Skip to main content


In California, a historic and one-of-a-kind effort continued this week and could lead to a reparations package recognizing the widespread and continuing damage to black people as a result of their slavery.

The nine members of a working group dedicated to recommending repairs and California’s Deepening Understanding of Slavery met Thursday and Friday. The goal was to solidify a plan to reach Californians and develop a larger context on the history of slavery.

The group, formed after the passage of Assembly Bill 3121 in 2020, will continue to meet seven more times before submitting a report to the Legislative Assembly next June. It will include recommendations for repairs to black residents of California, with particular attention to the descendants of African-American slaves.

There is also currently a federal effort, via HR 40 introduced in 1989, to create a similar task force to review federal remedies.

The working group is made up of Dr Cheryl Grills, Dr Amos Brown, Lisa Holder, Donald Tamaki and Dr Jovan Scott Lewis, State Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), Assembly Member Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-South Los Angeles), Monica Montgomery Steppe and Kamilah Moore, San Diego City Council member.

Here are some of the main topics covered this week:

How to engage black Californians

Grills presented a plan to seek feedback from black residents across the state, intended to be carried out in partnership with the UCLA Bunche Center for African American Studies.

The plan provides for up to 12 community listening sessions, facilitated by “anchor organizations” that are well connected to black communities in the geographic pockets of California. It will flag areas likely to be overlooked and include local outreach to ensure that all interested can attend. Ultimately, this would result in a report summarizing the comments and description of the mischief, and its cost is estimated at $ 765,000.

Several people present expressed concerns about the selection of these anchor organizations and the inclusiveness of the plan.

Brown, vice chairman of the task force, said he wanted those “in the trenches” to be included. He specifically named black educators, psychologists, and church members as examples of groups whose opinions mattered.

Chris Lawson, Coalition for A Just & Equitable California, recalled that the task force should broaden its scope beyond relying heavily on groups and take a more direct approach when raising awareness.

“I would also find ways to make and support direct contact with black people in California, because quite frankly, anyone we need to talk to is not going to be affected by these groups,” he said. “We are in many ways disconnected even from the groups and organizations that are there to do us good. ”

Dr Michael A. Stoll, faculty director of the Black Policy Project at the Bunche Center, said he hoped the anchor organizations, combined with links to media, communications and local “grassroots” organizations. the field, ”could reach people on the fringes of participation statewide.

Concerns about including a wide range of viewpoints resurfaced during a discussion of a Justice Department update, in which a department spokesperson said the task force would not could not hold meetings on Saturdays due to lack of resources.

Several members of the board of directors expressed concern about the lack of premises. Some groups cited as potentially unable to attend were black residents who held multiple jobs and black students who were in school on weekdays.

Bradford, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said the task force was an opportunity to make history for the state and the country, and limiting meetings to Monday through Friday lessened that impact.

“As an individual elected for 22 years, I think the contribution of the public is essential,” he said. “And to silence that voice, whether it’s involuntary or not, by saying that we can’t have some sort of meeting on a weekend, I find that somewhat insulting, especially in light of our current budget situation.”

California currently has a budget surplus.

A discussion of the history of slavery in California

Another major goal of the committee’s work is to compile a history of the institution of slavery and its impacts, past and present, to be shared statewide.

While California was a free state, that didn’t mean slavery wasn’t present in California.

Before the state entered the Union in 1850 with its anti-slavery constitution, enslaved blacks were already present, brought into the state by Americans during and after the Mexican-American War, according to Stacey Smith. , professor of history at Oregon State University. The state did nothing to stop what had already taken hold, and brutal Southern-like violence came to slaves in California.

“The exact number of blacks enslaved in California is difficult to determine,” she said. “But given the fragmented records, I support the conclusions of a historian named Rudolph Lapp, who estimated that at least 500-600 enslaved blacks lived in California during the Gold Rush.”

And California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, and the legislature have been actively working to pass anti-black legislation, according to Smith. In 1852, they enacted a Runaway Slave Act, with slave owners having one year to arrest and expel claimed runaways – and then renewed it for three years. This included any enslaved black person who lived in California before their admission as a Free State in 1850.

State officials were mandated to assist in capture and arrest, and slave owners, by law, were permitted to use violent means.

The legislature also attempted to pass a black exclusion law four times in the 1850s. Although this was never passed, several other anti-black laws were passed, which prohibited blacks and Whites to marry or testify against whites in court. He also denied state funding for black children to attend public schools, among others.

“Like a lot of things, California was ahead of its time,” Smith said. “But in this case, tragically, the state led the way in establishing anti-black racial oppression across the United States.”

A decision of the California Supreme Court in 1874 Ward v. Flood, where judges ruled that segregation in public schools was legal as long as black and white children had equal access to similar educational facilities, is an example of some of these more gradual changes. Twenty-two years later, the “separate but equal” principle became national after Plessy c. Ferguson.

Repairs from another angle

The task force invited Roy Brooks, professor of law at Yale University, and Kamm Howard, male national president of the National Black Coalition for Reparations in America, to speak about reparations nationally and internationally.

Brooks discussed two different models of reparations: the tort model and the atonement model.

The first is victim-oriented and focused on seeking compensation. Conversely, the atonement model centers on restorative justice – repairing a relationship between victims and perpetrators of an atrocity, through a credible apology and forgiveness.

He said he preferred the atonement and rehabilitation reparations, which were “designed to rebuild the community in the wake of the atrocities and asset-building repairs.”

“It’s a settlement,” he said of the compensation. “And the way the regulations work in law is that the defendant does not admit liability.”

“Most contemporary compensatory reparations are direct cash payments,” he added. “The individual can take it and play, go to Las Vegas to play it. … I can tell you this, a check for $ 25,000, one time, that will not bring victims back to the status quo ante.

Brooks suggested that residential schools be the primary focus of rehabilitative repairs, saying education itself is fundamental and investing in it is more effective than a mishmash of reparations.

“What we learned from Thurgood Marshall of the Legal Defense Fund is that focusing on education is a great way to tackle racial injustice,” he said.

But others stressed the importance of financial compensation.

Committee chairman Kamilah Moore refuted the idea that cash payments would be misappropriated.

“I think it’s problematic to say that black Americans descended from movable slaves here in the United States would just go out and spend it on frivolous things,” she said. “I want to move away from the idea that black Americans are financially illiterate and that once the reparations are there, they will not have the means to build their communities or their families.”

Howard said that in order to refute concerns about reparations as a “race based remedy” and erasing the history of whites in indentured bondage, he used terms such as “African American” and “crimes”. against humanity ”.

“African descendant” is a specific international designation of people who have been robbed on the African continent in a multi-country criminal enterprise which they call “commerce” throughout the West, and subjected to all forms of economic exploitation, abuse and crime. ” he said. “Today, their descendants are still injured as a result of these crimes. … This law is aimed at our citizens who have a history of criminal activity directed against them by the federal government.

“I am convinced that if we receive compensation in the form of interest on direct payments … a significant number of us would work collectively with our resources to build a community that we did not have in this country”, a- he declared. .

Jonathan Burgess, whose great-great-grandfather’s home is now a state park, said that for those whose lands have been confiscated by the state, he would like to see those lands returned to owners in the framework of 200-year leases, recognition of their membership. and wage arrears for years in government ownership.

“I don’t blame the institutions because at the end of the day California is an institution,” he said. “And the institution has never worked for us blacks in America, blacks in California. So how can I expect the people who work for the institution to help me? Hope you will.

When the committee meets again in October, it will discuss the Jim Crow era and its continued impact on African Americans, especially those who are descendants of slaves.