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What the California reparations panel says — and how likely its proposals are to go into effect

California task force mulls reparations
California's reparations task force faces July 1 deadline to submit recommendations 06:51

A group of scholars and lawmakers in California just voted to advance a plan to offer reparations to descendants of enslaved people in the state. Coming at the end of a two-year-process, the momentous proposal is the first state-level attempt to grapple with the lingering effects of slavery and racist laws. It also comes with a price tag of billions of dollars and potential payouts of $1.2 million for older residents, according to some media calculations.

But the process is just beginning. California's task force must now hand over its findings to lawmakers, who will be charged with turning the recommendations into a bill. Here's what else to know about this weekend's decision.

What does the reparations proposal actually say?

The reparations task recommended that the state make a formal apology for its role in perpetuating slavery and its racially discriminatory laws. Topics for the apology include censure of the state's first governor, Peter Burnett, who was an "avid white supremacist"; the state's enforcement of the federal fugitive slave law; the state's delay in ratifying of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which formally ended slavery, and its prohibition against interracial marriage, according to the report.

The task force also made a series of sweeping proposals relating to reparations, including:

  • Create a new agency to implement any reparations laws stemming from the report
  • Abolish the death penalty
  • Pay fair market value for jail and prison labor
  • Prevent private prisons from contracting with the state
  • Make public colleges and universities in the state free for anyone eligible for reparations
  • Make Election Day a paid state holiday
  • Fund wellness centers in African American communities
  • Restore voting rights to people convicted of crimes
  • Adopt a universal health insurance system in the state

The task force also approved several possible calculations for establishing financial harm caused to descendants of enslaved or free Black Americans, detailed below.

Who would qualify for reparations?

People who are descendants of enslaved people or free Black people who were in the U.S. before 1900 would qualify for reparations in this proposal.

The task force "voted to recommend that only those individuals who are able to demonstrate that they are the descendant of either an individual enslaved in the United States, or an individual who was present in the United States prior to 1900 be eligible for monetary reparations," the report reads.

The task force decided on eligibility in March 2022 in a contentious 5-4 vote. Some members of the panel suggested making reparations universal to all 2.6 million Black residents of the state, arguing that the legacy of slavery, state-sanctioned racism and terror harm all Black people, including those who immigrated more recently. They also note that tracing one's lineage to an enslaved person would be difficult as individuals enslaved were deprived of documentation and frequently forced to move around. 

Advocates for a descent-based reparations system, who prevailed in the vote, argued that this framework would have the best chance of surviving legal challenges before the current conservative Supreme Court, which has been rolling back race-based laws and policies.

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A race-based plan could invite "hyper-aggressive challenges that could have very negative implications for other states looking to do something similar, or even for the federal government," task force chair Kamilah Moore said last year.

How much would reparations cost?

The report does not offer an overall economic figure for reparations. Rather, it gives several calculations as examples of how economic damages from slavery and discrimination can be documented, noting that the estimates are preliminary.

For instance, an eligible resident of the state could receive about $13,600 per year to account for the shorter life span of Black Americans that results from disparate health impacts; $2,400 per year to account for disparate policing (unless that year was 2020, in which case the figure jumps to $115,300); $3,400 per year for housing discrimination and a lump sum of $77,000 for the devaluation of business, the report notes. (The task force said it didn't have enough data to calculate harms from property confiscation.)

The task force names five categories of harm affecting African-Americans: Health harms, mass incarceration and disproportionate policing of African Americans, housing discrimination, confiscation of property and devaluation of African-American businesses. 

Under this rubric, the cost of reparations could go into the hundreds of billions of dollars, while lifetime residents of the state could be eligible for over a million each. CalMatters reports that an eligible 71-year-old "who has lived in California all their life could be owed about $1.2 million." A 19-year-old who moved to the state five years ago would be owed about $150,000, according to the outlet.

The task force makes clear the figures are just a starting point, calling the number "a very cautious initial assessment," and said that more research "would be required to augment these initial estimates."

How likely is the proposal to be adopted?

The reparations report is not yet a law, but rather a series of recommendations that now go to lawmakers for their consideration. "Any reparations program will need to be enacted by the legislature and approved by the Governor," the CalMatters website says.

Many of the proposals are likely to spark heated debate. 

"There's no way in the world that many of these recommendations are going to get through because of the inflationary impact," Roy L. Brooks, a professor and reparations scholar at the University of San Diego School of Law, told the Associated Press. Other observers note that the prospect of a recession and California's looming budget deficit could dampen enthusiasm for reparations.

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What's next for the proposal?

The task force is scheduled to meet one last time, on June 30, to formally accept the report and hand it off to legislators. 

Two Democratic lawmakers on the task force, Sen. Steven Bradford and Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer, are expected to lead efforts to make the recommendations law, the Los Angeles Times reports.

At the federal level, a bill to study the effects of slavery and the possibility of reparations has stalled. Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, has called for states and the federal government to pass the legislation, saying, "Reparations are not only morally justifiable, but they have the potential to address long-standing racial disparities and inequalities." 

Several localities have attempted their own reparations-styled programs, with mixed results. San Francisco's board of supervisors is considering a proposal to give financial reparations to the city's Black residents, including a $5-million-per-person lump-sum payment. In 2021, the Chicago suburb of Evanston created a program offering $25,000 for homeownership or home repair to eligible Black households, selected via lottery.

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