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Mini-Documentary: California’s Reparations Task Force on the Foundation for Lasting Reparative Justice

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A graphic image showing Black men and women on the left side with large text to the right that reads: "Episode 2: Historic Reparations Task Force."
Meet California’s historic, nine-member Reparations Task Force, the first statewide body to study reparative measures for Black people. In this second episode of KQED’s five-part video series on reparations, the task force members share their personal experiences with systemic racism that propelled them into seeking racial justice. (Graphic by Sabrina Ilumin/KQED)

Reggie Jones-Sawyer was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. That year, a defining moment in the march to integrate America’s public schools, carved an indelible mark on his family tree.

Jefferson Thomas, Jones-Sawyer’s uncle, was one of the Little Rock Nine — the nine Black students who dared to walk a perilous path to desegregate Little Rock Central High School 66 years ago.

More than six decades later, Jones-Sawyer, a state Assembly member representing parts of the Los Angeles area, is walking an uncharted path of his own as a member of the California Reparations Task Force. For the second episode of our reparations video series, my colleague Manjula Varghese produced a mini-documentary on the people laying the foundation for lasting reparative justice.

In July, the task force will present recommendations to the Legislature. On Monday, the task force released formulas and calculations for remuneration. The proposal includes $115,260  — or $2,352 for each year of residency between 1971 and 2020 — as compensation for mass incarceration and discriminatory policing and sentencing.

There’s more. To remedy health disparities, economists working with the task force suggest $966,921 per Black Californian for “total loss in value of life due to racial discrimination.” The calculation is based on the average life expectancy for Black Californians — 71 years — multiplied by $13,619 for each year lived in the state.

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The task force is expected to finalize recommendations Saturday at Mills College.

According to the draft of the final report, the task force considers California’s “unwillingness to address occupational discrimination, as documented by its ban on affirmative action in public education and employment” as a health harm. Education — about state and American history, as well as the eradication of school segregation — is essential to achieving equity. Varghese’s short film provides a sense of what led the nine members — yeah, that number again — to examine the historic harms of slavery and anti-Black racism in California.

“I’ve had no problems with my education because of the sacrifices that those nine brave Black kids did to get into high school,” Jones-Sawyer says in the episode. “In a lot of ways, my past experience has led me to this work.”

Before I continue, here’s a brief history lesson: In 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education codified the unconstitutionality of segregated schools. Three years later, on Sept. 3, 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus summoned the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering the school. President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened, and three weeks later Thomas and the other students — Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Pattillo Beals — walked to their first classes.

They were escorted by guards, which didn’t stop the verbal and physical assaults from their white classmates. The few white students who befriended their new Black classmates received hate mail. In 1958, the public high schools in Little Rock were closed to prevent further desegregation.

Almost seven decades after Brown v. Board of Education, California is still pushing for school desegregation. In 2019, the Sausalito Marin City School District was forced to desegregate by the state Justice Department. I’ve been reporting on racism in local schools for seven years which, unfortunately, could be a full-time job because racism in California schools is astonishingly common.

California isn’t as progressive as its national reputation suggests. In 1996, California became the first state in the nation to ban affirmative action when Proposition 209, a measure that barred preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex and ethnicity, was passed. In 2020 affirmative action was back on the ballot, but Proposition 16, which intended to address racial and gender disparities in government hiring and contracting and public university admissions, was easily defeated.

Denying Black people access to opportunity is a cornerstone of America. In our film, some of the task force members share their personal experiences. Monica Montgomery Steppe, a San Diego City Council member, calls herself a “Prop. 209 baby.”

“My parents were running a proficient, professional construction business and then Prop. 209 was passed,” she says. “My father started to struggle in his business, so that’s part of why I’m so passionate about reparations and just equity and making sure that we’re fair, especially here in California.”

Dr. Cheryl Grills is from Charleston, the harbor city in South Carolina where, experts believe, about 40% of the enslaved Africans imported to America between 1670 and 1808 were auctioned. South Carolina is a state where the Confederacy is revered. The Confederate flag flies at the state capitol on May 10, Confederate Memorial Day. The flag flew on top of the capitol dome until 2015. It was taken down on June 27, 2015, because a white supremacist shot and killed nine — yeah, that number again — Black people studying the Bible at Mother Emanuel, a church in Charleston.

“The effects of enslavement and post-enslavement, Jim Crow, lack of civil rights — the impact of all of those things on the Black psyche are multifold,” says Grills, director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University.

Rev. Amos Brown, pastor at Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, says he first became conscious of the deleterious effects of racism in 1955, when he saw the photo of Emmett Till’s ravaged body in Jet magazine. Till, a Black boy from Chicago, had been visiting relatives in Mississippi when he stopped at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market.

A white woman, Carolyn Bryant, said Till accosted her. Four days later, two white men — Bryant’s husband and his half-brother — kidnapped Till from a relative’s house. They beat him. They shot him. They wrapped his body in barbed wire and tied a 75-pound cotton gin fan around his neck. Then they dumped him in the Tallahatchie River. The white men were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury.

Bryant, who died last week, lived to be 88. Till was 14 when he was lynched.

Brown was shaken by Till’s photo. Medgar Evers, the first field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi, calmed him.

“He said to me, ‘Amos, I understand how hurt you are, but don’t just be angry. Let’s be smart so that you will be able to fight this evil of race and injustice,’” Brown says.

Evers, a World War II veteran, was murdered by a white supremacist in 1963.

It was the case of the Central Park Five that spurred the activism of Lisa Holder, a civil rights attorney. You might remember the five Black and Latino boys who were wrongly convicted for the 1989 rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. They were exonerated after serving lengthy prison sentences.

“The disparities and outcomes that we’re seeing in terms of wealth, health, education [and] access are not about anything that Black people did wrong, but it’s about a system that has actually been designed to keep Black people at the bottom,” Holder says.

Donald Tamaki, whose parents were among the estimated 82,000 Japanese Americans who received reparations more than three decades ago for the mass incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, says the task force set out to do three things.

“One was to document the harm of enslavement, Jim Crow exclusion and connect the dots between that and today’s consequences,” says Tamaki, senior counsel at Minami Tamaki. “The second thing is to find ways to educate the American public over this history that’s really been erased. The third requirement is to make recommendations.”

Tamaki, who worked to overturn the conviction of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American man from Oakland who had resisted incarceration, says that “Black people and their struggle really opened the door for women, Asian Americans, Latino Americans and all other historically disfavored groups.”

Only four of the Little Rock Nine graduated from Little Rock Central High School, including Thomas, who earned a degree from Los Angeles State College and was a Vietnam War veteran. After serving his country, he had several jobs, including as an accounting clerk with the Department of Defense.

Last summer, the task force released a preliminary report detailing California’s history of enslavement and its many decades of discriminatory policies — in education, housing, health care, criminal justice and other areas — that established the systemic racism that persists.

“We’re really a study group to come up with recommendations to give to the Legislature,” Jones-Sawyer says in our film. “Hopefully, the governor will sign it.”

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Yeah, hopefully.

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