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California is trying to lead the way on reparations but not clear on the path to take

todayJuly 8, 2024

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    California is trying to lead the way on reparations but not clear on the path to take NPR

California Gov. Gavin Newsom. This past week he signed a nearly $300 billion state budget in which $12 million was allocated for reparations legislation. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom. This past week he signed a nearly $300 billion state budget in which $12 million was allocated for reparations legislation. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California recently allocated $12 million for reparations for the state’s Black residents as a way to compensate them for the harm caused by the legacy of slavery and current discrimination.

Although it’s not clear what the money will be spent on, it is clear it won’t be directed toward cash payments at the moment, which many in the reparations movement say is the best way to atone for the legacy and harm of slavery.

NPR’s Adrian Florido speaks with NPR race and identity correspondent Sandhya Dirks about the latest on California’s attempts to lead the way on reparations.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Transcript :


In 2020, California’s state legislature set out to do something no state has ever done. It created a task force to look at the legacy of slavery in the U.S. and how that legacy has harmed Black residents of California, and to suggest ways the state might compensate people for that harm.


KAMILAH MOORE: The idea is that reparations is a debt that’s owed, and the direct descendants of slaves are standing in the shoes of their ancestors for that owed debt.

FLORIDO: That is Kamilah Moore. She was chair of the California Reparations Task Force. I spoke with her last year before the task force released its final report. Some people questioned why a state like California, which never was a slave state, should take this on.


MOORE: Well, the task force – very early in our study phase, we learned that 1,500 enslaved African Americans were forced to labor in California, often working under dangerous conditions – in a gold mine, for instance. We learned that in 1852, California passed and enforced a fugitive slave law that made California a more pro-slavery state than most other free states. California was really free in name only.

FLORIDO: The task force’s 1,100-page report was a comprehensive history of racism in California, and it made a blockbuster recommendation – that California should pay the descendants of the enslaved cash reparations to atone for this history. Democratic California state Senator Steven Bradford was on the task force. He spoke when the report was released.


STEVEN BRADFORD: The task force report is documented with citations and footnotes. People can choose to ignore it. They can be uncomfortable with the history, but you cannot deny the truth.

FLORIDO: That was a year ago. So where does this effort stand today? Recently, California lawmakers set aside $12,000,000 for reparations – not for cash payments, but for other things. For years, cash payments have been the reparations movement’s central goal. But politically, it’s been tough.


FLORIDO: From NPR, I’m Adrian Florido.


FLORIDO: It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. For the latest on California’s reparations effort, we called on NPR race and identity correspondent Sandhya Dirks. How did we get to this moment, Sandhya, where the State of California is setting aside money for reparations?

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: So reparations for slavery is something Black people have been fighting for since even before slavery was abolished. But at the national level, there’s really never been enough political support. Then, four years ago, after George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, there was this moment – protests and conversations about racial justice. So lawmakers in California said, maybe we can do something. And they set up this reparations task force to study the state’s history of racism and suggest concrete ways to atone for that history.

FLORIDO: So tell us about what this task force did.

DIRKS: I spent two years collecting expert evidence and testimony, holding public hearings across the state. And then last summer it issued this report, recommending a long list of policies aimed at closing racial gaps in wealth, health, education, and achievement – things like free college tuition, housing aid, tax breaks. But the biggest recommendation was for California to make cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people. In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.

FLORIDO: So that was a year ago, and now this week, we learned that the new state budget will include $12,000,000 for reparations. So is that for those cash payments?

DIRKS: No. I mean, so far, there’s been no movement on cash payments. The 12 million is money for, as of now, unspecified legislation. It could go to a slate of bills introduced by members of the Black legislative caucus to address some other parts of the task force’s report.

FLORIDO: Like what?

DIRKS: One bill would end forced labor in state prisons. Another would provide grant money to combat violence in Black communities. And another would do something simple, but deeply symbolic, – accept responsibility for California’s role in upholding slavery.

