California task force votes to limit reparations to slave descendants

A first-in-the nation task force charged with studying the issue of reparations for Black Californians voted Tuesday to limit state compensation to the descendants of free and enslaved Black people who were in the U.S. in the 19th century, narrowly rejecting a proposal to include all Black people.

Before the vote, the task force was looking for the public's opinion on how to proceed. 

In a Zoom conference call, members of the task force to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans are trying to work out who should be eligible to receive reparations.

Some members of the public calling in to say it should be those who can prove their ancestors were enslaved. "We built this country by force, we were promised 40 acres and a mule and we never got it. And we're owed reparations because of that," said one caller.

Others say it should be all Black people. "Providing reparations only to those who can prove their dependency from enslaved Africans is yet another win for white supremacy as it dismisses and devalues the harms done to African descendants not enslaved."

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year reparations task force in 2020, making California the only state to move ahead with a study and plan. The public will then be educated on the task force's findings. 

The committee is not even a year into its two-year process and there is no compensation plan of any kind on the table. That compensation could include free college tuition, assistance buying homes and launching businesses and grants to churches and organizations, advocates said.

The vote was split 5-4 with some members pleading with the commission to move ahead with a clear definition of who would be eligible rather than studying the issue for months.

"Please, please, please I beg us tonight, take the first step," said Reverend Amos Brown, vice chair of the task force. The San Francisco civil rights activist Rev. Brown urged his fellow members to come up with concrete recommendations that can be accomplished in the real world. 

"Are we going to act like we live in a country where there are no political realities, no laws," asked Rev. Brown. "Are we just going to go through an exercise and end up at the end of the day coming up with no measurable outcomes whatsoever?"

Those favoring a lineage approach said that a compensation and restitution plan based on genealogy as opposed to race has the best change of surviving a legal challenge. They also said that Black immigrants who chose to migrate to the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries did not share the trauma of people who were kidnapped and enslaved.

They also opened eligibility to free Black people who migrated to the country in the 19th century, given possible difficulties in documenting genealogy and the risk at the time of becoming enslaved.

At the same time that debate was taking place, the Museum of the African Diaspora was preparing to reopen to the public Thursday with exhibits from artist David Huffman among other artists. The museum says part of their core mission is to promote art and discussions of provocative and emotional issues, including reparations. 

MORE: Black reparations panel could decide who gets compensation

"I think these conversations are necessary," said Demetry Broxton from the MoAD. "I don't know where we're going to end up, with these discussions, but hopefully it propels everyone forward."

The task force is set to meet again Wednesday and hold a series of meetings through June before members give their final recommendations. A reparations proposal is due by July 2023 for the Legislature to consider turning into law. 

Associated Press contributed to this report.