California may be first state in the nation to approve slavery reparations. But who will get them?

California may be first state in the nation to approve slavery reparations. But who will get them?

It’s been 246 years since the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the abolishment of slavery in 1865. And in the time since, 157 years to be exact, the issue of unpaid reparations remains unsolved. Many would say that without acknowledgment of the brutal history of slavery in the U.S., not only will the system of racism never change, the nation itself will remain unjust and unhealed. 

California’s first-in-the-nation Reparations Task Force is at the precipice of answering one of the nation’s most challenging and complex questions: Who should get the compensation?

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Tuesday, the nine-member task force could vote on the eligibility of Black Americans who should receive compensation. The second report in July will determine a plan, eligibility, payment, and then must be signed into a new law by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

According to The Times, the group has been instructed to prioritize people who are able to directly trace their family history to Black Americans enslaved in the U.S. However, many people argue that all Black Americans should receive compensation, as slavery is at the root of systemic racism in the country. 

Genealogist and historian Antoinette Harrell told the Times that basing eligibility on lineage is nearly impossible to prove. 

“I would not say they should be able to prove because not everybody is going to be able to prove,” Harrell said. “Records have been destroyed. Courthouses have been burned. Names have changed three or four times.”

Newsom signed the task force into law in 2020, allowing for two years to investigate and create a compensation plan for the descendants of enslaved Americans. 

“As our country reckons with our painful legacy of racial injustice, California again is poised to lead the way towards a more equitable and inclusive future for all,” Newsom said in July 2021

Advocates argue that, regardless of proof of lineage, all Black Americans have suffered as a result of slavery, the years of Jim Crow laws that followed, and a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black Americans. 

Reparations could include tuition-free college, financial help opening businesses or purchasing property, and grants for community spaces and churches. 

The committee’s chair, Kamilah Moore, has indicated that she prefers compensation to be based on proof of lineage rather than race as it is the strongest legal argument in a presently conservative Supreme Court, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber wrote the law that created the task force. She also believes the money should be given away to direct descents of enslaved Americans versus Black immigrants or descendants of slaves from other countries. 

However, task force member Lisa Holder, a civil rights attorney believes where your family’s ancestors were enslaved is ultimately irrelevant, as the reverberations of systemic racism affect all Black Americans living in the country today. 

Holder used the example from her own life when she lost a child during childbirth after doctors refused to believe her (a Black woman) when she told them she believed there was something wrong during her delivery. 

According to Harvard Public Health, Black American women are “three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than are white women.”

“No one asked me if my ancestors were enslaved in the United States or if they were enslaved in Jamaica or if they were enslaved in Barbados,” Holder told the AJC. “We have to embrace this concept that Black lives matter, not just a sliver of those Black lives, because Black lives are in danger, especially today.”

Critics of the bill argue that California shouldn’t even be considering reparations as the state never participated in slavery. Of course, even without the practice of slavery or Jim Crow laws, California did participate in red-lining, and Black residents of the state are 5% overrepresented in jails, prisons, and those who’re unsheltered. Not to mention, the ongoing bias of home appraisals, which remain lower for Black homeowners than white.  

As for a federal task force on reparations… well, that hasn’t happened. 

In 2019, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made his position clear, saying, he opposes reparations as “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he hypocritically deemed America’s “original sin.”

But, as much as Americans, particularly white Americans, want to sweep the past under the rug, eliminating critical race theory to protect little Johnny from the truth, without reconciliation and reparations for the generations ripped apart by this nation’s laws, the pain only festers, and the demand for change and redress only intensifies.

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