It also recognizes the state’s role in perpetuating systemic discrimination that exists to this day. Another bill would create a California Freedman’s Bureau named for the agency set up after the Civil War to help formerly enslaved people. The idea is that bureau would help create the infrastructure for administering reparations.

FLORIDO: So Sandhya, are there any bills that would actually, you know, compensate people?

DIRKS: Well, there is one. State Senator Steven Bradford introduced what people are calling a land-back bill. It would enable the state to compensate Black people whose land it took using policies like eminent domain. There’s a long history of that tool being used for racist reasons.

FLORIDO: California’s budget is almost 300 billion – that’s with a B – billion dollars, Sandhya. So 12 million set aside in this year’s budget for reparations doesn’t sound like very much. Can the state really do anything meaningful with that money?

DIRKS: Well, I asked that question of State Senator Steven Bradford. He’s also a member of the Reparations Task Force. And he admits the amount is basically budget dust.

BRADFORD: Does 12 million come close to healing or addressing all the massive wrongs and continued, you know, vestiges of slavery – no, no – and discrimination? But it lets folks know that we’re serious about it. It’s a beginning.

DIRKS: He and other supporters of reparations say, while it’s not a lot of money, it’s a symbolic amount, and that it’s a bookmark or a promise. Kamilah Moore, who led the state’s reparations task force, also says it’s a good start.

MOORE: And I’m hoping to see more legislation that gets direct benefits to descendants of slaves in this next legislative session, but I think it was a good idea for the California legislative Black Caucus to start off with bills that relate to more structural policies.

FLORIDO: So Sandhya, I mean, it sounds like lawmakers and even some advocates are sort of framing this money as an important first step. But what about the cash payments? Is there just no support for that?

DIRKS: There just isn’t enough. State Senator Bradford has said so himself. Governor Gavin Newsom has also publicly been very tepid on the idea of cash reparations. They say it’s largely a budgetary issue. And these are all Democrats. Among Republicans, there’s even more opposition. James Gallagher is the state assembly’s Republican leader. And he doesn’t think cash reparations are what’s going to close racial gaps.

JAMES GALLAGHER: Yes, I think in our current society, there are not impediments to, you know, Black Americans succeeding. But are there things in history that have certainly put Black Americans behind in terms of being able to build wealth? Yeah. I mean, I think we know that’s true.

DIRKS: And he also says, it’s just not fair for taxpayers today to have to pay for injustices of the past. But Adrian, to be clear, it’s not Republicans holding up these more robust reparations. Democrats have a supermajority in the California Legislature. If they wanted to make this happen, they could. Gallagher told me he feels like this is all a performance with very little substance to back it up.

GALLAGHER: And to me, like, what Democrats continue to do in this situation is act like they’re doing something in terms of reparations, but not really doing it.

DIRKS: What’s so interesting is that grassroots reparations activists are saying something very similar. As we heard earlier, some are framing the 12 million and the bills as a solid start. But for Black people in the state who saw this as a chance for California to do something big and bold, there’s a feeling of frustration, like things are already being watered down.

FLORIDO: If reparations are proving so tough to pass in California, you know, one of the most progressive states in the country, what does that say about prospects for the broader reparations movement going forward, do you think?

DIRKS: Well, it’s always been really hard to get public support for reparations. Poll after poll has found that aside from African Americans, there’s just not a lot of support for cash payments. Some polls have found that the general public don’t believe Black Americans deserve reparations. The post-Floyd racial justice movement that led to this big momentum for reparations – it’s dissipated. Democrats have kind of dropped it, and on the right, there’s been an outright backlash, what some activists call white-lash. Many prominent conservatives have made an issue of denying systemic racism is real, and there’s also a growing movement to challenge programs that address systemic racism in court. All of that said, California Reparations advocates are not giving up, and the state is still engaged in one of the largest scale efforts to compensate people for historic racism in our country’s history.

FLORIDO: That was race and identity correspondent Sandhya Dirks. This episode was produced by Brianna Scott. It was edited by Adam Raney and Gigi Douban. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.


FLORIDO: It’s CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I’m Adrian Florido. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Written by: NPR

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