California’s reparations process wasn’t pretty — but could yield important lessons for the rest of the country

At first glance, the meetings of California’s reparations task force were often an exercise in turmoil. Task force members regularly traded personal barbs and squabbled over procedural motions, even as the eyes of the country were on them. When they weren’t fighting amongst themselves, they were being shouted down by the audience.

But when members of the panel reflect on their work, a different narrative emerges: They had an unprecedented job as the first statewide reparations task force in the country, and they got it done.

The task force concluded the bulk of its work earlier this month when it voted to approve a final report more than 500 pages long. Among the remedies the panel recommended: California issue a formal apology for its role in enabling slavery and its many vestiges of white supremacy, and the state make cash payments to those whose ancestors were enslaved. An initial assessment of damages estimated that it could cost up to $1.2 million per person over a lifetime.

Now, state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom must decide whether to pass a more specific reparations plan. Already, the panel’s work has drawn national media attention and stirred controversy, particularly as other states and some cities look to study reparations.

The Chronicle spoke with seven members of the nine-member panel about what they took away from being part of the first panel of its kind in the country. Several common lessons emerged, despite fierce personal and ideological divisions that remain about their work.

Define who’s eligible from the outset

It might seem like the simplest of questions, but it nearly tore the task force apart: Who should be eligible for restitution, including potential cash payments? Should it be people who are descended from enslaved people, or all Black residents of California regardless of lineage?

The task force was bitterly divided over that question and spent much of its first 10 months trying to find resolution. Part of the challenge was a lack of clarity in state law.

The Legislature and Newsom created the task force in 2020, and instructed its members to study reparations for Black people with “a special consideration for African Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.” 

Some task force members — ultimately a slim majority — said that directive made it clear that the focus should be on those whose families were harmed by generations of slavery, an approach they argued would be more legally defensible because it ties compensation to specific historic harms.

But another faction suggested that reparations should 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. They argued that all Black people have suffered racial inequities.

Task force Chair Kamilah Moore, an attorney and reparations scholar, said a lot of that heartache might have been avoided if the bill that created the task force had made the eligibility criteria explicit and removed the potential for different interpretations. 

“We took 10 months essentially debating it,” she said. “Moving forward, other states can learn from us by just being clear from the outset with the legislation.”

Ultimately, the task force voted in March 2022 to limit reparations to California residents whose ancestors were slaves or Black people who lived in the U.S. before 1900. That decision excluded more recent Black immigrants from direct forms of compensation — it also highlighted a cultural divide within the Black community.

The issue was finally clarified for the task force when Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a former legislator who wrote the bill to create the task force, implored its members to keep reparations focused on people descended from the period of slavery. Otherwise, she warned, they might get nothing done.

“If we decide to solve all of the problems around the world, we will probably get 50 cents each,” Weber said in early 2022. “This is about this country … and what the U.S. owes those individuals who built this country.”

But even once the question was settled, lingering disagreements nearly derailed the panel’s work. The issue continued to cause a stir among the public, and enraged some people in the audience at task force meetings.

Jovan Scott Lewis, a task force member and a UC Berkeley geography professor who studies racial inequality, agreed that if the eligibility rules had been made clear early on, much of that tension could have been avoided.

“I think internally we got over it; I don’t think the public did,” he said of the decision.

But Assembly Member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles and a task force member, said he still worries that many Black people won’t be able to trace their ancestry, especially those who grew up in foster care or are homeless. He said the task force should have spent more time exploring that issue.

“We’ve got to make sure that we don’t leave anybody behind,” Jones-Sawyer said.

The task force did recommend that California create an American Freedmen Affairs Agency, a state entity that could process reparations claims and help people research their ancestry. 

Allow the emotional process to play out

The task force convened in June 2021 under difficult circumstances. Due to the COVID pandemic and a desire to avoid large gatherings, it chose to hold many of its early meetings remotely, using a glitch-prone video service.

“It is what it is — we convened right in the heart of the pandemic,” said Lisa Holder, a task force member and civil rights lawyer. “You need to actually build relationships and have physical contact with each other.”

Panel members said those conditions made it difficult to form a rapport before they waded into such a complex and emotionally charged topic. Tensions soon began to boil over in public, particularly as they debated eligibility rules and the panel’s communications strategy.

The tensions between panel members subsided somewhat after the task force began holding in-person hearings last year. But the challenge soon became audiences shouting down members or angry commenters harassing them.

Last summer, some task force members complained that the public criticism had become so great that they were being inundated with hate speech and some threats.

Don Tamaki, a task force member and attorney who has studied parallels between the Japanese and African American reparation efforts, said deep tensions also played out at public meetings in the 1980s, when the federal government created a task force to study reparations for Japanese Americans interned in camps during WWII.

“The process is necessarily rough. It’s an emotional one,” he said. “These are very personal things, they’re not abstract policy debates. They’re reflecting on their own families, their generations, their ancestors.”

