A group of California lawmakers is tackling reparations for Black descendants of enslaved people with a set of bills modeled after recommendations that a state reparations task force spent years studying and developing.
The legislative package — a set of 14 bills the California Legislative Black Caucus released Wednesday — addresses everything from criminal justice to food. It includes proposed laws that would require the governor and Legislature to apologize for human rights violations. One bill would provide financial aid for redlined communities while another proposal aims to protect the right to wear “natural and protective” hairstyles in all competitive sports.
The headliner of the package, authored by state Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Inglewood who served on the task force, would address unjust property takings — referring to land, homes or businesses that were seized from Black owners through discriminatory practices and eminent domain.
The bill would “restore property taken during raced-based uses of eminent domain to its original owners or provide another effective remedy where appropriate, such as restitution or compensation.”
Notably, none of the proposed new laws would include widespread cash compensation for the descendants of slavery, as was recommended by the state’s reparations task force.
“While many only associate direct cash payments with reparations, the true meaning of the word, to repair, involves much more,” said state Assemblymember Lori Wilson, who chairs the Black Caucus.
“We need a comprehensive approach to dismantling the legacy of slavery and systemic racism,” said Wilson, a Democrat from Suisun City.
Reparations to ‘right the wrongs’
The nine-member reparations task force, which included five members appointed by the governor, issued its final recommendations last year.
While serving on the state panel, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles, urged his colleagues to be practical about which measures could get approved and signed into law.
On Wednesday, he applauded the first set of bills, which include proposals to provide medically supportive food to Medi-Cal recipients and to require advance notice when grocery stores close in underserved communities.
“We will endeavor to right the wrongs committed against Black communities through laws and policies designed to restrict and alienate African Americans,” Jones-Sawyer said in a statement.
“Hundreds of legislative and budgetary reparatory recommendations were made within the final report and I, along with the members of the Black Caucus, look forward to working with our legislative colleagues to achieve true reparations and justice for all Black Californians,” he said.
Some of the bills announced Wednesday include only broad strokes of what the proposed legislation would do, and some have not yet been formally introduced. All of the proposed bills in the reparations slate will be formally introduced by the Feb. 16 deadline, a spokesman for Jones-Sawyer said.
The handful of proposed laws makes the Golden State the first in the nation to undertake reparations for Black Californians, but it is being released amid turbulent political and financial waters. The state is facing a budget deficit that the governor’s office says is $38 billion, which will make it a daunting task to gather support for any measures with hefty price tags attached.
In 2020, Newsom and some Democratic leaders applauded the creation and work of the state’s reparations task force, which held monthly meetings in several cities, from San Diego to Sacramento. Formed in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd, the task force began while initial public support for racial justice was strong, but it has since waned.
As the governor aims to boost his national profile, he has responded cooly to the state panel’s final recommendations, which included more than 115 wide-ranging policy prescriptions and a formula for calculating direct cash payments.
The panel held 15 public hearings, deliberated for two years, and considered input from more than 100 expert witnesses and the public. Task force advisors suggested the state owes Black Californians hundreds of millions of dollars for the harm they’ve suffered because of systemic racism.
CalMatters created an interactive tool for calculating how much a person is owed, using formulas in the task force’s final reports and how long a person lived in California during the periods of racial harm.
An uphill battle
Advocates face an uphill battle convincing other ethnic groups that a payout is due, in part because they have also endured racism and unfair treatment. Asians and Latino voters, who combined make up a majority of the California electorate, largely oppose reparations, as do a majority of white residents, polls show.
A spokesperson for Newsom said Wednesday that the governor “continues to have productive conversations with the California Legislative Black Caucus. The governor is committed to further building upon California’s record of advancing justice, opportunity, and equity for Black Californians.”
At a press conference last month announcing his proposed budget, Newsom said he had “devoured” the more than thousand-page report issued by the state reparations panel.
“We are deeply mindful of what will come next in partnership with the Caucus and the work continues in that space,” Newsom said.
Jonathan Burgess, a fire battalion chief from Sacramento and well-known advocate for reparations, called the legislative package “phenomenal,” especially its proposal to restore property or repay former owners.
“It’s a monumental, profound time,” he said.
Burgess and his family say a portion of land that is now within the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in El Dorado County once belonged to him and his family and was unfairly taken away by the state.
His great-great-grandfather first came to California from New Orleans in 1849, initially brought here as a slave to mine for gold. Burgess regularly attended the state task force’s meetings, speaking about California’s racist history and the need for repair.
“I started my work almost five years ago now,” Burgess told CalMatters on Wednesday, hours after the legislative package was released. “It’s very emotional for me. It’s hard to put into words how I feel — a sense of joy.”
Burgess said many of the wrongs committed against Black people and their families can never be fully quantified with any dollar amount, but returning property is one of the most important measures because it correlates to what would have been generational wealth.
“It’s really about righting history and showing our nation the path forward,” he said. “This is just the beginning, I’d like to hope.”
Featured image: California State Senator Steven Bradford, right, speaks during a Reparations Task Force Meeting at San Diego State on Jan. 28, 2023. Photo by Ariana Drehsler for CalMatters