The historic push for reparations in California: Where it stands and what's next

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- With his signature, Governor Newsom historically made California the first state in the country studying and developing proposals for potential reparations.

"I like the spirit of what you guys are saying... this is not just about California," Newsom said as he signed the legislation. "This is about making an impact, a dent across the rest of the country."

On the federal level, the push for reparations for African Americans has gone nowhere, despite a century of effort. Congress has approved reparations for survivors of Japanese American internment camps during World War II, Native Americans, and Holocaust survivors.

"I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before a rare House hearing on reparations in June 2019.

But Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who authored the California legislation, says it's deeper than that.

RELATED: CA moves to consider reparations for African Americans, particularly descendants of slaves

"Even though those who live today are not the actual slave holders," Weber explains, "they benefited from the resources of their forefathers, they benefited from racism, they benefited from having white privilege in this country. And the wealth that they have amassed was on the backs, on the discrimination on the backs of African Americans."

The California law creates a task force which will make recommendations to the state legislature about reparations and who is eligible for them. Weber says it isn't just writing a check -- it could be things like free education, loans and grants for business or a down payment on a home.

"This country has never really felt that it owed African Americans anything as a result of slavery," Weber says. "And what happens is that we continue to see the impact of it. We continue to see the negative impact that it has on our life, in terms of just... it's just our emotional wellbeing, but most importantly, our economic status, the educational status, and those kinds of things."

The law also requires the task force to educate the public about the history of slavery in California and the United States, and the practices of discrimination afterwards.

OUR AMERICA: Living While Black

It's something Charles Henry, author and professor emeritus of African American Studies at UC Berkeley, says is vital. "I don't think we can really have a discussion about any, any sort of reparations unless we have an agreement on what happened," Henry says.

Slavery continued in California even though it was banned in 1849. In modern times, school segregation and busing divided cities. Agreements between white homeowners not to sell to Black buyers kept Black people from living in their neighborhoods for decades.

And in 1964, California voters overturned a law that banned discrimination on the basis of race in the sale or rental of public housing. "Black homeownership is roughly 40% compared to 67% for whites," Henry explains. "And if you can't buy homes in the neighborhood you want, then you have less wealth to pass on. So Blacks, Black families have roughly 10% of the wealth of white families."
On the local level, the city of Oakland renewed its commitment to prioritizing an ordinance that will disclose the history of slavery in Oakland to the public and establish a voluntary fund to provide education, support and economic development to economically struggling Oakland neighborhoods.

District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced legislation to effort reparations in San Francisco. "When we look at the out migration or what redevelopment did and pushing our families out and gentrification and redlining which still exists to a degree," Walton shares. "We wanted to make sure that we developed the reparations plan through legislation that was going to actually achieve systemic and systematic change."

So far, Walton is proudest of action to redirect $120 million from the San Francisco Police Department's budget to the Black community, made possible through conversations with the city's mayor and other community leaders, like Sheryl Davis, Execute Director of the city's Human Rights commission.

"We had over 20 different community meetings, heard from nearly 1,000 folks around like, what that investment should go into what that should look like," Davis explains. "And so I think in that process, we're getting closer and closer to the difference between fixing what's wrong and making reparations, which is really trying to pay back people for the harm that you've done versus trying to fix the system."

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