SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Members of California’s first-in-the-nation statewide Reparations Task Force are working on a groundbreaking report, due in June, that they say will get people talking across the country.
A conversation is happening at the State Capitol, asking how California can play a role in righting the wrongs of slavery and the impacts it had on generations of Black families through the present day.
For more than a year, ABC10 has been following the Reparations Task Force, which was established by California lawmakers when they passed AB 3121 in 2020. The nine-member task force began meeting in June 2021 and has met almost monthly since then, with their next public meeting on Feb. 23-24. Members are tasked with studying slavery and its impact on the lives of African Americans – and then recommend actions for reparations.
Members believe their two-part report, with the first part coming out this June, will spark important conversations all across the country.
“The way California goes is the way the country goes,” Assemblymember Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer Sr. (D-Los Angeles) said. “We start things that other people either are afraid to do or unwilling to do.”
The task force has addressed different topics, including gentrification and homelessness, racism in banking, discrimination in the tech sector and – at the start of it all – slavery.
“[We’re] recounting all of the abuses that have gone on for centuries and centuries and where we are now,” Jones-Sawyer said. “And what do we need to do to correct that?”
The work of the Reparations Task Force is bringing an ugly history into sharp focus, he said, as members have heard testimony from invited speakers including doctors, professors, civil rights leaders and activists — as well as comments from the public.
UC Berkeley professor and task force member Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis said the long-lasting impacts of slavery stretch into modern day discrimination in everything from housing, zoning and education to policing, public health and the accumulation of wealth.
“We aren't just talking about this period of, you know, formal enslavement centuries ago; we're talking about the price that African Americans continue to pay for the progress of our nation,” Lewis said. “That African Americans have actually faced the consequences and have paid the cost for California's progress.”
“Today we don't treat African Americans as slaves, but when you look at the prison system, you go, ‘Oh, I now can connect the dots that the prison industrial system might just be another form of slavery'," Jones-Sawyer said.
Members anticipate the June 2022 report will be 200-300 pages long and split into 12 parts: The Institution of Slavery; Exclusion of Blacks from Political Participation; Housing; Education; Racial Terror; Public Health and Mental Health; Environment; Justice System; Arts, Culture and Faith; Family; Labor; and Wealth Accumulation and the Contemporary Racial Wealth Gap.
“What we have in this first report is, I think, one of the most comprehensive, you know, accounting of that history,” Dr. Lewis said.
In fact, members say they expect this to be the most comprehensive report of its kind since the Kerner Commission Report of 1968, written by the 11 members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. That was established in 1967 by an executive order from President Lyndon B. Johnson amid urban riots of that same year in Detroit and other American cities. Following nearly a year of investigation, the Kerner Commission – so named for Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois and chair of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders – released its report of more than 400 pages. In it, the commission laid out a case linking the civil unrest to a lack of economic opportunity for communities of color, racism, police brutality, failed and insufficient social service programs and national news media outlets that told stories through a largely white lens.
“This is our basic conclusion,” the Kerner Commission Report famously stated in its introduction. “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
That was more than 50 years ago, and the words remain sadly salient today, say members of the California Reparations Task Force.
“It’s a through-line that will continue, in fact, if you don’t finally have a reparative accounting for its ongoing development,” Dr. Lewis said.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR REPARATIONS
That’s where Part II of the California Reparations Task Force’s report comes in, due in June of 2023. Members will offer recommendations for reparations, including who should be eligible, what form those reparations should take and how much it might all cost.
“Yes, it might be financial. It might be legislative. It might be a budget remedy,” Jones-Sawyer said. “The reason we have to do this is because the measures we've already put in place were not enough.”
That’s why he hopes the first report coming out this June paves the way for the reparation recommendations.
“The worst thing that could happen is, we get there and [state lawmakers] go, 'Why are we doing this'," Jones-Sawyer said. “It's like, ‘Let’s connect the dots - why things are bad right now. Like, things are not so good for African Americans right now.’ We can trace it, and then you can get to the root of the problem.”
Task force members are not paid by the state for their participation, but California is funding support positions, including researchers and economists who are helping compile the two-part report.
The task force hopes this year’s report will spark conversations on the state level, be a model for other states and even prompt discussion on the federal level.
In short, Jones-Sawyer said, “this needs to be done.”
PUBLIC INPUT AND PARTICIPATION
The California Reparations Task Force’s next meeting is on Feb. 23 & 24, starting at 9 a.m. each day. Every meeting has a time when members of the public can call in and comment. Task force members say that’s where they’ve gotten some good ideas, questions and input — and they encourage people to watch and participate.
“This isn't just an issue for the African American community, specifically,” Lewis said.
Jones-Sawyer said one of the most positive and surprising things that has come out of being on this task force is hearing from white colleagues who have watched the public meetings.
Jones-Sawyer said they have told him, “that's not something I did. I'm a white male, white female. I didn't participate in that. But I now know, I have benefited from it. And I've benefited from it in ways that I never thought about, or even the fact that this country was based on free labor. And if we were to quantify that, to trillions of dollars that this country didn't have to pay, to be able to build this great country into what it is today.’”
Members point, as an example, to this new Washington Post database of the more than 1,700 U.S. congressmen who once enslaved Black people.
“For the first 30 years of American lawmaking, from 1789 to 1819, more than half the men elected to Congress each session were slaveholders,” the Washington Post writes. “This database helps provide a clearer understanding of the ways in which slaveholding influenced early America, as congressmen’s own interests as enslavers shaped their decisions on the laws that they crafted.”
Jones-Sawyer said his work on the task force is making his own history come alive in a more poignant way.
“Look, I'm a descendant of individuals that were in the Civil Rights Movement. My uncle was Jefferson Thomas with the Little Rock Nine, when nine kids integrated Central High School [in Little Rock, Ark.] in 1957,” Jones-Sayer said. “He was refused access to an all-white high school.”
He heard the story while growing up as a kid, but “when I got to college, it became more real to me when I saw him in my history books,” Jones-Sawyer said.
He says similarly, being a part of the Reparations Task Force is making the history of slavery and its long effects come into focus for him.
“The fact that African Americans were property…we were treated like animals,” Jones-Sawyer said. “Hearing those stories…as an African American male, yes, it struck me before, but – really – for the first time, it really struck inside me, into my soul.”
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