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Who Qualifies for Reparations? California Task Force Delays Crucial Vote

Then-Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber (D-SD) presenting her reparations bill. Photo: California State Assembly/Calif. Black Media

California’s Reparations Task Force (CRTF), after running out of allotted time for debate, has delayed a crucial vote on deciding which black Californians would qualify for direct reparations payments from the state government. 

The next meeting and vote is set to occur on March 29.

Under a 2020 California law passed amid a summer of civil unrest, the CRTF has been tasked with quantifying and documenting the effects of slavery, and determining eligibility and mechanisms for reparations payments. 

However, the task force’s most contentious challenge thus far has been determining which Californians will qualify for direct-deposit payments by its June 2023 deadline. 

Major California figures like Secretary of State Shirley Weber and Erwin Chereminsky, Dean of U.C. Berkely Law School, have supported providing reparations based on lineage — that is, to those who are descendants of slaves — rather than race. 

Weber, noting the election of President Barack Obama, who is of mixed race and whose father emigrated from Kenya, has sought to distinguish how descendants of American slaves have faced different challenges from other black Americans. 

“Obama,” she said, “did not have limitations and fears drilled in his psyche, and thus aspire[d] to become the president of the United States.”

According to Chereminsky, who provided closed-door testimony to the CRTF, limiting reparations to only those directly descended from American slaves would maximize the odds of reparations standing up to constitutional scrutiny.

In contrast with Weber and Chereminsky, several members of the CRTF see anything less than reparations to all black Californians as inadmissible. 

“If you have black skin, you are catching hell in this country,” Lisa Holder, attorney and task force member said . “We have to embrace this concept that black lives matter — not just a sliver of those black lives.”

But as the CRTF remains mired in deciding which black Californians would qualify for reparations (or who even qualifies as “black”), one question looms above all others: are such reparations constitutional at all? 

“A racial entitlement is only permissible to remedy the government’s own discrimination, not societal discrimination,” said Hans Bader, a constitutional expert and senior attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Insitute. “Most forms of reparations would violate the Constitution as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court.”

“No ex-slaves are even alive today to be compensated, and it was state governments in the South, not the federal government, that were primarily responsible for the existence of slavery,” Bader said. “The Supreme Court has said that racial set-asides and other entitlements are only permissible to remedy the present effects of the government’s own widespread discrimination in the relatively recent past.”