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California Releases Interim Reparations Report

Following a key vote deciding reparations eligibility, the State of California has released its interim report on the legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination, and proposed programs of reparations for the descendants of black slaves.

The task force behind the report was created by a law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020 in the wake of the death of George Floyd. The final report will be released by July 1st, 2023, but the preliminary report outlines historical atrocities committed against African Americans, links them to contemporary issues and proposes a plethora of policy solutions, from financial reparations to prison and educational reform.

The report comes at a time of great national controversy surrounding the issue of race and nature of American history and institutions, and makes several incendiary claims that are likely to fuel outrage among its critics and opponents while providing assurances for supporters.

The report links modern capitalistic practices with the brutality of slavery, claiming that ”many of today’s financial accounting and management practices began among enslavers in the U S South and the Caribbean” before proceeding to compare police shootings to “lynchings and mob murder,” arguing that such incidents are their “modern equivalent.”

Environmentally, the report argues that the effects of climate change being more severely felt by disadvantaged racial minorities in cites is an example of systemic racial bias and discrimination. Economically, the report cites that “by some measures, California’s two major industries, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, disproportionately employ fewer African Americans.”

California-specific grievances to the report include that, while the state entered the Union as a Free State, in 1852 as many as 1500 slaves lived within its borders, and the state maintained a harsher fugitive slave law than the federal standard at the time. 

The report also notes that California did not ratify the 14th and 15th amendments – guaranteeing citizenship and suffrage to former slaves and other native born residents of the United States – until 1959 and 1962 respectively. The report does neglect to mention that by most historical accounts the opposition to these amendments in California were fueled more by racial animus towards Asians, Natives and Latinos, who were a much larger share of the state’s population at the time and could have also been granted these rights under the aforementioned amendments. Furthermore, the ratification was a purely symbolic gesture, as the 14th and 15th amendments were already part of the US Constitution in 1868 and 1870 respectively, and were the law of the land. Nonetheless, the report is  thorough in outlining the myriad ways the constitutional protections of the rights of black citizens were flouted or ignored by local and California governments in the late 19th and early 20th century.

With regards to the second half of the report — on reparations and legislative action — some provisions are concrete, like housing grants for families whose homes and neighborhoods were demolished by state agencies for ‘urban renewal’, while others are more abstract, such as compensating “individuals who have been deprived of rightful profits for their artistic, creative, athletic, and intellectual work” without defining precisely ‘who’ will be compensated or precisely ‘how’ it will be done.

Other recommendations would have effects well beyond the black community, including proposals for a higher minimum wage, free tuition to California colleges and universities and more mandated employer provided benefits.

Proposed educational reforms will also likely be contentious, with one of the recommendations suggesting parents be allowed to send students from failing schools to schools in neighboring school districts likely to raise hackles among opponents of school choice, while the recommendation to “[a]dopt a K-12 Black Studies curriculum that introduces students to concepts of race and racial identity” sounds suspiciously like state-mandated Critical Race Theory, which has been controversial within and outside California.

As this is a preliminary report, it is possible that many of these recommendations will be refined, revised or expanded upon in the final 2023 report, and it is presently unclear which, if any, of the recommendations will become public policy.