The Golden State is trying to create a path for reparations for the harms of slavery — and may be creating a model for more governments to use.

by Curtis Burn

SACRAMENTO — A task force set to discuss and issue recommendations about California’s debt to the descendants of enslaved people kicked off a two-day public hearing Friday — and it was clear that members and public in attendance were hopeful its impact could reach beyond the state’s borders.

The most populous state in the country is attempting to carve a pathway to reparations through the nine-member group, with a comprehensive set of recommendations expected to be released by July 1.

“This is an historic moment, not only for California, but America at large,” said Maureen Simmons, who as an intern for Assembly member Shirley Weber completed research that led to AB 3121 — the bill to create the Reparations Task Force in California.

While other cities like Evanston, Illinois, and Providence, Rhode Island, have established reparations for slavery and racial terror, Simmons said she is convinced California’s Herculean effort will act as a model “that will set the tone for what reparations should look like here across the U.S.”

In a 500-page preliminary report issued in June 2022, the California task force outlines wrongs specific not only to the state, but to discrimination and white supremacist policies across the country. As California Assemblyman and task force member Reginald Jones-Sawyer emphasized, “This will be the model for everyone, whether they do it at their local level, state level or when they finally do national reparations.”

The reparations hearing in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday.
The reparations hearing in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday.Curtis Bunn / NBC News

Jones-Sawyer pointed out the unprecedented, “comprehensive evaluation of the harms of chattel slavery and its impacts on African Americans” to be documented in the final report, which he said will include data and research from a host of economists, analysts, historians, educators, genealogists and the California Department of Justice.

“This will be used by others,” Jones-Sawyer said. “And the reason ours will hold up is because the foundation of it is based on data, hard core data, suitable data.”

The preliminary report that is guiding the work of the California task force covers 12 points of emphasis: 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 racial wealth gap.

The task force will recommend measures to address disparities in these areas, Jones-Sawyer said. But most noteworthy, he said, “we will recommend financial compensation. But we’re going to make recommendations on many areas that I think will have a longer lasting impact on African American life.”

Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a member of the California Reparations Task Force gathered to hear public input on reparations in Los Angeles
Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a member of the California Reparations Task Force, which gathered to hear public input on reparations in Los Angeles in Sept. 2022. Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

But there are still a few issues that need to be worked out before the task force issues any recommendations. Among them,  determine what are the California residency requirements to receive reparations; establish what were the beginning and end dates connected to the harms inflicted by slavery; who will be compensated, and how financial reparations will be paid and calculated.

“It’s a big job, a hard job that, at first, I said, ‘No way’ about being on the committee,” said task force member Cheryl Grills, a professor of clinical psychology at Loyola Marymount University. “But the African in me said, ‘I have a duty to do this. There’s nothing more revolutionary to do with your life in this moment.’ … And so, the downside of it — the vitriol and mean-spiritedness that we endure, especially from Black people, is a different level of hurt and pain. But there’s so much more at stake.”

Jones-Sawyer said that as an elected official he is accustomed to what he called “Twitter terrorists.” But he said he feels sorry for the other task force members. “None of them signed up for that,” he said, “and the only thing that really bothered me is when my own people would attack me. That’s disheartening, because at the end of the day, I’m trying to do something for all Black people.”

The people’s angst was clear at the initial hearing Friday at the auditorium of the California Environmental Protection Agency. With a large media presence and television cameras pointed at them, residents lined up for the opportunity to express their support and concerns — in person and via phone — about the progress and process of the reparations movement.

The speakers were angry and agitated, hopeful and grateful. But they also were not convinced anything would happen. read more