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California's Black Lawmakers are Advancing Different Sets of Reparations Bills

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Assemblymember Isaac Bryan speaks during a press conference led by the California Legislative Black Caucus at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Feb. 21, 2024. Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer introduced AB 3089, a bill that seeks a formal apology for the state's role in chattel slavery. (Fred Greaves/CalMatters)

As California becomes the first state to publicly grapple with the complexities of reparations, a conflict has emerged between reparations advocates and some lawmakers backing bills to implement a state task force’s recommendations.

Leading Black lawmakers are advancing different sets of bills, raising questions about whether they have competing visions. But the chairperson of the California Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday said there’s no rift between caucus members, just a strategic discussion over which bills to prioritize this year.

“I wouldn’t describe it as an internal dispute at all,” said Assemblymember Lori Wilson, a Democrat from Suisun City in the outer Bay Area and chairperson of the coalition.

Even so, some advocates say the caucus is backing bills that don’t go far enough to address systemic inequities.

In January, the California Legislative Black Caucus introduced a slate of 14 reparations bills. However, Sen. Steven Bradford, a member of the state reparations task force, has introduced his own set of more ambitious bills, most of which are not listed by the caucus as part of their priority reparations package.

Bradford said last week the caucus’ package of bills is a great start, “but there’s much more heavy lifting that will be needed to be done in the years to come.”

For instance, some of Bradford’s bills are tailored specifically for the descendants of enslaved persons, which opponents say may raise constitutional issues. Some of the caucus-backed bills are not as narrowly focused.

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Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, also on the task force, is sponsoring another bill not included in the caucus’ slate to create a funding mechanism to narrow the wealth gap between white and Black communities in California.

“All of the bills are important,” Jones-Sawyer said Wednesday. “Taken in totality; it’s not just inching this or inching that. All of these bills have a significant impact on moving forward with closing the wealth gap.”

With the nation watching, Black California lawmakers are facing pushback from reparations advocates who argue the caucus’ measures fall far short of addressing the full scope of systemic injustices.

The conflict leaves lawmakers in a tough spot. They want to build on the momentum the first-in-the-nation reparations task force created by writing bills that will gain enough of their colleagues’ support to become laws this year.

“We are so mad at them,” said Chris Lodgson, an organizer with the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California, a reparations advocacy group. “We’re mad at them in a hopefully productive way.”

Will California voters support reparations?

Aside from activists’ dissatisfaction, lawmakers face a budget deficit that could balloon to more than $70 billion and a lack of public support for reparations.

Nearly 60% of California voters oppose reparation payments for Black residents, according to a poll published in September by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. Republicans overwhelmingly reject the concept, with 91% opposed, while 43% of Democrats approved of it.

In 2020, the police murder of George Floyd set off a nationwide racial reckoning. In its wake, California’s Secretary of State Shirley Weber, then an assemblywoman, championed a bill establishing the California Reparations Task Force that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law.

For two years, the task force traveled up and down the state, conducting hundreds of hours of public hearings and listening to residents and researchers. It released a more than 1,000-page report with findings and more than 100 recommendations.

Some of the public enthusiasm for racial justice has since waned. Meanwhile, key legislative deadlines are approaching in late April and early May. For bills to stay alive this session, they must pass their first chamber by May 24.

Some of Bradford’s proposed legislation would establish a new state agency called the California American Freedman Affairs Agency to administer reparations and help people research their ancestry.

Another of his bills would establish homeowners’ financial assistance to help descendants of enslaved people buy, insure and maintain their homes, and another would create a fund for reparations in the state budget.

His homeowners’ assistance bill passed the Senate’s Housing Committee last week, and his proposal to establish the Freedman Affairs Agency passed the Senate’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

“You have to eat the elephant one bite at a time,” Bradford explained in an interview with CalMatters last week.

But Bradford, 64, who is in the last year of his final term, is taking a bigger bite of the elephant than his colleagues, advocates say.

“He is our hero right now,” Lodgson said. “Because if it weren’t for him, I don’t know, this would be very, very ugly.”

Black caucus priorities

Members of the California Legislative Black Caucus say their slate of bills is only the first step in a multiyear effort to right the wrongs of slavery and racism.

Wilson said the caucus considered about 26 bills based on the task force’s recommendations and voted on which ones to prioritize this year while “recognizing the budget environment we’re in.”

Assemblymember Akilah Weber speaks during a press conference led by the California Legislative Black Caucus at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Feb. 21, 2024. Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer introduced AB 3089, a bill that seeks a formal apology for the state’s role in chattel slavery. (Greaves/CalMatters)

“We ended up coming up with 14 bills that everybody was ‘all in’ on,” Wilson said. For the other bills not in the slate, it “doesn’t mean it’s not a reparations bill. It doesn’t mean that members aren’t supporting it.”

She noted even she has a bill modeled after the task force’s recommendations that was not included in the coalition’s slate this year. That measure is aimed at reducing the disproportionate maternal mortality rate of Black women and was introduced with state Attorney General Rob Bonta.

