California’s first-in-the-nation task force on reparations for Black Americans said it has documented 170 years of systemic discrimination by the state and demanded “comprehensive reparations” for those harmed by that history of government-sanctioned oppression.
In a 500-page report released Wednesday, a legislatively-mandated task force argues that the present-day wealth gap between Black and White Americans in California and the rest of the country is the direct result of slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and other government policies that locked Black Americans into failing schools and over-policed communities.
“Segregation, racial terror, harmful racist neglect, and other atrocities in nearly every sector of civil society have inflicted harms, which cascade over a lifetime and compound over generations,” the report said.
The task force called its work, an interim report, the most extensive document on government discrimination against the Black community since the landmark 1968 Kerner Commission report.
It called for the creation of a government office to address past harms and potential future ones, and help eligible Black Californians through a reparations program. But it does not put a price tag on its recommendations; that is expected to be detailed later in a second report.
The report recounted a history of California’s mistreatment of Black Americans stemming back to its founding. While California was admitted to the union as a free state, the report points out that the state passed and enforced a fugitive slave law that required the return of enslaved people who sought freedom there.
The report also cites the extensive history of “sundown towns” in California, communities that prohibited Black Americans from living within their boundaries; the report says that many suburban communities outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and most Orange County cities, were once “sundown towns.” It also documents the history of urban renewal and highway projects that dismantled once thriving Black neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Fillmore District, effectively destroying generations of wealth accumulation.
Committee members themselves said they were at odds on whether direct cash payments are politically feasible in the state. The report, issued in conjunction with the state’s Department of Justice, lands in a Sacramento awash with cash. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget included a $97.5 billion surplus, but the Democrat also has faced demands for refunds for taxpayers, and other programs have a call on specific sums of money.
Even supporters admit the campaign for reparations faces an uphill battle in a state where just 6% of the population identifies as Black and where voters recently rejected a move to bring back affirmative action.
“I’m hoping that this report is used as an education tool and an organizing tool, educating the state of California and the United States at large about the harms against the African American community and the contributions of the African American community in the United States,” said Kamilah Moore, chair of the task force. “This report is documenting the full corpus of evidence around the harms against the African American community, which will substantiate the claims for reparations in the final report.”
The interim report comes halfway through the two-year term of the state’s reparations task force. It was created in 2020 by legislation championed by then-Assembly member Shirley Weber, a Democrat who has since become the first African American to serve as California’s secretary of state.
California’s work comes as the idea of reparations has entered the mainstream of the political conversation. More than three decades after it was first introduced in Congress, a House bill that would create a federal commission to study reparations for Black Americans has enough votes to pass on the floor, its key champions say. With odds against the bill in the evenly split Senate, supporters are pushing President Joe Biden to sign an executive order that would create a commission resembling California’s task force.
A 2021 Washington Post poll found that 65% of Americans opposed the idea of cash reparations to Black Americans. A plurality of Democrats — 46% — favored the idea, while over 90% of Republicans opposed it. Two-thirds of Black respondents supported reparations, but only 18% of White respondents did. While a majority still oppose reparations, the numbers of those who support the idea is up markedly from past polls. A 1999 ABC News poll found that just 19% of Americans approved of reparations for Black Americans.
“This has to be a political campaign on top of a matter of policy and any sort of moral argument,” said James Lance Taylor, a political-science professor at the University of San Francisco and a member of the city of San Francisco’s reparations task force. “Anything in favor of expanding rights to Black people has always been negatively received. The odds are always against us, but we are further along than we’ve ever been.”
Much of the thorniest work for the task force remains to be done. After months of debate, in March, the task force voted 5-4 to limit cash reparations only to people who can show that they are descended from Black Americans who were in the country before the turn of the 20th century. But broader questions about the size and scope of a cash reparations — and if they are even possible — remain unanswered.
“I personally feel, this is just me, this is just my perspective, that white folks ain’t going to give Black folks no money to put in their pockets,” said the Rev. Amos Brown, the task force’s vice chair and pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. “But if we can get programmatic solutions in areas where we can quantify the gap and show that the state is responsible, in areas like education, economics, and our cultural enclaves, if we can get some form of reparations along those lines, than I think we will have done a job well done.”
But Chris Lodgson — an organizer with the Coalition For A Just and Equitable California, an advocacy group that helped write the bill calling for the task force and that continues to work closely with the commission by running listening sessions — said cash payments are a must.
“We’re of the position that if it isn’t direct compensation, it ain’t reparations,” Lodgson said. “So crafting actual proposals that rely very heavily on direct financial compensation is the big challenge for us over the next year, but I’m confident that we will do it.”
Supporters remain optimistic that they can find a path.
“California has shown the way on a number of big issues that were just as difficult as reparations, namely marriage equality and marijuana legalization, so if there’s any place that can initiate a similar kind of effect around the issue reparations it’s California,” Taylor said. “It’s the largest state in the union. It’s politically important, and it represents a kind of promise to the rest of America that no matter how outrageous the sort of backlash politics are, there’s a blue wall of California.”