This is what California’s three reparations bills mean for Black Americans

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 3, 2024 7:55 AM EDT
This city in Illinois has transferred its reparation fund to a Black owned bank. Photo credit: Bob Korn/Shutterstock

The California State Senate has recently passed three reparations bills as part of a broader legislative effort to provide restitution to descendants of slaves. The bills, authored by Democratic State Senator Steven Bradford, will create a fund for reparations, compensate for land taken by eminent domain for racially biased reasons, and establish the California American Freedmen Affairs Agency.  They also issue an apology to Black Californians for the state’s role in instituting slave laws and discriminatory practices since its founding.

“If you can inherit generational wealth, you can inherit generational debt. Reparations is a debt that’s owed to descendants of slavery,” said State Senator Steven Bradford.

The bills propose the creation of the Fund for Reparations and Restorative Justice to support future policies and programs designed to compensate descendants of Black people or descendants of an enslaved person who lived in California during the 19th Century. An earlier version of the bill which specified the use of 6% of the state budget reserve has since been removed. With California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom signaling his support for aims that do not involve cash payments, the funding source remains unclear. The exclusion of any financial compensation to descendants of Black slaves is notable.

The bills also propose compensation for land taken by eminent domains. This would provide a process for individuals to apply for compensation from the state if their land was seized for racially motivated reasons. In addition to restoring property taken during raced-based uses of eminent domain to its original owners, it provides for other effective remedies where appropriate, such as restitution or compensation. Previous bills on the issue, including one which would have provided homeownership aid and another which would have offered property tax relief for descendants of slaves were voted down by the assembly.

“I’m still not of the belief that we have come that far as a state, let alone a nation, to truly embrace and understand the obligation. There’s not enough money in the state’s budget or in the national budget to make descendants of slavery whole in this country,” State Senator Steven Bradford said about the absence of cash payments.

The California American Freedmen Affairs Agency would oversee all departments, offices, and other bodies tasked with reparations. The bill also establishes a Genealogy Office and an Office of Legal Affairs with the ability to review, investigate, and decide upon applications for compensation.  These provisions are part of more than a dozen reparations bills proposed by the California Legislative Black Caucus earlier this year. The measures touch on education, civil rights, and criminal justice, and the revival of a years-old effort to restrict solitary confinement.

The three reparations bills passed by the Senate are now headed to the members of the Assembly. The Assembly recently passed a bill that would declare a formal apology to descendants of enslaved Black people on behalf of California and is currently headed to the state Senate. The three bills are an important part of closing the racial wealth gap. All bills have until the 31st of August to pass through both houses before heading to the governor’s desk.

In the 1980s, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress to study reparations for African Americans. While states such as Colorado, New York, and Massachusetts have commissioned reparations studies or task forces, California is the first to try to transform those concepts into law.