California task force votes to restrict reparations eligibility

The state of California on Tuesday moved one step closer to providing a form of compensation to Black residents who can show their families were harmed by slavery and its residual effects. 

In a 5-4 split, California’s Reparations Task Force voted to restrict restitution to the descendants of free or enslaved Black people who were in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century.

If the plan goes through, California will become the first state in the nation to authorize compensation — which it’s calling reparations — for families of people who suffered during the centurieslong era of bondage and forced labor in America.

State officials established the task force in 2020. Since then, members have been studying eligible recipients, practical ways to distribute the benefits, and what form those benefits will take. Their inquiry will culminate with a final report due in June 2023 and a reparations proposal to the state Legislature due the next month. 

Sen. Steven Bradford addresses a press conference at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Cali. on Jan. 15, 2021.
California state Sen. Steven Bradford, a member of the state’s reparations task force, speaks at a press conference at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2021. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool, File

Black Californians make up nearly 7 percent of the state’s population, amounting to roughly 2.5 million people. The task force’s narrow split Tuesday was indicative of important philosophical differences within the movement for reparations. An alternative to the vote would have been to authorize the benefits for virtually every Black person in California. 

But the Rev. Amos Brown, the committee’s vice chair, urged his fellow members to move forward with the direct descendant proposal, arguing that even a narrow eligibility requirement would help people in need of immediate assistance.

“Please, please, please, I beg us tonight, take the first step,” he told the commission. “We’ve got to give emergency treatment to where it is needed.”

The dispute over eligibility highlights an issue I discussed while reporting on the task force last year: Without a comprehensive, federal reparations plan, state-level plans will be constrained by state budgets. And that begs the question whether a plan like California’s should be deemed reparations at all if it only offers repairs for some of the people impacted by slavery. 

To California’s credit, the original authorization for the task force says the group’s ultimate proposals are “not to be considered a replacement for any reparations enacted at the federal level.”

That’s the best framing possible for California’s reparations plan: a step that will surely do some good if it’s made into law, but one that will hopefully propel the movement for a more thorough, nationwide reparations package.

Related:

Feb. 23, 202102:53

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