California’s Reparations Task Force: An Unapologetic Call for Racial Justice
By Darius Spearman (African Elements)
December 2, 2022
How do we right the wrongs of the past? And how do we make sure that our children are not victims of the same injustices we have suffered? Most importantly, how do we heal as a nation and move forward with a sense of oneness? Reparations (also known as reparative justice) is a philosophy that says that the current state of race relations in the United States is unfair and unjust and that we need to correct this injustice by making amends and paying back the debts owed to people of color. This essay will explore the growing movement for Black reparations to right the wrongs of the past and as a necessary step toward national unity.
The Reparations Movement: A Tool of Justice
The word “reparation” comes from the Latin word “reparare,” which means to repair or restore to a former state. In other words, reparations are the restoration of a person or people to a state of wholeness after a systemic act of injustice. Today, the word “reparations” is often used to describe policies that would compensate Black people for past wrongs. The history of the United States is filled with such historic wrongs. The slave trade, segregation, racial profiling, and a myriad of other systemic injustices — past and present — continue to impact American society today, but how do we measure that impact? The racial wealth gap is one way of measuring the impact of generations of racial injustice.
California’s racial wealth gap is understudied, but a few studies of Los Angeles show the disparity. One 2016 study found that the median net worth of white Angeleno households was $355,000 while that of native-born Black Angelenos was $4,000. The same study found that the median value of liquid assets for Black households was $200 compared to $110,000 for white households. (Source: De La Cruz-Viesca, et. al.)
There are a variety of reasons why this gap exists. For systemic reasons, people of color tend to live in neighborhoods with lower property values and, as a result, are more likely to end up with a lower net worth than white Americans. Health disparities due to environmental racism and lack of adequate access to quality care have left Black Americans with excessive medical debt in addition to shaving off productive years of their lives. Mass incarceration has ravaged Black communities by removing human capital, placing a strain on Black families and communities, and leaving them short-handed. So how do we identify and assess the ongoing impact of systemic injustice?
California’s Reparations Task Force and The Case for Reparations
In 2020 California Secretary of State Shirley Weber put forward California Assembly Bill 3121. The bill’s passage established the first-in-a-nation task force to study reparations. Councilmember Kamilah Moore and Vice-Chair Dr. Cheryl Grills are chairing the task force. The California Reparations Task Force also includes Senator Steven Bradford, Dr. Amos C. Brown,, assembly members Lisa Holder, Reginald Jones-Sawyer, Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis, along with Councilmembers Monica Montgomery Steppe and Donald K. Tamaki. Appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom, the nine members of the task force convened
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 (Task Force or Reparations Task Force). The purpose of the Task Force is: (1) to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans; (2) to recommend appropriate ways to educate the California public of the task force’s findings; and (3) to recommend appropriate remedies in consideration of the Task Force’s findings.(Source: oag.ca.gov)
With the help of economic consultants, the task force looked into historic injustices such as redlining. Redlining was a policy of denying loans to Black people, restricting them to specific areas, and thereby devaluing homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
The four economic consultants calculated that each Black Californian who lived in the state between 1933 and 1977 experienced a “housing wealth gap” of $223,239, or $5,074 for each year in the period. The experts said that number — which is the difference between the average value of all homes in California and the value of Black-owned homes — could be considered for reparations. (Source: calmatters.org)
Health disparities are another prevalent issue facing California’s Black population. Again with the help of economic consultants, the task force found that Blacks had the lowest life expectancy of any racial category in the state and also experienced higher death rates than other racial categories from cancer and infant mortality. Black women are four times more likely than white women to die during childbirth. (Source: calmatters.org)
Although there is no actual price tag on a year of life, for statistical purposes some economists use a $10 million valuation for a person’s entire life. This group of economic consultants calculated the dollar amount of the gap in life expectancy for Black Californians to be worth $127,226 per year.(Source: calmatters.org)
Mass incarceration is another inequality of the task force examined. The consultants looked at the number of Black people who were imprisoned for drug offenses since 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared his “war on drugs.” In the U.S., Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested and convicted for committing the same crime. In particular, the consultants found that Black men are disproportionately arrested and convicted for drug crimes compared to white men. In all, the task force interim report notes a series of
“government actions and the compounding harms that have resulted,” organized into 12 specific areas of “systemic discrimination:” Enslavement; Racial Terror; Political Disenfranchisement; Housing Segregation; Separate and Unequal Education; Racism in Environment and Infrastructure; Pathologizing the Black Family; Control Over Creative Cultural and Intellectual Life; Stolen Labor and Hindered Opportunity; An Unjust Legal System; Mental and Physical Harm and Neglect; and The Wealth Gap. (Source: law.stanford.edu)
So how might we go about addressing these systemic injustices?
More Than Cash
At nearly 500 pages, the California Reparations Task Force interim report recommends “remedies of compensation, rehabilitation, and restitution for African Americans…” Recommendations include putting a stop to legalized slavery in California by removing specific language in its state constitution allowing involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. The interim report also suggests holding police accountable for violence by removing immunity laws that protect officers from misconduct. Additionally, the task force seeks to address environmental racism that disproportionally exposes Black communities to pollution and poor air quality and urges educational grants to address the Black education gap.
…the task force has yet to suggest cash payments to Black Californians…. At the federal level, economists have estimated that reparations could cost the federal government around $10 trillion to $12 trillion, or about $800,000 for each eligible Black household. …But … Moore noted that cash reparations aren’t out of the question, particularly with the state’s estimated $97.5 billion state budget surplus. (Source: vox.com)
The task force chair, Kamilah Moore, added,
California does have the budget to provide reparations in the form of cash payments, and the surplus is even added evidence of the fact that it has the budget. (Source: vox.com)
The recommendations come amid growing calls across the nation for reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans, but reparations can mean a lot of different things.
CONCLUSION: A Call for Racial Justice
Reparations for African Americans must include economic reparations and addressing systemic injuries in education and healthcare. To truly right the wrongs of our past may require a complete overhaul of our current system. California has taken the first step by establishing the California Reparations Taskforce to look into the ongoing impact of slavery and racial discrimination and proposes solutions. Justice and reconciliation can only proceed by addressing the systematic disadvantages that people of color face. Repairing the damage to our societal fabric requires that every citizen have access to education, healthcare, and a legal system that promotes equal opportunity.
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Cineas, Fabiola. “A task force could create a reparations program for Black Californians.” Vox, 3 July 2022, https://www.vox.com/2022/7/3/23173075/california-reparations-task-force. Accessed 24 November 2022.
De La Cruz-Viesca, Melany, and et. al. “The Color of Wealth in Los Angeles.” UCLA Asian American Studies Center, Duke University, The New School, the University of California, Los Angeles and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, https://socialequity.duke.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/The-Color-of-Wealth-in-Los-Angeles.pdf. Accessed 24 November 2022.
Kalish, Lil. “Task Force: Blacks are owed hundreds of thousands.” CalMatters, 26 September 2022, https://calmatters.org/california-divide/2022/09/reparations-task-force/. Accessed 24 November 2022.
“Reparations Task Force Members | State of California – Department of Justice – Office of the Attorney General.” California Department of Justice, https://oag.ca.gov/ab3121/members. Accessed 24 November 2022.