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California reparations task force weighs long list of harms, remedies

By nearly any measure — be it the 485-page interim report issued in June, the dozens of meetings, the hours of testimony — the work of the state Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans is sweeping and detailed.

How best to quantify the effects of slavery and systemic racism on Black Californians, from housing and health, to environmental harm, policing and prisons, and mental health?
And if you can quantify, how much money should be paid out in reparations? And who should get it? And aside from money, what larger changes have to be made in government and society?
The nine members of the task force, including San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, wrestled with these questions over two days of public meetings on the San Diego State University campus that ended Saturday. They agreed on some proposals, debated others, and have more to do in upcoming meetings.

By the end of June the task force must deliver a final report to the state legislature with recommendations on what a reparations package would entail. Those will just be recommendations; it will be up to legislators to adopt some or all of them in the future and then up to state agencies to carry them out.

The scope of that work led the task force on Saturday to decide to seek more time. While guaranteeing the report will be finished by June 30, the task force adopted a measure that would extend its life for another year, which would be used to work to turn recommendations into laws and policies.

“We want to make sure when the report is final we have some time to make sure it is implemented correctly,” said state Sen. Steven Bradford of Los Angeles. The task force is the first of its kind in the nation, and could be a “road map” for other states or even the federal government tackling the issue in the future, he said.

That also means the work has to be done right. “If we err here it will allow all the naysayers to say we should not be doing this nationally,” he said.

The task force was created via Assembly Bill 3121, authored by now-Secretary of State Shirley Weber when she was a member of the Assembly representing parts of San Diego County. It was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2020 and the committee began meeting in June 2021.

An interim report issued in June listed five categories of harms Black state residents have suffered and that should be remedied. They are: housing discrimination, mass incarceration, unjust property seizures, and the devaluation of Black businesses and health care.

The question of monetary compensation has attracted the most attention. In March the committee decided that eligibility for any future payments would be limited to Black state residents who are descendants of enslaved people, or of a free Black person living in the U.S. by the end of the 19th century. That standard would exclude some individuals, such as Black people who came to the U.S. in the 1900s.

What that figure ultimately would be, and how it would be paid out, is not yet decided. The committee did approve a recommendation Saturday that would create a new state agency, the California American Freedman Affairs Agency, which would oversee and monitor any future reparations legislation as well as process reparations claims.

The monetary damages are just one portion of the task force’s work, which is delving into a wide and varied spectrum of issues. At the meeting Saturday, the task force reviewed a long list of recommendations that would be part of an overall reparations regimen.

These include requiring the state to formally apologize to Black Californians for past wrong and an explicit censure of Peter Hardeman Burnett, the first elected governor of the state. As governor, the former slaveholder from Tennessee advocated passing laws banning Blacks from the state.

The task force’s interim report also noted that while California was admitted to the union as a free state in 1850, it adopted a fugitive slave law in 1852 that was harsher than the federal law, and banned Blacks and other non-Whites from testifying in any trial involving a White person.

The proposals run dozens of pages. One calls for closing 10 prisons in the state and using the savings for the Freedman Agency’s work. Another calls for abolishing the death penalty, and a third for eliminating qualified immunity — the legal doctrine that shields law enforcement and other government agents from liability for misconduct and abuse while on the job.

With the June 30 deadline fast approaching, Weber on Friday urged the task force to press forward so the proposal can be finished and recommendations put into action. “I want to make sure the work gets done, and the work continues,” she said.


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