Black Democrats have already accomplished something akin to the impossible in their efforts to see Black residents repaid for whole centuries of enslavement their ancestors suffered and the following century-plus of systematic racism they’ve survived themselves. That something akin to impossible is any measure of progress in their fight for reparations. In the college town of Evanston, Illinois, about 15 miles north of downtown Chicago, leaders passed a proposal making it the first city in the nation to approve reparations for Black residents last year. A few months later, Asheville, North Carolina, dedicated $2.1 million toward reparations. And about a year after that, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones signed a bill making it possible for taxpayers to donate to a fund for reparations in April.
Cities from Providence, Rhode Island, to St. Paul, Minnesota, have taken steps to form commissions and figure out how to pay reparations. Now, the state of California has joined the party with a comprehensive report of task force recommendations on reparations.
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“Along with a dereliction of its duty to protect its Black citizens, direct federal, state and local government actions continued to enforce the racist lies created to justify slavery,” authors of the report stated. “These laws and government supported cultural beliefs have since formed the foundation of innumerable modern laws, policies, and practices across the nation.”
Authors of the report are part of a nine-member task force with five members appointed by the governor, two by the president pro tempore of the state Senate, and two by the speaker of the Assembly. They are all people of color.
Their recommendations include allowing incarcerated people to vote, requiring the goods and services they produce be priced the same as those produced outside of prison, and passing legislation requiring education, substance abuse, and mental health treatment for incarcerated people. They also include recommendations to eliminate the wealth gap, housing segregation, and “separate and unequal education.”
“What we’re asking for is fair,” Amos Brown, vice chair of the task force and president of the San Francisco NAACP, told NPR. “It’s just and it is right, and a nation that does not know how to admit this wrong and act in ways that are practical to show fruits of repentance is on the way to losing its soul.”
Republicans have treated any topic approaching reparations like a continuous game of Whac-A-Mole, curtailing any progress on a federal study of reparations.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said amid the start of House committee hearing for a study on reparations on June 19, 2019.
It was and still is a popular sentiment among Republicans, despite repeated explanation of the long-term effects of slavery and the very present norms of discrimination and racism that have lead to inequity in nearly every system in this country from health care to education to criminal justice.
In New York Times bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ synopsis before the House committee three years ago, he said while the Emancipation Proclamation “dead bolted the door against the bandits of America,” (at least for those lucky enough to have received the news of their freedom), “Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open.”
Dozens of activists representing nearly 30 social justice and civil rights organizations are working to see them closed. In a letter to the White House in May, groups including the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and Rainbow PUSH Coalition called for President Joe Biden to issue an executive order creating a commission to study reparations. The letter is a different approach to waiting on Congress to form the commission, which last April did net a vote of approval from the House Judiciary Committee to create the commission.
“The bill now has a record level of support with 215 members of Congress committed to voting ‘yes’ when the bill comes to the House floor. This is far more than the bill has ever had and it should pass in the House if voted on,” activists wrote.
They, however, continued that they were less optimistic about the Senate passing the bill before the end of the Congressional session in January 2023. So they wrote to the president: “We are calling on you to work with supporting organizations and House sponsors of H.R. 40 to set up the same commission by executive order by Juneteenth this year.”
That deadline has come and gone.
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