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California’s Reparations Task Force Debates Who Qualifies

The nine-member panel was created a year ago to study reparations for Black residents but is still grappling with who should qualify and what the compensation will look like. The council has until 2022 to report their findings.

(TNS) — One year after California approved the first statewide task force in the nation to study reparations for Black residents, the panel is grappling with a fundamental question: Who should potentially qualify for restitution?

From the outset, the task force was given a clear mission from state legislators who approved the reparations effort: "Develop reparation proposals for African Americans, with a special consideration for African Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States."

But that seemingly straightforward charge has proven complicated as the nine-member panel debates to what degree reparations should be extended to the countless Black Californians whose families came to the U.S. after the end of the Civil War in 1865, as well as those whose families cannot easily trace their lineage.

State lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom by design left the question about who might qualify to the task force when they approved legislation to begin the reparations debate proposals last fall.

And the task force still hasn't decided what form the compensation might ultimately take. It could recommend cash payments, but some reparations advocates have instead proposed using restitution to close disparities in areas like education, health care and land ownership.

Task force members have until June 2022 to report their recommendations. But the thorny question of who could receive reparations came up repeatedly this week as the group held a two-day meeting.

Its members appeared torn between those who said reparations should be prioritized for Black people who can directly trace their ancestry to enslaved people and others who argued all Black residents have suffered under the many vestiges of slavery, from housing discrimination to unequal public education and mass incarceration.

Cheryl Grills, a task force member and psychologist who studies mental health disparities, told her colleagues she felt perplexed by the debate, saying it raised more questions "than a clear demarcating line."

"I'm struggling with this conversation," she said. "The various machinations of racial oppression didn't go away (after the end of slavery), they just mutated and morphed. And so when you entered into this country, it doesn't do service to the complexity of what we're dealing with."

The panel was, however, in agreement about its starting place: all Black residents who descend from chattel slavery, which began on the American continent more than 400 years ago and spread here.

California joined the union as a non-slavery state in 1850, but hundreds of enslaved people were already living in the state at the time, forced to work in gold mines and on plantations. Many of the state's first Black residents weren't set free when California first passed its Constitution, and the state permitted white prospectors to keep slaves if they planned to eventually return to their home states.

Amos Brown, the task force's vice chair and a longtime San Francisco pastor and civil rights leader, said residents who can trace their lineage to enslaved ancestors have the strongest claim that they are owed restitution.

"Go to the scene of the crime on this continent," he said.

The bill that created the task force, AB3121, was authored by then-Assembly Member Shirley Weber, now the state's first Black secretary of state. Her initial version of the bill only discussed calculating reparations for the "descendants of enslaved Africans."

But the measure was broadened to include all African Americans in the state as it progressed through the Legislature, though a note was added stressing "special consideration" for those descended from enslaved people.

Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D- Los Angeles, a task force member, said that wording change was no accident and reflects Weber's intent that the panel examine how racial oppression continued after slavery, from Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation in the South to broad discrimination in employment and housing.

"If you notice, it says 'special consideration,' not 'exclusively,'" Jones-Sawyer said of the task force's charge. "If you know anything about the Legislature, we fight over words like 'may' and 'shall.'"

But Jones-Sawyer said the wording in the bill makes it clear that the task force ought to suggest different levels of reparations for residents descended from slavery versus those whose families might have immigrated many decades later.

"There is a difference, and we should look at each of those separately," he said.

The debate comes as the task force holds a series of monthly hearings to study the lingering harms of slavery, and its many vestiges of white supremacy, including redlining practices that denied home loans to Black families late into the 20th century, historically high levels of pollution around Black communities, and overpolicing and tough sentencing laws that led to mass incarceration in recent decades.

Other task force members have been more outspoken in suggesting all Black residents ought to receive some form of reparation, regardless of their lineage, due to the systemic racism they face in society.

"The cops don't wait to listen if you have a Nigerian accent before they shoot," said Lisa Holder, a task force member and racial justice scholar. "They see your Black skin, and they are triggered. If you have Black skin, you're catching hell, and you deserve some kind of reparations, and we can start there."

The task force expects to debate the possible forms of reparations further at its Dec. 8 and 9 meetings and is expected to host a series of public listening sessions before next spring.

(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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