The slavery reparations movement hit a watershed moment last week with the release of an exhaustive report detailing California’s role in perpetuating discrimination against African-Americans, a major step toward educating the public and setting the stage for an official government apology and case for financial restitution.
The 500-page document lays out the harms suffered by descendants of enslaved people long after slavery was abolished in the 19th century, through discriminatory laws and actions in all facets of life, from housing and education to employment and the legal system.
“Four hundred years of discrimination has resulted in an enormous and persistent wealth gap between Black and White Americans,” according to the interim report of the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans.
“These effects of slavery continue to be embedded in American society today and have never been sufficiently remedied. The governments of the United States and the State of California have never apologized to or compensated African-Americans for these harms.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year task force in 2020, making California the only state to move ahead with a study and plan. Cities and universities have taken up the cause, with the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., becoming the first city to make reparations available to Black residents last year.
“Once again, California is leading the nation, in a bipartisan way, on issues of racial justice and equity, which is a long overdue discussion, we must have—not just in a single state, but across America,” Newsom said in a statement, adding that his office is still reviewing the document.
The task force, which began meeting in June 2021, will release a comprehensive reparations plan next year. The committee voted in March to limit reparations to the descendants of Black people living in the U.S. in the 19th century, overruling advocates who wanted to expand compensation to all Black people in the U.S.
California is home to the fifth-largest Black population in the U.S., after Texas, Florida, Georgia and New York, the report said. An estimated 2.8 million Black people live in California, according to the report, although it is unclear how many are eligible for compensation.
African-Americans make up nearly 6 percent of California’s population yet they are overrepresented in jails, youth detention centers and prisons. About 28 percent of people imprisoned in California are Black and in 2019, African-American youth made up 36 percent of minors ordered into state juvenile detention facilities.
Nearly 9 percent of people living below the poverty level in the state were African-Americans and 30 percent of people experiencing homelessness in 2019 were Black, according to state figures.
Black Californians earn less and are more likely to be poor than White residents. In 2018, Black residents earned on average just under $54,000 compared to $87,000 for White Californians. In 2019, 59 percent of White households owned their homes, compared with 35 percent of Black Californians.
The task force makes sweeping initial recommendations, including within the prison system: Incarcerated people should not be forced to work while in prison and if they do, they must be paid fair market wages. Inmates should also be allowed to vote and people with felony convictions should serve on juries, according to the report.
The group recommends creating a state-subsidized mortgage program to guarantee low rates for qualifying African-American applicants, free health care, free tuition to California colleges and universities and scholarships to African-American high school graduates to cover four years of undergraduate education.
The committee also calls for a cabinet-level secretary position to oversee an African-American Affairs agency with branches for civic engagement, education, social services, cultural affairs and legal affairs. It would help people research and document their lineage to a 19th-century ancestor so they could qualify for financial restitution.
The Black population increased significantly in California during World War II as people migrated from Southern states for war-related work. The Black population of California ballooned from 124,000 in 1940 to more than 1.4 million in 1970.
Despite California being a “free” state, the Ku Klux Klan flourished, with members holding positions in law enforcement and city government. African-American families were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods that were more likely to be polluted.
“California was not a passive actor in perpetuating these harms,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta, whose office assisted the task force. “This interim report is a historic step by the State of California to acknowledge the insidious effects of slavery and ongoing systemic discrimination, recognize the state’s failings, and move toward rectifying the harm.”