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The first of two reports from California’s Reparations Task Forces outlines the persisting effects of slavery on African-Americans in a range of areas

Why is the report significant?

On 1 June, California’s Reparations Task Force presented a 492-page report to the California legislature – the first government-commissioned inquiry into the oppression of black Americans since 1968. It is the first of two by the nine-member panel, focused on delineating the long-lasting effects of slavery to the present day; the second will outline possible remedies.

The task force comprises elected officials, civil rights leaders, attorneys and reparations experts. In March, they held a vote to determine the eligibility of reparations tied to lineage. They came up with the following definition: those eligible would be “descendants of African Americans enslaved in the US or of free Black people living in the country before the end of the 19th century”.

What were its most important findings?

The report detailed the extent to which federal, state and corporate policies led to ongoing discrimination against black people in nearly every aspect of life from slavery until the present day. It stated: “In order to maintain slavery, government actors adopted white supremacist beliefs and passed laws to create a racial hierarchy and to control both enslaved and free African Americans.” 

The report was broken down into 13 chapters detailing different forms of racism. These include:

Racial terror

The report states: “In California, racial violence against African Americans began during slavery, continued through the 1920s, as groups like the Ku Klux Klan permeated local governments and police departments, and peaked after World War II, as African Americans attempted to move into white neighborhoods.”

Political disenfranchisement

"Southern states responded by systematically stripping African Americans of their power to vote. Racist lawmakers elected from southern states blocked hundreds of federal civil rights laws and edited other important legislation to exclude or discriminate against African Americans.”

Housing segregation

“Due to residential segregation and compared to white Americans, African Americans are more likely to live in worse quality housing and in neighborhoods that are polluted, with inadequate infrastructure.”

Education segregation 

"Enslavers denied education to enslaved people in order to control them. Throughout American history, when allowed schooling at all, Black students across the country and in California have attended schools with less funding and resources than white students. After slavery, southern states passed laws to prevent Black and white students from attending the same schools … Today, California is the sixth most segregated state in the country for Black students, who attend under-resourced schools.”

Why is California the first state to conduct such an investigation?

California’s governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the task force in 2020, making it the first state – amid heightened national interest in questions of systemic racism – to make concrete provisions to scrutinise and remedy racial inequality. Kamilah Moore, chair of the task force, told the LA Times: “Essentially the purpose … is to make clear how California and the localities within the state have been complicit in perpetuating the harms against the African American community.” 

Though California has a reputation for tolerance, bolstered through its involvement in the entertainment industry and then the hippy movement in the late 1960s, it is a false narrative. The state’s history is entrenched in racism. The report details how American slave traders trafficked black people to California during the gold rush years that began in 1848. Though US census records show that 178 African American slaves lived in California in 1852, other estimates put the figure closer to 1,500. Slavery was officially abolished in California in 1849 in line with the state’s constitution; however, in a loophole, it stated that “any enslaved black person who had entered California when it was still a territory had no legal right to freedom”, which in effect allowed the practice to continue. 

According to the report, after slavery was abolished federally by the 13th Amendment in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan formed chapters throughout the state with members including high-ranking government officials, with leadership positions in Los Angeles. The report states: “Supported by their government, ordinary citizens also terrorized and murdered Black Californians.” Racism openly proliferated in the California court system. The state stopped people of colour from providing court testimony against whites in 1850, stating that if a non-white person were allowed to testify, it “would admit them to all the equal rights of citizenship, and we might soon see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls”.

The report referenced the destruction of several African-American neighbourhoods across various cities, such as San Francisco’s Fillmore, “redeveloped” in the 1960s and 1970s displacing about 20,000 people from almost 5,000 homes. Additionally, redlining of black neighbourhoods, racist mortgage policies that prevented African-Americans from buying homes, as well as discrimination in education and infrastructure construction all further marginalized black Californians. 

Today, California is the sixth most segregated state in the country, with a large disparity between the funding for schools in predominantly black neighborhoods and those in white neighborhoods. The picture of ongoing racial inequality in the state is supported by a study on segregation conducted by UC Berkeley's Othering & Belonging Institute based on official US census data. It shows the Greater Los Angeles area to be the sixth most segregated metropolitan area in the country, out of 209, and San Francisco the 25th.

What does the report recommend happen next?

It suggests the following possible steps:

  • Ending work requirements for California inmates and paying them a fair wage for their labour.
  • Holding law enforcement officers more accountable for their actions by 1) implementing a “specific intent” requirement when it comes to unlawful harassment and violence and 2) eliminating state law immunities that shield officer misconduct, and explicitly rejecting protections analogous to qualified immunity under federal law; as well as 3) a provision for special damages when the unlawful conduct is shown to be racially motivated.
  • The repeal of Article 34 of the California constitution initially approved in 1950 to develop, construct or acquire low-income housing funded by the government and also end crime-free housing rules seen to mostly affect black residents when their white neighbours call the police on them for innocuous activities in order to force them to leave.
  • Forming a California African American Freedmen Affairs Agency that reports to a Cabinet-level secretary and works in conjunction with state governments to “eliminate systemic racism that has developed as a result of the enslavement”.
  • The preliminary report serves as foundation for the second report due by July 2023, which will detail how much reparations could be, and who would be eligible. 

Where does the report fit into a broader worldwide drive towards colonial reparations?

Though California is the first state to conduct such an investigation, the task force hopes that it will encourage and provide a foundation for other states to do likewise. Cities such as Asheville, North Carolina and Evanston, Illinois have initiated reparations schemes at the local level, but not federally. A bill known as HR40, which would commission a reparations study, is currently stalled in Congress.

The drive to recognise and compensate the effects of slavery in the US is happening in parallel with growing pressure on European governments to acknowledge their historic involvement in colonialism, which also in many cases encompassed slave-trading. At the World Conference Against Racism in 2001, in Durban, South Africa, African nations demanded an apology for slavery from the former slave-trading countries. Opposition came from the UK, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands, believed to be because of the fear of being obliged to give monetary compensation. The removal of slave-trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, and admissions from the likes of French president Emmanuel Macron that colonialism was an “grave mistake”, suggest the tide may be changing publicly and politically. But no European country has yet committed to financial restitution.

Written By: Olivium staff.


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