Will California make reparations payments to the descendants of enslaved African-American people?
Will California pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people? When the state of California was founded in 1850, its constitution decreed it to be a “free state,” one where human slavery as then practiced in the southern United States—where it would continue for another 15 years—was outlawed. The state constitution’s high ideals, however, were not quite the reality.
In fact, slavery was practiced out in the open in California. Newspaper advertisements for sales of enslaved people were not unusual. As many as 1,500 African-American people were brought to California in slavery between 1849 and 1861. The state’s Supreme Court was dominated by ardently pro-slavery justices, and California’s first elected governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, was a proud racist who attempted to pass legislation banning Black people from the state altogether.
Burnett later sat on the state Supreme Court, where in 1858 he voted with the majority in an infamous decision ordering freed slave Archy Lee forcibly returned to his “owner” in Mississippi. Lee had been brought to California the previous year by plantation owner Charles Stovall who, like thousands of others, wanted to try his luck mining for gold. Stovall had no success and quickly moved back to Mississippi. Lee stayed behind, believing he was now a free man, operating his own barbershop business. But Stovall then had him arrested. Cases like Lee’s, of enslaved people fighting for their freedom in “free” California only to be denied by the courts, were repeated dozens of times.
In 2020—more than 160 years after Archy Lee’s freedom was stripped by the highest court in California—the state decided it was time to do something about its history of slavery.
In the United States House of Representatives, Michigan Democrat John Conyers introduced a bill in 1989 to set up a commission that would study ways to pay “reparations” for slavery, to compensate African-Americans for the deep wrongs they had suffered, and the economic and social consequences of the slave system that persist to the present day.
Conyers never found support for the bill, but that didn’t stop him from reintroducing it every year without fail. Conyers stepped down from Congress in 2017. Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee then took over the bill, continuing to introduce the legislation each year.
But in California, Sheila Weber who was then a four-term Assemblymember from San Diego, decided that “if the United States can’t do it, California surely can.” Weber, who has since been named Secretary of State by Gov. Gavin Newsom (Weber is the first African-American to serve in that position), came up with AB 3121, creating a “task force” to study the California reparations issue.
Passed by the both the Senate and Assembly in August of 2020 and signed by Newsom one month later, the bill created a nine member “Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans,” to document the history of slavery in the United States. The task force would then make recommendations on how to compensate for the damage done by slavery, how the compensation—that is, reparations for California citizens—should be distributed, and who should get it.
The task force, which began holding monthly meetings in June 2021, is the first slavery reparations commission in the U.S. and as a result, California is set to become the first state to provide reparations to the descendents of people who were enslaved in the U.S.—with one caveat. The legislature must allocate money to pay for those reparations, and had not taken any steps to do so as of April 2022.
In 1607, English settlers landed on the east coast of North America, near what today would be Williamsburg, Virginia. Chartered by King James I, the settlers planned to create a colony there which they named, appropriately enough, Jamestown. By 1619, despite brutal conditions—weather, disease, conflict with the Native Americans who already lived there—the Jamestown colony had swelled from its original 100 to 700 settlers. But they were not thriving. In fact, according to historians, they may have even resorted to cannibalism to stave off extreme food shortages.
On August 20, another group arrived. These 20 or more people were not English, but African. They were kidnapped from the region that today is the country of Angola, on the southwestern coast of the African continent, by Portuguese colonists. The captives were transferred to a Spanish ship—and then seized by English privateers. Essentially, privateers were pirates who were contracted by governments, in this case the English, to attack and pillage ships from rival countries.
One of the privateer ships sailed into Port Comfort on the Virginia coast, where they sold the captives to the colonists. The North American slave trade was underway.
The Africans brought with them considerable skills in farming and cultivating crops—exactly the abilities that the colonists were struggling to master. Their success led to a demand for more slaves. The demand was so great that a census taken in 1860, five years before slavery was abolished by ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, recorded a population of more than 3.9 million enslaved people in the 15 states where slavery was then practiced legally. Those enslaved people were valued at a total of more than $3 billion. That was more money than was invested in all of the railroads and all of the factories in the United States combined.
Slavery ended in 1865. That was a long time ago. Why should the state or federal governments today pay money to make up for such an ancient wrong? That’s what opponents of slavery reparations often ask, among a variety of other arguments.
The answer, advocates of reparations say, is that the pain and suffering caused by slavery did not end just because the 13th amendment took effect. The country’s 250-year history of slavery caused damage that was never repaired, even today. According to a 2020 Brookings Institute report, the wealth held by an average white family in the U.S. is 10 times greater than an average Black family’s wealth. A white college graduate, on average, has about seven times the wealth of a Black college grad.
This massive wealth gap has its roots in slavery, the Brookings report says. In 1861, the value of cotton produced by enslaved people of African descent in the United States was $250 million, the equivalent of more than $8 billion today. That massive amount of cash all went to make white slaveholders and their descendants rich. None trickled down to the enslaved Black people whose labor created that wealth, or to their descendants.
After the U.S. banned slavery in 1865, the wealth disparity not only did not end, it was deliberately perpetuated. An extensive system of legalized racial discrimination known as “Jim Crow” persisted for another 100 years, largely shutting Black Americans out of the system that led to ever-increasing prosperity for whites. But Jim Crow was far from the only means by which Black Americans were economically disadvantaged in post-slavery America.
As Arizona State University historian Calvin Schermerhorn explained in a 2019 Washington Post op-ed, “the disadvantages that persist are invisible precisely because people in power continuously innovated new forms of discrimination.”
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a seminal 2014 Atlantic Monthly essay titled “The Case For Reparations,” detailed many of these new forms of discrimination. They range from outright, violent terrorism against Black people—lynchings, for example—to the purposefully created barriers against Blacks taking part in broad social programs such as Social Security and the G.I. Bill, which provided economic opportunity and safety nets primarily for whites.
Coates labeled this systematic oppression of Black Americans “The Quiet Plunder.” What can America do to right these wrongs?
“We must imagine a new country,” Coates wrote. “Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”
As of April, 2022, the California Reparations Task Force was still working, planning to issue the first of its two final reports in June—a report that members said would be a landmark in the state and national debate over reparations.
“The way California goes is the way the country goes,” task force member Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer Sr., a Democratic assembly member from Los Angeles, said in February. “We start things that other people either are afraid to do or unwilling to do.”
Another task force member, Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis, chair of the U.C. Berkeley Geography Department, told KXTV News that the report will cover “the price that African Americans continue to pay for the progress of our nation. That African Americans have actually faced the consequences and have paid the cost for California's progress.”
In March, the task force took its first major vote, to decide how it would recommend that California reparations be distributed. By a 5-4 vote, the task force decided to recommend that reparations in California be paid only to people who can trace their ancestry back to an enslaved person, or to a free Black person living in the U.S. prior to the year 1900, according to a report by the Sacramento Observer.
An earlier proposal would have extended reparations payments to all of the approximately 2.6 million African-American people now living in California, while giving “special consideration” to those who trace their family history back to enslaved people. But that plan was defeated in a task force vote.