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California task force narrowly approves plan to restrict reparations

After bitter debate, group decides not all Black residents should be eligible

Never mind all the people trying to prevent Black folks from receiving reparations. Even among those who want to compensate African Americans for the harm caused by slavery and state-sponsored racism, the path forward is difficult and acrimonious.

That was my conclusion Tuesday night after watching what could have been a milestone in a growing national movement. California established a task force last year to formulate proposals for reparations, and after months of discussion and hearing testimony, the panel was voting on who should be eligible for compensation. Defining that “community of eligibility” brought long-simmering divisions to the surface and led to a tight vote that didn’t feel like it fully resolved the debate.

The task force was considering a motion to define those eligible as “an African American descendant of a chattel enslaved person OR descendant of a free Black person living in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century.” In reparations terminology, that is called “lineal” eligibility for Black people who lived through slavery and the immediate aftermath.

Five yes votes were needed to pass, but the initial motion only received four. Three members voted no because they wanted all of California’s 2.6 million Black citizens to be eligible for reparations. Two of the nine panelists abstained.

The discussion quickly turned contentious, at times devolving into sniping, thinly veiled insults, political grandstanding and rebuttals of rebuttals. The meeting was virtual, with each panelist in their own box on a computer screen, adding to the sense of separation. In the public chat section, panelists were viciously attacked. It took more than three hours of debate for the task force to move forward.

Those three hours exposed the challenges facing reparations even in a liberal stronghold like California – let alone the U.S. Congress. And they highlighted unresolved questions within the reparations movement itself: Are reparations for slavery, or racial injustice in general? What defines a person as a Black American?

In recent years, the movement for reparations has moved from pie in the sky to serious consideration, and it gained momentum during the racial upheavals of 2020. California is the first state to take action, joining at least 11 cities.

Unlike other places pursuing reparations under hostile circumstances, there were no white people standing in the way in California, no conservatives complaining about paying for something they didn’t do. Eight of the task force’s nine members are Black. Appointed by the governor and leaders of the state legislature, they include elected Democrats, civil rights lawyers, a former Freedom Rider, reparations scholars and a Japanese American lawyer who helped his people secure reparations for their racist incarceration during World War II.

And the conflict was not something Black folks should be ashamed of or hide. The history of Black progress is filled with bitter yet principled debates over strategies and ideologies. Arguments that are challenged and strengthened can prevail. Many roads lead to freedom.

All that said – Tuesday’s ruckus wasn’t as bad as what Malcolm X said about Martin Luther King Jr., but it got real.

“It was crazy. The discussion got heated, there was a lot of shade thrown, a lot of words exchanged,” task force chair Kamilah Moore, an attorney and reparatory justice scholar, told me afterward. “This question around the community of eligibility has kind of loomed over the task force since we started 10 months ago. We’ve been kicking the can down the road, so I’m relieved that now we can use our time more constructively.

“A lot of us on the task force, we all have our own views and understandings about what reparations is, and that colored today’s considerations,” she said.

The panelists who favored lineal eligibility were Moore, San Diego city council member Monica Montgomery Steppe, University of California-Berkeley professor Jovan Scott Lewis and Amos Brown, a San Francisco pastor who was once arrested with King and is on the NAACP board of directors. Their basic argument was twofold: providing reparations to all Black Californians would be found unconstitutional, and the California law was written to compensate descendants.

Those who wanted to compensate all Black Californians were civil rights lawyer and scholar Lisa Holder, state assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer and Loyola Marymount psychology professor Cheryl Grills. They argued that the law did not intend to exclude any Black people, that limiting reparations to descendants would ignore the continuing harm caused by slavery and racism, and that the continuing harm negated concerns about unconstitutionality.

To exclude millions of Black citizens from compensation “is not reparations from an international human rights perspective,” Holder told the group. Grills said she found it ironic that after white people invented racial categories to oppress others, “now you are trying to restrict us from using the very thing they concocted.”

“To deny all Black people from reparations would be another win for white supremacy,” Grills said.

Those were statements of principle. Others went like this: “I worked in the mortuary business a long time,” Jones-Sawyer said. “This sounds like people bickering over an inheritance. Over money we ain’t got.”

Those abstaining from the first vote were state Sen. Steven Bradford and lawyer Donald Tamaki, the only person on the panel who is not Black. Tamaki repeatedly tried to find common ground between the two factions. He noted that their differences were “not just about compensation or reparations, it’s about a group’s identity,” and said that when he was helping to secure reparations for Japanese Americans, “we had to exclude some people from our group also.”

After numerous parliamentary objections and rulings, the motion to approve lineal descendants still could not pass. Frustrated, Brown launched into a sermon: “In the words of Martin Luther King, the title of his autobiography, we have to make strides toward freedom. … I’m saddened that it appears there is a feeling that we can’t take the first step. Are we going to be a friend to the enemy?”

Holder introduced an amendment that would have made all of California’s Black citizens eligible, with “special lineage considerations” for descendants. But what did that mean, exactly? Descendants would get more money – 10% more, 50% – than an immigrant from Jamaica or Mali? Moore said under that approach, “this ceases to be a reparations task force. It becomes a racial equity and justice task force.” The amendment failed, with everyone holding their same positions as in the first vote.

That created a procedural opening for Moore to call another vote on the original motion to provide reparations only to lineal descendants. But this time, Bradford voted yes. Tamaki voted no. Both had abstained on the first vote. The motion finally passed, 5 to 4.

The panel will now send the eligibility definition to a group of economists, who are charged with coming up with proposals to fund reparations. The task force is scheduled to deliver a final report to the state legislature in June.

After the meeting, almost 10 hours of testimony and debate, I asked Holder how she was feeling.

“Honestly, I feel very tired. It was a long day. It required a lot, from everyone,” she said.

“Reparations have been a long time coming. Arguably, we’ve been pushing for reparations since 1865 when the Civil War ended,” Holder said. “Now we are on the cusp of achieving reparations after almost 200 years. And so there’s a lot of passion around the issue, and everyone wants to get it right.

“But the most important thing in the end is to achieve something that provides a measure of justice to our people.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.