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First in the US — California’s Task Force on Reparations Looks at Harms of Slavery

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‘Your task is to determine the depth of the harm, and the ways in which we are to repair that harm,’ said Shirley Weber, whose parents were sharecroppers forced to leave the South. Weber, who authored the law and is now California’s Secretary of State appears in this file photo from when she was a State Assemblymember (D-San Diego) at news conference on April 3, 2018 in Sacramento, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A first-in-the-country state task force to study reparations for Black Californians launched its inaugural meeting Tuesday. The task force is charged with outlining slavery’s modern-day impacts on Black people, eliminating discriminatory laws and crafting a state apology for past wrongs.

“Never has any state government in 400 years of American history embarked on such an expansive effort of truth and reconciliation around the institution of slavery and its present-day effects,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in his opening remarks.

Eight of the nine task force members are Black and one is Japanese American. The members, appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and leaders of the Legislature, include the descendants of slaves who are now lawyers, academics and politicians.

“I'm so thankful to my ancestors who survived so much trauma so that I could thrive," said Los Angeles trial attorney Lisa Holder, one of the members. "I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors, and I am ready to deliver them justice.”

Holder has spent 20 years as a civil rights litigator focusing on police misconduct and has also worked on workplace discrimination cases, as well as education equity and efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

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"There can be no reconciliation on race in America without truth, there can be no peace with respect to race in America without justice, and reparations is a critical pathway to authentic reconciliation and lasting peace," she said.

The task force has the power to hold hearings and request witness testimony to help the group develop suggestions for correcting past wrongs.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who as a state assemblymember authored the legislation creating the task force, noted the solemnity of the occasion as well as the opportunity to right historic wrongs.

“We cannot separate the things that people are crying for in the streets in terms of justice, and what has happened in the past," Weber said. "Your task is to determine the depth of the harm and the ways in which we are to repair that harm."

Critics have said that California did not have slaves and should not have to study reparations. But Weber said the state is an economic powerhouse that can point the way for a federal government that has been unable to address the issue.

The task force will craft an apology and identify policies that contribute to ongoing racial disparities in education, the criminal justice system, generational wealth and other areas. Black people make up just 6% of California’s population yet constitute an overwhelming percentage of people in prison, the economically marginalized and those who are unhoused.

“We have lost more than we have ever taken from this country. We have given more than has ever been given to us,” said state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, who is on the committee.

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Attorney General Rob Bonta said at the beginning of the day's meeting, “Although the horrors of slavery may have begun in the past, its harms are felt every single day by Black Americans in the present.”

Bonta also brought up California as a leader in the nation, but said the state has still moved too slowly on issues of race.

“California continues to lead the nation. But as a nation, we have moved far too slowly,” Bonta said, pointing out how the first convening comes just after the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, an event that he said was hidden from our collective consciousness by "our inability to confront the past."

As established in the bill, the task force will have 10 meetings in the next two years and each one will be dedicated to a different subtopic. The next meeting will take place in August 2021 and will focus on the roots of systemic racism, institution of slavery, political participation and racial terror. The third meeting is planned for October and will tackle government segregation in housing, education and environmental justice.

The task force sunsets July 2023.

This article includes reporting from The Associated Press.

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