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California's Reparations Task Force to Hear Testimony on Anti-Black Racism in Housing and Education Policy

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Amos Brown, in a hat, beard, glasses, and green, blue and yellow necklace, raises his hand mid-speech, the windows of a building behind him.
Civil rights activist Reverend Dr. Amos C. Brown speaks during a rally at Lowell High School on Feb. 5, 2021. Brown is the vice-chair of the California Reparations Task Force. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Continuing their historic charge, California’s Reparations Task Force, the first in the nation, will meet this Tuesday and Wednesday to hear testimony on housing and education segregation, the impacts of environmental racism, discrimination in banking and the wealth gap.

It's the fourth of at least 10 meetings as the group considers the history and impact of slavery in the state — and how best to repay Black Californians for those injustices.


“We're moving more towards detailing some of the contemporary crimes against Black Americans — specifically, discrimination in public and private life," said Kamilah Moore, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who was elected chair of the task force in June.

During this week's meetings, the task force will hear from experts such as Mehrsa Baradaran, a University of California Irvine law professor and author of "The Color of Money." Detailing racism in banking against Black Americans also  is on the schedule for Wednesday.

In addition to experts, the task force will listen to testimony from people with direct personal experience, like Kawika Smith, a young Black man who was a plaintiff in a case against the University of California system arguing that the use of the tests at UC campuses essentially create a two-tier system inaccessible to some students, and “rations access to public higher education on the bases of race, privilege, and wealth.”

A Tuesday morning panel on housing and education will include testimony from Bobby Seale, the co-founder and former chair of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as well as author and researcher Stephen Menendian, who recently published a study called the Roots of Structural Racism Project, which aims to reveal the persistence of racial residential segregation.

The nine-member task force has held meetings in June, July and September. But the September meetings marked the first in which witnesses presented personal and expert testimony.

The task force, created with the passage of Assembly Bill 3121 last fall, is charged with making recommendations to the state of California on how to eliminate discrimination in existing state laws and policies, what an apology might look like as well as what a compensation package could be, and who would qualify. The text of the bill specifies special consideration for descendants of those enslaved in the United States. The task force has until July 2023 to make recommendations to the state.

The group also is charged with determining how any potential compensation should be calculated and who would be eligible, as well as additional forms of reparations like rehabilitation or restitution. The two-day September meetings covered national and international reparations efforts, the Great Migration and political disenfranchisement.

During the September meetings, the task force heard from well-known experts such as Isabel Wilkerson, author of the award-winning book "Caste" and another bestseller, "The Warmth of Other Suns" and academics such as John M. Parman and john a. powell, law professor at UC Berkeley and director of the Othering and Belonging Institute. But they also heard from those who provided more personal testimony.

“We had people come to testify like Dawn Basciano and Bertha Gorman, who is the poet Amanda Gorman's grandmother, to talk about their experience living in California and the discrimination that they and their families faced over time,” Moore said.

Gorman described how she grew up listening to the stories of enslaved people from her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

When she came to California, she lost her first job as a babysitter when she signed up to take a test for a clerk position with the state. But she was not allowed to take the test. "It was 1959, and I was given every imaginable excuse — they had already given the test, they lost my application," she said. She was never allowed to take the test. "At every step of the way, in my growth, and in my career and in my education, I have experienced discrimination, pay inequities, sexism, [and] sexual harassment."

While the personal testimonies proved powerful and brought some task force members to tears, communication between the Department of Justice staff and the task force appeared tense at times — notably, when the DOJ said they would be unable to accommodate a request for future Saturday meetings. Also, during a brief discussion of who has final say over the agenda, the task force and the DOJ did not appear to come to an agreement.

“There ought to be a few meetings that fit the schedule of the oppressed," vice-chair Dr. Amos C. Brown said during the meeting. "Not for us, but for the sake of the people." Brown has been a pastor at San Francisco's Third Baptist Church since 1976.

The DOJ told KQED in an email on Monday that these questions would be addressed in the updates portion of the task force meeting, but emphasized that the DOJ is taking direction from the task force itself.

Despite some minor administrative hiccups, and the plethora of testimony and information to sift through, Moore is optimistic. "This is the first-in-the-nation task force. We beat the federal government in this effort," she said.

The full agenda is available, and all meetings are open to the public. Moore said she welcomes the public both to attend the online meetings and participate in the public comment period. "We definitely encourage public comment. It informs our work so much," she said.

After this week, the next scheduled meetings will be held in December.

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