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California Reparations Task Force Makes Choice on Limits

In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom created a task force to study the institution of slavery and its harms and inform the public about its findings. A few cities and universities across the country are considering similar questions.

California’s task force is mostly made up of individuals who can trace their families’ lineage to enslaved U.S. ancestors. As an initial matter, the task force decided who may receive possible compensation and restitution for reparations. Some groups argued that any reparations should be limited to descendants of free and enslaved Black people present in the U.S. in the 19th Century. They asserted that this limitation would provide the best chance of prevailing in anticipated legal challenges to reparations. Other interested groups argued that all Black people in the state should receive some recompense for the systemic racism in housing, education, and employment they have endured. By a narrow and emotional 5-4 vote, the task force decided to limit reparations to descendants, mentioning that reparations are intended to respond to the injuries of a specific group and not to racism in general.

Critics of reparation argue that California should not pursue them because the state did not practice slavery or enforce Jim Crow laws requiring Black people to be segregated from white individuals. However, evidence provided to the task force showed California and local governments helped strip Black people of wages and property and forced them to live in predominantly minority neighborhoods. The journey to reparations has just begun. The task force must also propose a compensation plan and devise criteria for the specific distribution of any funds. These decisions must be made by June, followed by a specific proposal to the state legislature by July 2023. After that, the state legislature will decide whether to turn the task force’s proposals into law.