Tensions are high as California’s reparations task force tackles a crucial question: What will payment look like?

Dustin Gardiner

Sep. 23, 2022 (SFChronicle.com)

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Cheryce Cryer of Los Angeles speaks during public comment at an April meeting of California’s Reparations Task Force at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco.
Cheryce Cryer of Los Angeles speaks during public comment at an April meeting of California’s Reparations Task Force at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco.Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

California’s task force to study reparations for Black people is preparing to debate the most crucial piece of its work: How much restitution is due, and what form should it take?

Those questions will take center stage Friday and Saturday as the panel begins the final phase of its historic mission. The nine-member task force began meeting more than a year ago, but it has yet to make any recommendations with a specific dollar figure attached.

Whether the panelists decide to endorse direct-cash payments or other forms of compensation, such as land grants and subsidized education, could have wide ripple effects as the task force is the first state-led reparations effort in the nation.

But the path forward is fraught. Beyond external opposition from conservative critics of reparations, bitter internal disputes have spilled over into heated exchanges that overshadowed several of the task force’s past meetings.

Task force Chair Kamilah Moore, an attorney and scholar on reparations, said she hopes the committee can reunite around a common purpose after it took a five-month hiatus and issued a sweeping interim report in June.

“I definitely am hoping that things can become more collegial,” she told The Chronicle. “Reparations is a very controversial topic, it always has been. That might explain some of the passion.”

Outward attention to the task force is also likely to intensify as its members wade into the sticky subject of cash payments. The task force, in its June interim report, recommended that California “implement a comprehensive reparations scheme,” though it said details of the compensation plan would be outlined in its final report.

Moore said cash payments are likely to be a “central piece” of the proposal. But some reparations advocates have instead proposed using restitution to close disparities in areas like education, health care and land ownership.

State lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom created the task force in 2020, and directed its members to study the history of slavery in California and its enduring inequities for Black people. While the Golden State was admitted to the Union as a “free state” in 1850, historians say slavery continued to be openly practiced for years by white Southerners, who brought enslaved people to the state and forced them to work in gold mines and on plantations.

The bill that created California’s reparations task force doesn’t prescribe the form of potential compensation. Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who wrote the measure as a state Assembly member, expressed hesitation about cash payments at the time.

“I say to people, ‘What would you give for 400 years of oppression and always starting behind?’” Weber said in 2020. “I haven’t been able to calculate what it would take. I’m hoping we will be much more thoughtful.”

While the task force hasn’t excluded other forms of reparations from its discussions, several members have repeatedly said that cash payments should be part of the mix.

The panel spent much of its first year meeting with experts and residents to document the lingering harms of slavery. Its interim report outlines the history of slavery in California, and the many vestiges of white supremacy, including redlining practices that denied home loans to Black families late into the 20th century, historically high levels of pollution around Black communities, and over-policing and rigid sentencing laws that led to mass incarceration in recent decades.

“Government laws and policies perpetuating badges of slavery have helped white Americans accumulate wealth, while erecting barriers that have prevented African Americans from doing the same,” the report states.

The task force will meet Friday and Saturday, in Los Angeles, and is scheduled to hear testimony from experts about the estimated cost of reparations and its precedent under international law.

There is precedent for governments paying reparations to correct injustices. The United States granted $20,000 per person to Japanese Americans forced to live in internment camps during World War II. Germany has paid reparations to Holocaust survivors.

Whatever the task force decides, the Legislature and Newsom will have the final say — and, if reparations are approved, they would have to figure out how to pay for it. The task force is expected to deliver its final report, with a recommendation on cash payments, to lawmakers by July 1, 2023.

But the panel’s upcoming deliberations could get testy after a bruising series of meetings earlier this year, when it split over the question of who should be eligible for reparations.

One faction argued reparations should be limited, at least initially, to Black people who can directly trace their lineage in the United States to the period of slavery. The other faction suggested that reparations should be open to all of California’s roughly 2.6 million Black residents because the vestiges of slavery have harmed them all.

Ultimately, the task force voted 5-4 to support the lineage-based eligibility rules after an emotional, months-long series of debates.

Tension over that vote is still simmering, and reparations advocates are now divided over a bill, AB2296, on Newsom’s desk that would extend the deadline for the task force to finish its work until 2024.

Assembly Member Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles and a task force member, carried the bill. He said the motivation is simply to allow task force members an additional year to continue meeting after they issue their final recommendations and convince state legislators to sign off on reparations.

“It will be Herculean work,” Jones-Sawyer said.

Some reparations activists, however, want Newsom to veto the bill. They argue that any delay in the task force’s final deadline could postpone a recommendation on reparations.

“We’re saying reparations delayed is reparations denied,” said Chris Lodgson, an organizer with the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California, which helped push to create the task force. “We’ve been waiting for reparations for over 400 years.”

The task force was initially supposed to issue one final report in June 2022, but its members decided to divide their work into two reports and released the first volume this past summer.

Another controversial provision of the bill would allow Newsom and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly to remove and replace task force members (whom they also appointed). Jones-Sawyer said there currently isn’t a process to remove task force members, which he said was a drafting oversight.

But internal disputes within the task force also appear to have played a role. Jones-Sawyer said he’s concerned that some task force members haven’t done enough to admonish outside groups for inappropriate behavior, including hate speech and threats. He didn’t list any members by name.

“Their tactics have been very scary,” he said of outside groups targeting the task force. “We have members who may even want to quit because they fear for their lives.”

Jones-Sawyer was on the losing side of the task force’s split vote over eligibility rules. Moore, the task force chair, was on the prevailing side of that vote. She said everyone on the task force has been targeted with ugly threats.

“I haven’t been immune to that, either. It hasn’t affected my resolve to the mission,” she said. “I personally condemn hate speech, and as far as I’m aware, no one on the task force has condoned such language.”

Dustin Gardiner (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dustin.gardiner@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @dustingardiner

Written By Dustin Gardiner

Dustin Gardiner is a state Capitol reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. He joined The Chronicle in 2019, after nearly a decade with The Arizona Republic, where he covered state and city politics. Dustin won several awards for his reporting in Arizona, including the 2019 John Kolbe Politics Reporting award, and the 2017 Story of the Year award from the Arizona Newspapers Association. Outside of work, he enjoys hiking, camping, reading fiction and playing Settlers of Catan. He’s a member of NLGJA, the association of LGBTQ journalists.

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