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A California state task force released a new report detailing the harm committed against Black people in American history. The nearly 500-page report gives recommendations for ways to right the wrongdoings that “continue to physically and mentally harm African Americans today.” It also includes a detailed history of how the government disadvantaged Black people systemically, starting with slavery and continuing with segregation and other exclusionary acts such as discriminatory housing laws and inequity in the justice system.
“Along with a dereliction of its duty to protect its Black citizens, direct federal, state and local government actions continued to enforce the racist lies created to justify slavery,” the report states, according to NPR. “These laws and government supported cultural beliefs have since formed the foundation of innumerable modern laws, policies, and practices across the nation.”
The conversation around reparations for the Black community isn’t a new one by any stretch of the imagination. It goes all the way back to post Civil War era America—the government’s promise of 40 acres and a mule is still part of the Black consciousness. In the last five years or so, the conversation began to ramp up again, and after the summer of 2020, it’s really been pushed forward. The protests that arose after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are what spurred the formation of the task force.
While a lot of people have heard of the term “reparations,” not everyone fully understands what it means. According to a study on the effectiveness of reparations, they’re used postconflict to “reduce the risk of peace failure.” An article in USA Today defines them as “compensation for historical crimes and wrongdoings with the aim of remedying injustices and helping specific groups of people or populations to prosper.”
The recommendations made in the California report include police reform and offering housing grants to those forced from their homes to make way for things like freeways and parks. They also include allowing incarcerated people to vote and making a more proactive effort to recruit Black American teachers for K-12 schools.
“What we’re asking for is fair, it’s just and it is right, and a nation that does not know how to admit this wrong and act in ways that are practical to show fruits of repentance is on the way to losing its soul,” Amos Brown, task force vice-chair and president of the San Francisco NAACP, told NPR.
In addition to those more specific recommendations, there were some that are more broadly beneficial to society at large, including free tuition at California colleges and universities, raising the minimum wage and requiring employers to offer health benefits and paid time off.
“Without accountability, there is no justice. For too long, our nation has ignored the harms that have been — and continue to be — inflicted on African Americans in California and across the country,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a press release.
Reparations are really only scratching the surface when it comes to trying to repair relationships between oppressors and the oppressed. Some of the things people have suffered cannot have a price put on them, but that doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t try. If for no other reason, it shows their citizens that they’re willing to take even the smallest amount of accountability for the harm they’ve caused.
Other countries have taken similar steps. Colombia, for example, has paid millions in reparations to its citizens after a war that resulted in murder, assaults and other unspeakable acts of violence. South Africa paid $3,900 each to victims of apartheid crimes, totaling $85 million (falling short of the suggested payout of $360 million, according to a New York Times article from 2003). Germany paid reparations to Holocaust victims and gave Israel $7 billion as the nation formed, according to Vox. It’s also important to mention that Germany’s reparations from World War I financially crippled the country—it took 92 years to pay back.
After World War II, the United States paid reparations to Japanese Americans after holding 120,000 people in internment camps. But for some reason, when it comes to reparations for Black Americans, there is always hesitation on the part of the federal government.
As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his 2014 cover story for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” “it is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.” Despite acknowledgment that slavery was not only horrific (Congress only formally apologized for slavery in 2008) but fundamental to the formation of the United States of America, there are still many who think reparations aren’t necessary.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, for example, who said in 2019 at a hearing on the subject (when he was still Senate Majority Leader), “I don’t think that reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation, by electing an African American president.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, sponsored a bill, H.R. 40, also known as the the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act in 2019 that faced opposition. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced the bill for multiple years, starting more than two decades before Rep. Jackson Lee with no success.
That’s why it’s so important that California is taking this task force seriously. If nothing is going to be done on a federal level, it’s good to see states picking up the cause.
“It’s my personal hope that people in California and across the United States utilize this report as an educational and organizing tool,” Task Force Chair Kamilah Moore said in an interview with NPR.
More concrete information from the task force, including allotments and eligibility requirements will be released in 2023.