The nine-member committee, which first convened nearly two years ago, gave final approval at a meeting in Oakland to a hefty list of proposals that now go to state lawmakers to consider for reparations legislation.
California’s reparations task force has completed the central piece of its work, voting during the weekend to approve a plan to compensate some Black residents for the state’s role in enabling slavery and other forms of white supremacy.
Yet even after the final vote, confusion remained over who exactly would qualify for potential cash payments.
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Not all Black residents of the state would be eligible for cash compensation or other forms of direct reparations. Rather, the task force recommended that reparations be limited to people who can trace their lineage to chattel slavery in the U.S. and descendants of a free Black person living in the country before 1900.
The nine-member panel actually voted to limit eligibility more than a year ago, long before its final public meeting Saturday. The 5-4 decision so bitterly divided the task force that the question has loomed over the rest of its work.
Nevertheless, a misconception that reparations would be paid to all Black residents spread quickly during the weekend as the task force made history with its recommendation of cash payments. For example, a headline on Fox News’ website declared, “California reparations panel approves payments of up to $1.2 million to every Black resident.”
Task force Chair Kamilah Moore, an attorney and scholar on reparations, said the panel has tried to combat misinformation about the eligibility question. She was among the majority that voted to use a lineage-based test, as opposed to a race-based test.
“Any headlines that state all Black Californians will be eligible for uniform cash payments are false,” Moore said.
She stressed as well that the size of cash payments would vary based on how long a person has lived in California.
The final report the task force approved includes a rough estimate of potential damages caused by slavery and its vestiges: up to $1.2 million per person over a lifetime. The number is not a formal proposal for cash payments, but a proposed methodology for what it would cost the state to compensate a lifelong resident.
Now, the Legislature must determine whether, and how, to translate the damage estimates into proposed reparations amounts.
Lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom have the final say, and would need to determine how to pay for the plan, which economists have estimated could cost more than $800 billion. The task force has until July 1 to deliver its final report to the Legislature.
Both the damage assessment and the eligibility rules would affect the potential cost of the program. But at Saturday’s meeting in Oakland, the task force spent much of its time debating the latter issue, even as Moore repeatedly urged the panel not to relitigate that point.
Amos Brown, the task force’s vice chair and a longtime pastor at San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, at one point implored his colleagues to stick with their decision: “How do you deal with a big elephant?” he asked. “Take one bite at a time. We got to take this bite here or else we as Black folks will never get any kind of healing at all.”
Task force members who’ve supported the lineage-based approach have cited legal experts who advised that an ancestry standard, based on specific historic harms, would be easier to defend from challenges.
But another faction of task force members suggested that reparations should also be open to all of California’s roughly 2.6 million Black residents, regardless of whether their families came here after the end of the Civil War in 1865. Their argument was twofold: that many people cannot easily trace their ancestry to the time of slavery, and that all Black people have suffered racial inequities.
Cheryl Grills, a task force member and psychologist who studies mental health disparities, told the task force last year that “lineage-based approaches are in fact divisive of a Black community that we need to be united.”
Ultimately, the task force decided to stand by its decision to limit reparations to California residents whose ancestors were slaves or Black people who lived in the U.S. before 1900. The task force also recommended that California create an American Freedmen Affairs Agency, a state entity that could process reparations claims and help people research their ancestry.
It’s unclear when and if the Legislature will take up reparations. Lawmakers face many difficult questions ahead, including how to address what degree of ancestry would be necessary to receive payment.
If legislators decide to follow the task force’s recommendations, restitution would be due in at least three areas. A rough estimate of the damages due in those areas, according to the final report:
• Mass incarceration and overpolicing in Black communities: $115,260 per person in 2020 dollars, or $2,352 for each year of residency in California from 1971 (the first year of the war on drugs) to 2020.
• Discrimination in housing, such as redlining that denied home loans to Black families late into the 20th century: $148,099 per person, or $3,366 for each year between 1933 and 1977, when redlining occurred.
• Health harm, including unequal access to health care, greater exposure to environmental pollution and discrimination from medical workers: $13,619 per person for each year spent in California, or $966,921 per person, with an average life expectancy of 71 years for Black people in the state.
At least the discussion of reparation is ongoing.