Over the past 10 months, a panel of experts has undertaken a historic and long-overdue task in the nation’s most populous state — examining, documenting and proposing fixes for the enduring legacy of slavery and how it has continued to harm Black Californians.
In a series of public meetings and feverish report-writing, the mammoth stock-taking has so far tackled white supremacist violence, inferior health care, residential segregation and political disenfranchisement.
Last week, nine members of California’s reparations task force tackled children, youth and families. At the body’s first in-person meeting at a church in San Francisco’s historically Black Fillmore district, Marshé Doss, 21, offered her testimony.
She described how a police officer with the Los Angeles Unified School District pulled her out of high school class for a random search, rifling through her bag and scattering her possessions across the hallway floor as her peers looked on. Finding a hand sanitizer in her bag, an officer accused the teen of sniffing it to get high, saying that she fit “a type.”
“I spent the rest of my high school trying to figure out what my ‘type’ was — if it was because I was Black, if it was because I was low-income,” said Doss, a member of activist group Students Deserve. “I felt embarrassed, and I felt like I did something wrong and was inherently bad.”
In 16 public meetings over the past year, scores of witnesses up and down the state have
These first-ever meetings follow passage of Assembly Bill 3121 — legislation introduced by former Democratic Assemblymember and current Secretary of State Shirley Weber. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed the bill into law on Sept. 30, 2020, creating the task force. Its mandate is documenting the impacts of racial discrimination against Black people and creating a framework for reparations.
California is the first state in the nation to conduct work of this kind, although cities including San Francisco, Evanston, Illinois and Detroit, Michigan have pursued similar efforts. Last year, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) of Texas introduced a bill that would create a federal commission to study reparations, the continuation of a 32-year legislative effort that has yet to gain traction in Congress. Lee’s bill, like similar ones introduced since 1989, has yet to receive a vote.
California’s reparations task force includes a pastor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and an attorney, as well as State Sen. Steven Bradford and Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer. The group is set to release an interim report to the Legislature by June 1 that spans 13 chapters and 600 pages. The draft, now publicly available, includes sections titled “Stolen Labor and Hindered Opportunity” and “Pathologizing the Black Family.”
Recommendations that focus on the state’s child welfare and youth justice systems so far call on lawmakers to confront the “severely disparate involvement of Black families,” to create the new Office of Freedmen Family Affairs to assist with family reunification, and to a review of school disciplinary practices.
“Government policies and practices have destroyed Black families throughout American history,” the draft report reads. “In the past century, both financial assistance and child welfare systems have based decisions on racist beliefs about Black Americans, which continue to operate as badges of slavery.”
In July 2023, the group will issue a final report and more detailed recommendations about the forms that reparations could take.
The work has not been without controversy.
Last month, the task force narrowly approved a proposal that limits reparations eligibility only to those who can prove a direct lineage to enslaved ancestors. That angered some members, who claim that too many Californians will miss out on reparations, such as those who will be unable to provide documentation of their genealogy or those whose ancestors arrived after the end of slavery.
“The system that folks are advocating for here, where we splice things up, where only one small slice benefits, will not abate the harms of racism,” said task force member Lisa Holder, a Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer.
But task force members are still at the beginning stages of determining what that might look like, and critically, what form compensation could take, and state leaders have yet to determine a funding source for possible payments. Some advocates want eligible Californians to receive a formal apology from the state plus cash payments — similar to restitution given to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Others hope to see compensation used to narrow systemic racial disparities in health, housing and education.
Last year, Evanston, the first municipality to begin providing reparations, began giving out money to address discriminatory racial covenants that prevented Black people from living in certain neighborhoods for much of the 20th century. Eligibility is limited to local residents or their descendants who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 — the years when policies like redlining restricted Black families to certain parts of town. Qualifying individuals may receive up to $25,000 to help with down payments, closing costs, mortgage payments or home repairs.
On a far-larger scale, following a 2021 report by the Indigenous-led Assembly of First Nations, Canada pledged nearly $32 billion this year to Native children and families who were harmed by the country’s child welfare systems. About half of the settlement will go toward reforming child welfare services over the next five years, in an effort to prevent unnecessary separation from their parents.
And after forming a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the dark history of apartheid, South Africa handed out $3,900 to about 19,000 victims of murder, rape and violence from 1948 to 1994.
So far the California task force has begun the work of documenting the scope of harm. In hundreds of pages of reports, members have shown how the brutal legacy of racism became enshrined in laws, court decisions and government policies in California. Its scope of devastation is almost unfathomable — the Legislature’s complicity in upholding slavery in the early days of statehood; the failure of officials to prosecute those responsible for beatings and lynchings; the seizure of Black-owned properties; and the forced sterilization of Black men and women in state institutions.
The report scrutinizes the deep historical roots of California’s child welfare system as well, beginning with the violent wrenching of Black babies and children from their enslaved parents in the era from 1600s through the late 1800s. After emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the terror continued, with Black children separated from their families and forced to work for white “former enslavers” as unpaid “apprentices.” “This approach of allowing white strangers, aided by laws and government actors, to take a Black child from their family is echoed after enslavement via the apprenticeship system and by the modern foster care system,” the report reads.
In the 20th century, the reparations committee reports, welfare programs designed to support poor families excluded Black people from their rolls. By 1960, subject to ever-more frequent interactions with government social workers who deemed poor living conditions unsuitable for children, “the effect was to perversely push more Black children into foster care,” the task force members write.
Today, California has the most disproportionate share of Black children in foster care of all states in the country, according to analysis from the National Center for Juvenile Justice. In 2020, Black children were overrepresented in out-of-home placements at a rate of more than three times the rate in the general population.
The reparations task force recommends elected officials tackle these racial disparities through legislation and an office that would assist with family planning and reunification. Authors say the Legislature should also increase direct financial assistance to poor families in California in order to atone for the way that welfare benefits have been denied because of “overtly and/or practically racist policies and practices.”
Like the state’s foster care system, Black youth have been disproportionately represented at nearly every stage of the juvenile justice system. Research from Burns Institute found that in California, Black youth are more than five times more likely to be referred to probation than their white peers. Black teens are also 31 times more likely than their white counterparts to be sent to the state’s youth prison system.
The task force report describes the harmful effects of racist pseudoscience conducted by psychologists at the California Bureau of Juvenile Research at the Whittier State School in the early 20th century. Dozens of Black and Latino youth at the time were described by bogus intelligence tests as “feebleminded delinquents.” Some were denied rehabilitative services and permanently held in state hospitals.
Joseph Williams, an advocate with the advocacy group Students Deserve, said reparations will be a first step to address the past criminalization of Black children that often begins in the very classrooms where they are supposed to be nurtured and educated.
“There’s so many of our folks have already been pushed out,” Williams said at Wednesday’s public meeting. “We’re pushing for the next generation of Black students.”