When the California Reparations Task Force meets again next week in Sacramento, it will begin to share some recommendations on the concrete reparations programs that could be taken up by the Legislature. It’s important that Californians understand that in order to match the scale of America’s greatest injustice, we must be prepared for remedies on a scale approaching the Great Society programs of Medicare and Medicaid.
Reparations is a paradigm for understanding harm and repair as it relates to people who suffered a human rights injustice because of government action. Harm and repair are the two sides of the spectrum. Consistent with this paradigm, the task force is evaluating the severity and articulating the scope of the harm to Black people, including all of the atrocities the government committed against Black people in California.
The task force will outline the method for repairing harm, including compensation for the harm that contemplates monetary redress, atonement and apology. For an apology to be a meaningful act of repair and atonement, it must be concrete and tangible. Making the apology tangible ensures that the harm will cease and desist for good because the government is being held patently accountable.
This mandate comports with the United Nations international conventions for reparations, which consists of five components: compensation, restitution, satisfaction or apology, rehabilitation and guarantees of non-repetition.
Reparations will include programs that disrupt racism within our major institutions. These programs will be in housing, criminal-legal systems, education, health and medicine, and financial wealth and asset-building infrastructure. Fixing systemic racism and rehabilitating institutions will require major changes to these sectors.
For example, at its early March meeting, the task force shared data showing a lack of uniform collection of race statistics in prosecutors’ offices across the state, creating opportunities for racially biased prosecution and undermining the California Racial Justice Act, which was enacted to reduce such bias. The task force will use that information to develop recommendations on improving the California Racial Justice Act for the benefit of the harmed group.
Reparations will also likely include monetary compensation to Black people who are descendants of enslaved and persecuted Black Americans. Monetary compensation is a critical component of reparations under international standards and within the American legal system.
Reparations to similarly situated groups are a good metric for understanding compensation. Canada is paying almost $32 billion to living victims and descendants of Indigenous people as compensation for state-sanctioned cultural genocide. The U.S. paid the current equivalent of $30 billion to Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II for state-sanctioned human rights abuses, property loss, forced removal and imprisonment. Germany has paid $89 billion to Holocaust survivors in the Jewish diaspora to compensate for infamous human rights abuses.
Globally, we see reparations paid to direct victims and descendants in the quantity of billions of dollars. The task force is mandated to align with these international conventions and, moreover, we are guided by the moral imperative that justice is priceless.
The task force delivered a 500-page interim report establishing that California was, in practice, a pro-slavery state, a Jim Crow state and a post-civil rights apartheid state. It’s appropriate that California became the first state to convene a reparations task force because the real story is that the wealthiest state in the union and the fifth-largest economy in the world was one of the principal purveyors and beneficiaries of anti-Black policies and narratives.
In short, the Golden State garnered a windfall from Black oppression.
The task force understands that it is critical to share its findings and the real story with the public. In the last meeting, it rolled out plans for a comprehensive public education campaign that includes dissemination of the report to all public libraries and colleges, and the translation of the interim report into K-12 curriculum.
With specific and tangible reparations initiatives, California is on the brink of a historic and seismic shift towards finally delivering justice for Black Americans. The task force recommendations will be breathtaking. They must be nothing less.
Lisa Holder is a member of the California Reparations Task Force and president of the Equal Justice Society. The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.