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California Defines Slavery Reparations Eligibility

Americans protest for George Floyd. Photo: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

California’s Reparations Task Force (CRTF) has finally defined which black Californians would be eligible for reparations after contentious debate and delaying the final vote by several weeks. 

Having been split between those advocating for reparations only for those descended from those who were slaves in America or all black Californians, the CRTF voted 5-4 for “African American” individuals descended from “a chattel enslaved person or…free black person living in the US prior to the end of the 19th century.” 

Far from decisive, the vote nonetheless reflected the opinions of the CRTF’s creator, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, and Erwin Chereminsky, Dean of U.C. Berkely Law School, who supported reparations based on lineage — Weber on the basis of the unique challenge faced by the descendents of slaves, and Chereminsky on consitutional grounds, as reparations on the basis of race alone would likely run afoul of California’s constitution, which forbids preferential or discriminatory racial treatment by the state. 

CRTF Chairwoman Kamilah Moore, voting in favor of the proposed eligibility criteria, noted that the panel was expressly developed to address the lingering effects of slavery, not racial equity as a whole. 

“That’s a whole other task force,” said Moore. “This is a reparations task force for the institution of slavery.”

CRTF member Cheryl Grills remained firmly opposed to the eligibility criteria, commenting focusing on lineage is “divisive” and “another win for white supremacy.” 

Reflecting on the process by which Japanese Americans received reparations for treatment and property confiscation during World War II, Don Tamaki, the only non-black CRTF member and supporter of the eligibility criteria, believes that more narrowly defining eligibility criteria was the only way to move forward. 

 “It’s rough justice. We had to exclude groups too within our community,” said Tamki. “Practical and very difficult decisions were made.”

Reparations for Japanese Americans were different, as they were paid by the federal government, which apologized and admitted it was directly responsible for their internment during World War II. Given that California entered the United States as a “free state” without slavery and the state governments that perpetuated slavery no longer exist, California’s responsibility to pay slavery reparations is tenuous and likely unconstitutional, especially because eligibility is only extended to black descendants of slavery.  

“Any financial benefits awarded to African Americans in compensation for historical discrimination would collide with well-established Supreme Court precedents,” said Washington Post columnist and editorial writer Charles Lane. “They would likely allow a member of a historically oppressed group to sue for being omitted from blacks-only reparations.”

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