Tamaki said while any reparations effort is likely to include tense moments, the process in California was difficult because the law that created the panel included a strict two-year deadline. The task force must complete its work before July 1.

In contrast, the federal commission to study reparations for Japanese Americans was appointed in 1980 and took at least three years to study the issue. It wasn’t until 1988 that the federal government began providing $20,000 restitution payments to Japanese people who were imprisoned.

Tamaki said asking the panel on reparations for Black Californians to examine the effects of a 400-plus-year legacy of slavery and discrimination was a monumental task that put a lot of pressure on the body. He said they didn’t have much time to delicately wade into challenging questions that would divide the community.

“To do this in two years is very challenging. If we had three years, it could have been a lot smoother,” he said.

Meanwhile, other task force members fought efforts to give the group more time to complete its work. They said the Black community has waited too long for restitution, and many reparations advocates adopted the slogan, “Reparations delayed is reparations denied.”

Last year, Newsom vetoed a bill that would have given the task force another year to continue its work. In a brief message, he said Weber had asked him to veto it.

Ultimately, several task force members said those fiery moments might be unavoidable when tackling such a heated topic.

“There are always going to be differences of opinion. But we created a classic document,” said Amos Brown, the task force’s vice chair and a longtime pastor at San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church. “We got the facts. ​​The question becomes: What will California do about the facts?”

Jones-Sawyer agreed that tense debates were an inevitable part of the process.

“The good thing about it is that we debated it in public, the bad thing about it is that we debated it in public,” he joked. “Democracy isn’t pretty.”

Have a communication strategy on payments

Externally, the task force has struggled with the narrative around its recommendations. The news that its final report includes an assessment of damages of up to $1.2 million per resident set off a media firestorm.

The details of the damage assessment are nuanced: It is a rough estimate prepared by economists to show what it would take to compensate Black residents for a lifetime of harms in the areas of housing discrimination, health harms and mass incarceration and overpolicing.

The number is not a formal proposal for cash payments, but a proposed methodology for legislators and Newsom to use as a starting place. They have the final say over whether to provide cash reparations.

But the number was quickly taken out of context. A headline on Fox News’ website declared, “California reparations panel approves payments of up to $1.2 million to every Black resident.” That was incorrect because only Black residents with a lineage to the period of slavery in America would be eligible, and reparations amounts would vary based on how long a person lives in the state.

While some task force members have blamed the media, others have expressed frustration with the group’s own communications strategy.

The panel has used four communications firms in the last two years. The most recent, hired last fall, is Charles Communications Group. Its director, Shawna Charles, has regularly clashed with Moore, the task force chair.

Charles accuses Moore of being too critical of errors related to spelling and grammar and almost driving her to quit, as KQED first reported. Moore has said Charles’ work was often sloppy and questioned her competence.

In the meantime, the task force’s communications operation has been hardly visible during its most crucial final stretch. Charles has often not responded to media requests about the task force in recent weeks. On Monday, she said she would not be available to speak with a reporter “for the next week or two.”

Other task force members have sought to stay out of the fray while fretting about a need to respond to media narratives on cash reparations. 

They said the task force and reparations supporters need to work hard in the coming months to ensure that the public understands California’s conflicted history on slavery.

Don’t assume people know the full history of slavery

Many members of the task force — which included scholars, lawyers, lawmakers and others with experience studying slavery and racial inequity — said they were struck by what they didn’t know going into the process about the extent of California’s role subjugating Black people throughout its history.

Jones-Sawyer said he started the process with the “misconception” that California’s history on racial issues was dramatically better than the former Confederate states. He said he was shocked to learn how much the Golden State was complicit with slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws and segregation.

“You realize that California was deep in it and was practicing some of the same things that they were doing in the South,” he said. “That was the most eye-opening. It was also hurtful.”

Despite entering the Union as a “free state” in 1850, historians say slavery continued to be openly practiced in California for years by white Southerners, who brought enslaved people to the state and forced them to work in gold mines and on plantations. Moore said such “slave colonies” have often been left out of state history textbooks.

That thread of anti-Black bias has endured in state policies through the years, according to the task force’s report. Examples include 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 rigid sentencing laws that led to mass incarceration in recent decades.

Scott Lewis said the task force’s recommendations about monetary compensation, along with restitution through policy changes and other means, need to be read in the context of those harms. He said “societal discomfort” about cash reparations seems to be rooted in misconceptions about inequality.

“Our biggest challenge is getting over the hump about how people feel about money,” he said. “This money is not about a handout, the money is based upon the calculation of actual losses at the hands of the state.”

But at least one task force member has already said that cash payments might be a reach. State Sen. Steven Bradford, a task force member and Democrat from Los Angeles County, said last week that it “might not be a check.”

His comments came in response to reporters’ questions about Newsom stating that reparations are “about much more than cash payments,” though his office later clarified that monetary payments are still on the table. 

“There’s a lot of stuff we can do that doesn’t require a check. I’m realistic enough to know that we might not have colleagues who are willing to do that,” Bradford said.

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