Though the task force has heard input on how the state might begin to pay for such compensation, staff from the Department of Justice said the law creating the task force did not instruct it to identify funding sources. 

“The task force is required by AB 3121 to recommend to the Legislature methods for calculating reparations and the scope of reparations,” said Michael Newman, Senior Assistant Attorney General. “Based on their recommendations, the Legislature is ultimately tasked with implementing these changes into law and figuring out how to pay for it.”

Regarding the preliminary recommendations, Montgomery Stepp has warned several times against weakening them in hopes the Legislature would approve the reparation plan. She repeated that caution Saturday. 

“Us thinking about what would be the best-case scenario to get our descendant community where it needs to be is where we need to start, and not already be whittling (the list) down, because more of that is going to happen as it goes through the process,” she said.

About 150 people attended the meeting Saturday, and dozens spoke to the task force.

‘What we are doing — every step of it — is going to have resistance. And it is going to be hard. It’s going to take decades.’

Monica Montgomery Steppe, Task force member

Let bygones be?

Maureen Simmons, a legislative aide who drafted the task force law, said an apology and compensation are important for undoing past harm and preventing future repetition.

“Arguments against reparations center around who is eligible and how much, if anything, they should receive,” she said. “Those detractors believe  … it is a futile effort, so we should just let bygones be bygones. But how can we let bygones be bygones when the knee of white supremacy is still on the necks of Black Americans, choking the very life from us?” 

She paraphrased a line from a 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. speech where he listed government acts that financially enriched white people at the expense of Black people. 

“I will accept your apology on the terms that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King — and I believe I can say this for some of us in the Black community — ‘We’re coming for our check,’” she said.

Lloyd Kelly, 62, from New Orleans, noted that other states are watching what shape California’s reparation plan is taking. He also said California’s lawmakers should be paying closer attention.

Two lawmakers are on the task force: Senator Steven Bradford and Assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer, Democrats from Los Angeles.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg declared his support for reparations and apologized for his city’s historic discrimination against Black people. 

“If the government should stand for anything, it should stand for investing in communities and people who have been the victims of discrimination and disenfranchisement for far too long,” he said.

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