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Unpacking Reparations Eligibility in California

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bearded man wearing green jacket crouches thoughtfully with a university staircase behind him
Jovan Scott Lewis, California Reparations Task Force member and chair of UC Berkeley’s geography department, introduced a motion on March 29 to define eligibility for reparations based on lineage. The task force approved the motion. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Reparations in California is a series of KQED stories exploring the road to racial equity in the state.

Updated 1:55 p.m. Wednesday

At a contentious meeting Tuesday, California’s Reparations Task Force decided who would qualify for reparations under any proposals the committee recommends.

The broad question the task force was considering: Should reparations be only for descendants of people enslaved in the United States or should reparations be extended to any Black person in the state?

After hours of debate, the nine-member task force voted 5-4 in favor of lineage-based reparations — a decision that has the potential to set precedent and affect other local, state and federal plans for reparations.

“I move that we define the community of eligibility based on lineage determined by an individual being an African American descendant of a chattel-enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century,” said task force member Jovan Scott Lewis, chair of UC Berkeley’s geography department, introducing the motion on Tuesday.

Task force Chair Kamilah Moore, who voted in favor of the motion, worried that making eligibility race-based would create fissures in the Black community.

“Under international law, reparations … is supposed to be a victim-led process and a victim-oriented process,” Moore said at Tuesday’s meeting. “So … with a race-based approach [to reparations eligibility], that is going to aggrieve the victims of the institution of slavery, which are the direct descendants of the enslaved people in the United States.”

Task force member Cheryl Grills, who did not support the motion, said lineage-based reparations fail to encompass the full harms of enslavement.

“Providing reparations only for those who can prove their descendants from enslaved Africans is yet another win for white supremacy because it dismisses and devalues the harms done to African descendants not enslaved here, but who were injured by slavery due to their blackness once they entered the shores of America,” Grills said.

Eligibility question has loomed for months

The question of eligibility has loomed over the first-in-the-nation statewide task force since it began meeting in June. The topic also dominated meetings in February, when the task force tabled a decision until taking it up again this month.

One point of contention: Cash payments are expected to be one part of the reparations proposals, but there are a limited amount of financial resources. The eligibility discussion also has raised questions about lineage.

During the January meeting, Secretary of State Shirley Weber — who, while a state legislator, authored AB 3121, the bill that established the task force — shared her intention.

“It’s an issue not about being Black. It’s an issue of descendants and lineage,” Weber said. “There will be many Black people who do not deserve reparations, but there will be many whose lineage clearly says very strongly that they deserve to have reparations.”

In the February meeting, Moore reminded the task force of the story of Lawrence Lucas, one of the leaders of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, an organization advocating for Black farmers, who testified in October. Many Black farmers, who expected to receive pandemic aid allocated in the American Rescue Plan, have been blocked by lawsuits from white farmers who questioned whether the government could use race to give preferential debt relief.

“They know the land by virtue of them being the descendants of the enslaved,” said Moore, who used the example to argue lineage-based reparations. “Despite that agricultural knowledge that was passed onto them, they’re being refused aid.”


Jovan Scott Lewis echoed Moore’s sentiments on the importance of centering descendants of the enslaved.

“The idea here is that we are identifying a kind of central group that has been integral to the development of the United States, who have remained the reference for the abuse suffered by Black people,” he said at the February meeting.

Other members spoke of their own personal experience as a way to advocate for an expanded group who could receive reparations — those with lived experience of anti-Black racism, which is, potentially, all Black people in the state.

Task force member Lisa Holder, a Los Angeles-based lawyer, shared a personal story of losing her baby nearly 14 years ago during delivery. She recalled telling her doctors that something was wrong, but having her pleas be ignored.

“I believe I was ignored because I was a young Black woman,” Holder said, emphasizing that when at a hospital or applying for a loan at a bank, people are focused on skin color, not lineage. “No one asked me if my ancestors were enslaved in the United States. All they saw was my black skin.”

Cheryl Grills wondered how easy it would be to determine lineage, and whether the task force would be excluding people who can’t establish their lineage.

“If you can’t trace your family ancestry to enslaved Africans, what does that mean, for example, for scores of Black children in the child welfare system who probably can’t trace anything back more than a generation?” said Grills, a Loyola Marymount University professor who focuses on racial stress and trauma as well as implicit bias and community healing, at the February meeting.

More Reparations Coverage

Hollis Gentry, a genealogy specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture Library, said information is sometimes relatively quick to find, while other times it can take a very long time. Gentry began looking at her own family history in 1976 and is still uncovering connections today.

“The eligibility criteria is going to determine how you approach it,” she said. “If you’re looking at a solely lineage-based approach where they have to establish that they do, in fact, descend from someone who was enslaved, that’s going to require a lot of research.

“It’s not impossible.”

“From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” a book by A. Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity Jr., is frequently mentioned in task force meetings. The book suggests that requirements for reparations on the federal level include two aspects of eligibility: tracing an ancestor back to chattel slavery, and self-identifying as Black Negro or African American on the census for 10 to 12 years prior to the reparations program going into effect.

“Their two-pronged system is very simplistic, in my view,” said Khansa T. Jones-Muhammad, co-chair for the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants. Instead, she would like to have a system that acknowledges the harms caused by certain laws.

“Were your ancestors subject to the three-fifths compromise at the United States Constitutional Convention of 1787?” Jones-Muhammad asked. “Were your ancestors subject to the Casual Killing Act or fugitive slave law? Were your ancestors subject to convict leasing and Jim Crow laws? Were they subject to the Great Migration?”

The National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants and the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California, two organizations Jones-Muhammad has worked with, helped Weber with the language in the bill.

In February the members seemed to agree there should be a special consideration for descendants of chattel slavery, as outlined in the bill, but appeared hesitant to make a definitive decision because of the potential impact on other reparations legislation, including HR 40, the federal reparations bill.

The debate has repeatedly circled back to who would be eligible to receive cash payments. It’s uncertain how much money would be needed for such an endeavor. The task force has hired a team of economists to make calculations.

Others have suggested different forms of compensation, such as tax breaks, grant aid and tuition waivers for students. Task force member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a state Assemblymember, felt the committee should be having more expansive discussions.

“We’re talking about who’s getting the money,” he said. “We should be talking about how we’re going to take care of our people from this day forward. And how are we going to reverse all the harm? That should be the central question. We’re spending the money before we got it.”


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