Allie Whitehurst speaks during a reparations listening session in Oakland on May 28, 2022. Whitehurst emphasized the importance of correcting educational disparities, including reducing class sizes and getting kids the personal attention they need. 'That, to me, would be one of the ways in which we can provide reparations, because when this boat rises for Black folk, it rises for everybody,' she said. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
uvVon Brown approached the microphone toward the end of the reparations listening session on May 28 in Oakland, exactly two weeks to the day since a white supremacist gunman walked into a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and started shooting Black people.
Brown wanted to talk about her family and their lives on the Monterey Peninsula, the place she’s thought of as home for most of her life, the place she no longer recognizes.
Her mother was raised in Pacific Grove, one of three cities that make up the peninsula, which juts from California’s Central Coast like an unattached puzzle piece.
“There’s just a lot of Black history that’s here, not only in Monterey County, but all over California,” Brown told me last week, the day California’s Reparations Task Force released its first report. “It’s not preserved anymore.”
The nine-member task force — the first statewide body in the country to study institutional and systemic anti-Black racism, a wretchedness spawned from the horrors of chattel slavery — made several recommendations in the nearly 500-page report. Racism in this country is linked to income inequality, education inequality, mass incarceration and the widening racial wealth gap.
Here’s what the task force says is needed to achieve racial equity in California: housing grants, state-backed mortgages, higher pay and free health care, for starters. The preliminary recommendations included the establishment of an agency to address past and potential future harms, and to assist people in filing eligibility claims.
In March, the task force voted in favor of lineage-based reparations, limiting eligibility to descendants of enslaved people or of free Black people living in the country in the 19th century. The group will release a comprehensive reparations plan next summer.
Days before the report was released, inside the California Ballroom — a $300-an-hour art deco space used for weddings, conferences and family reunions on Franklin Street — the listening session, one of several planned this summer, was sparsely attended, with about four dozen people and as many more watching the livestream.
I was expecting a scene reminiscent of the movement to secure reparations for people of Japanese descent incarcerated during WWII, where for three days people testified in a packed auditorium at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, as my colleague Annelise Finney reported in February, marking the 80th year of the executive order that forced people, many American citizens, to abandon their jobs, schools and homes.
But this listening session was muted in comparison because, like the task force, which could produce a model for countrywide reparations, an argument must first be presented because the totality of America’s racist history isn’t taught in schools.
The road to racial equity in America starts in California, which entered the union as a free state in 1850.
In 1849, delegates met in Monterey to draft the state’s constitution, declaring California a free state where “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated.” California's first governor, the repugnant racist Peter Hardeman Burnett, sanctioned campaigns to exterminate Indigenous populations. He also wanted to block Black people from entering the state.
It didn’t work out that way, but Black people have still had a hard row to hoe in California.
In the early 20th century, Black people arrived on the Monterey Peninsula as fieldworkers, putting down roots in Pacific Grove. Brown’s grandmother was part of the Great Migration of Black folks fleeing Jim Crow-era lynchings and white mob violence in Arkansas and other southern states. Brown said her family — aunts, uncles and cousins — lived on the same street.
Fort Ord, an Army base overlooking Monterey Bay that closed in 1994, drew Black families from around the country, with many, including Brown's mother, settling in Seaside. Many areas of Monterey County, like Carmel and Del Rey Oaks, were off-limits because of restrictive housing covenants that barred Black people from owning property in certain areas, Brown said, citing “African Americans of Monterey County,” a history of the county by Jan Batiste Adkins.
History is about all that’s left of the robust Black life that once thrived in the county.
“It’s like when you go back there now, it’s completely different,” said Brown, 34, who believes that providing land should be a reparations priority. “It’s almost like every trace of the Black community is almost gone.”
The median home price in Seaside, according to Zillow, an online real estate marketplace, is almost $800,000. Now a sales representative for a human resources management company, Brown graduated from Seaside High School in 2005. She then moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Many in her family, including her mother, followed, unable to sustain the high cost of living on the California coast. In the course of her lifetime, Brown has seen Black wealth evaporate in Seaside.
“It just doesn’t feel like home because all of the families that grew up there are gone,” said Brown, who moved to the Bay Area during the pandemic.
The Bay Area, while racially diverse, remains deeply segregated, according to analyses by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute. In an October 2021 report titled “The Most Segregated Cities and Neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area,” researchers, using 2020 Census data, found “that the Bay Area is significantly more segregated than it was in 1970, 1980, or even 1990,” and said that eight of the nine counties “are more segregated as of 2020 than they were in 1970, and 7 of the 9 are more segregated in 2020 than they were in 1980.”
Oakland is home to six of the 10 most segregated Black neighborhoods in the Bay Area, neighborhoods that were established because of racist housing covenants and redlining, the racist housing policy started during the New Deal that determined the loan-worthiness of neighborhoods across the country for government-backed mortgages using color-coded maps. If an area was redlined, more than likely that’s where Black people lived.
In Oakland, Black neighborhoods were torn apart, houses and businesses demolished, to make room for the interstate highways that connected white, suburban homeowners to the cities they fled. The Great Recession, sparked in part by the foreclosure crisis 14 years ago, caused the median net worth of Black households nationally to drop 43%, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank that conducts public opinion polling, demographic research and content analysis.
Many Black people just can’t afford to live in the cities they think of as home.
The Bay Area Equity Atlas, a tool that tracks racial inequities, found that, on average, Black workers in the Bay Area earn about half of what white men earn. The median wage for Black women workers is $52,000, and Black men make $3,000 more, according to the Atlas, which used 2019 data. White men make $107,000, a figure that’s reinforced by the fact that only 33% of Black high school graduates are college-ready, compared to more than half of white graduates.
I reached out to Sarah Treuhaft, vice president of research at PolicyLink, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to advancing economic and social equity, to hear what the data tells us about the Bay Area.
“It tells me that structural racism persists in this region. If there was no structural racism, we would not see these differences in earnings by race and gender,” she said. “There is no other reason for them, and we still even see these disparities when we look at people who have the same level of education. So it shows that there is continuing wage discrimination in the labor market and pay discrimination by race.”
The state’s education system doesn’t provide equal opportunity, and we see it in the outcomes. Have you ever wondered how it is that 40% of the state’s unhoused population is Black while just 6.5% of the state’s population identifies as Black?
And get this: In Monterey County, the percentage of Black people who were unhoused was more than seven times higher than the county’s Black population, according to the county’s 2019 homeless census.
That’s systemic racism at work.
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“We know that people of color are more likely to live in communities that do not have well-funded schools and go to school with other low-income families,” Treuhaft said. “That leads to differences in educational outcomes in high school. We really need to address segregation by race and income to get at the root of these issues.”
Black people, who were kidnapped and transported to America, are the only group that hasn’t received reparations for “state-sanctioned racial discrimination, while slavery afforded some white families the ability to accrue tremendous wealth,” Rashawn Ray and Andre M. Perry, two senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy and research group, wrote in an argument for reparations published a month into the pandemic.
“In America, we have to admit that the United States was founded on the backs of slave labor that has never been repaid,” Ray, a sociologist, told me in an interview. “And so, collectively, all the research I’ve done suggests that the only way for us to truly heal and get past the stain of racism in America is to provide reparations to descendants of enslaved Black people, as well as to engage in reparations programs in states and specific localities to address housing.”