The differing sets of proposed laws underscore a broader debate over the extent and form of restitution necessary to redress the historical wrongs. The United Nations defines reparations as including compensation. The task force made about 115 recommendations.

The Black Caucus’ reparations slate includes proposed laws that would limit solitary confinement in state prisons, provide property tax relief in redlined communities and prompt a formal apology from California and Newsom for the Golden State’s history of slavery and anti-Black racism.

“It’s almost insulting to call their bills reparations,” Lodgson said of the slate.

One of Bradford’s bills is included in the caucus package. That measure would create a database of California residents whose land was taken through the racially motivated use of eminent domain. The bill would be a first step in returning what was taken.

How to pay for California reparations

None of the bills — neither the caucus’ nor Bradford’s — includes the direct cash payments recommended by the task force. Not yet, Bradford said.

“I’m still not of the belief that we have come that far as a state, let alone a nation, to truly embrace and understand the obligation,” Bradford said.

He said the possibility of cash payments isn’t off the table. One of his bills aims to create a fund for reparations in the state budget.

“There’s not enough money in the state’s budget or in the national budget to make descendants of slavery whole in this country,” he said. If he had to start somewhere, though, he would begin with the wealth gap between average African Americans and whites, pegged at around $370,000.


Jones-Sawyer said one major hurdle to overcome is paying for the various reparations measures. He said his proposal would tax the same products that brought wealth to other races through slave labor — gold, cotton, tobacco, wine, olives, cane sugar, rice and coffee beans.

“A group of people gave free labor for 400 years. These commodities benefited greatly from that. We need to be able to figure out a way to excise money so that it can be brought back into the Black community,” he said. “It’s really a crawl back on the ill-gotten wealth that faceless and nameless individuals and corporations acquired from slave labor, who never earned a wage or benefited from their work.”

Recognizing the uphill battle lawmakers face, Bradford noted some Republicans won’t even vote in favor of acknowledging slavery existed.

Many Republicans did not cast a vote on the recently proposed resolution to “acknowledge the harms and atrocities committed by representatives of the State of California who promoted, facilitated, enforced, and permitted the institution of chattel slavery and the legacy of ongoing badges and incidents of slavery that form the systemic structures of discrimination.”

Assemblymember Diane Dixon, a Republican from Newport Beach, said even though California in its early days “enacted a number of laws that intentionally discriminated against African Americans,” she was abstaining from voting in favor or against the measure because “today, we can be proud that California, in the second half … of the 20th century became a national leader in extending civil rights to African Americans and others.”

Dixon, 72, made her comments when the proposed legislation was before the Assembly’s judiciary committee on Feb. 20, adding she looked forward to “growing our knowledge in reading the reparations report.”

Forced labor in California

Some of the proposed legislation in the caucus’ reparations package were bills that previously failed, such as the measure to remove an exemption in California’s constitution that allows for forced labor. Critics say requiring incarcerated people to work, often for low pay, is a form of slavery, but state officials say prison workers save the state tens of millions of dollars.

Bradford said he urges all lawmakers to read the task force’s report or at least the executive summary. Several lawmakers say more education and public outreach are needed before some reparations measures can become a reality.

“We spent two years of our lives on this,” Bradford said, adding it cost taxpayers nearly $1 million for the task force hearings, research and report.

“And now, for legislators not to read it, I think it does a great disservice to taxpayers’ dollars that we went through this effort and the individuals who are now responsible for implementing what the report says are just ignoring it.”

Lodgson said that’s also where his group draws its sense of urgency.

“Two years of our lives, going to every hearing, hundreds of community meetings. We’re all volunteers. We come, and we spend our own money. We’ve got people breaking up with their girlfriends because they spend so much time on this,” he said. “Then to come to this year, and we’ve got bills like ‘We’re gonna get [California corrections officials] to tell us what books they’ve banned. We’re gonna apologize’ … It’s not enough.”

Kamilah Moore, a reparatory justice scholar and attorney who served as the task force chair, said she supports all the bills — both the caucus’ and Bradford’s and other lawmakers — because every step in the right direction is positive.

“With all of these bills’ passage, it just creates a solid foundation for eventually a direct cash payments bill, maybe in the next legislative session,” she said.

Lawmakers say progress on the caucus’ slate is inching ahead.

In the last few weeks, Assembly and Senate committees took up several bills from the reparations slate.

One was a bill that would expand California’s original 2019 CROWN Act, barring hair discrimination in competitive sports.

Speaking before the committee, the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Akilah Weber, described instances across the nation where Black teenagers have been told to cut their hair to continue playing soccer or softball.

“These are incredibly dehumanizing events,” said Weber, a Democrat from San Diego. “Our hair is a symbol of who we are.”

Weber said the legislation is personal because her son is beginning to consider how he wants to style his hair.

California lawmakers enacted the original CROWN Act (which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) in 2019 to prevent discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture in schools and workplaces. It was the first such legislation passed at the state level. Since then, 22 states have followed California’s lead, but similar federal bills have failed.

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