By Wendy Fry, CalMatters
The California reparations task force on Saturday concluded two days of public hearings in San Diego, making some key decisions and inching closer to their July deadline for their final set of recommendations.
The task force agreed on Saturday to recommend that the state create the California African American Freedmen Affairs Agency to implement recommendations by the task force.
The Reparations Task Force has been meeting throughout California to help state officials examine how slavery and systemic racism have harmed African Americans and how the state should respond. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the 2020 law creating the task force, which is expected to develop reparations proposals for the Legislature by July.
The Freedmen Affairs Agency would process claims for reparations and work with various state agencies to handle other recommendations.
Most of the task force also agreed to extend their work for another year, to oversee the implementation of their recommendations. Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, abstained from that vote, while the other eight task force members voted in favor of extending their work until July 1, 2024.
In September, Newsom vetoed a bill by Jones-Sawyer that would have extended the deadline for the task force’s recommendations.
Task force members also appeared to agree Friday that there will be some form of a state residency requirement for people to be eligible for compensation for the harms caused by slavery and racism. But the parameters of the residency requirements remain undecided.
For example, it remains unclear if people who suffered from one of the task force’s designated five categories of harm while living in California, but have since moved out of state, would be eligible for reparations.
Those five categories of harm against Black people include the unjust taking of properties, devaluation of Black businesses, housing discrimination, mass incarceration and health harm.
Most task force members said they were leaning toward setting a current residency requirement, meaning to be eligible the person has to be living in California. But no official vote was taken Friday or Saturday.
Cheryl Grills, a task force member and clinical psychologist with an emphasis in community psychology, said she is concerned that some vulnerable people, such as children in foster care or people just getting out of prison, would be heavily burdened having to meet overly-specific residency requirements.
“We want to be as inclusive as possible, because the harm is everywhere. It’s omnipresent and it touches all Black folks,” she said.
About 6.5% of California residents, more than 2.5 million people, identify as Black or African American.
About 20% of California’s 60,000 or so foster children are Black, as are large percentages of California’s 95,000 state prisoners, nearly 14,000 federal prisoners and 44,000 or so county jail inmates.
Task Force Chairperson Kamilah Moore indicated she may support allowing for compensation to certain people who have been harmed while in California but have moved out of state.
“We shouldn’t necessarily punish people for the harms they endured, but for not being able to withstand the state-sanctioned atrocity,” said Moore, who is a reparatory justice scholar and attorney.
The task force also discussed and preliminarily approved recommending the state close as many as 10 state prisons, but it debated what should be done with the sites. The panel discussed recommending selling or leasing the properties or using the spaces as teaching or training locations.
A full list of the task force’s several dozen “preliminary recommendations for future deliberation” was published on the Department of Justice’s website.
Other recommendations include allowing incarcerated prisoners to vote and receive a fair market wage for work, making zero-interest loans available to Black-owned businesses and homebuyers, and providing college scholarships to Black high school graduates.
Any reparations program would need to be enacted by the Legislature and approved by the governor.
The meetings Friday and Saturday at San Diego State were the first of in 2023 and the 12th public hearings since Secretary of State Shirley Weber wrote the legislation creating the panel when she was an Assemblymember.
Weber attended the meeting Friday morning and received a standing ovation from about 100 people in attendance. She urged task force members to push their recommendations forward and said she hoped the task force’s work would become a model for a national effort of reparations.
“It’s like a baby; if you don’t get it out, it’s not going to live,” Weber said. “Make sure your recommendations will really change the experience and life for African Americans. We don’t need token things … Make sure your recommendations are going to have a lasting impact.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, on Jan. 24 reintroduced federal reparations legislation that would establish a commission to consider proposals for reparations for African American descendants of slavery.
A similar bill to create a national commission to study reparations for Black Americans has been introduced in Congress in various forms over the last three decades. The last bill advanced out of the House judiciary committee for the first time last year but did not go further.
On Friday and Saturday, task force members also heard about how current U.S. tax law benefits the wealthiest members of society, the large wealth gap between Black and white citizens, and about various reparations efforts in other cities and counties.
The task force’s nearly 500-page interim report presents national data showing that in 2017, 3.5% of all U.S. businesses were Black-owned, while 81% were owned by whites.
The median Black household net worth in 2019 was $24,100, less than 13% of the median net worth of white households at $188,200. State-by-state data was not available.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria also spoke Friday and applauded the task force. He shared his personal experiences as the first person of color elected as the city’s mayor. Gloria is Latino, Native American and Filipino.
One public commenter criticized Gloria for not yet initiating a San Diego reparations task force like other cities, such as San Francisco, Berkeley, Sacramento, Oakland, Hayward, Vallejo, Culver City and Los Angeles, as well as the counties of Alameda, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The next set of state public hearings will be on March 3 and 4 in Sacramento. Agenda items will be posted on the Department of Justice’s website when available.
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