Cash payments, free college, homeownership assistance: Reparations in California could take many forms

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The California State Capitol in Sacramento. This week, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that establishes a task force to research the history of slavery in the state and to develop a proposal for possible reparations for the descendents of enslaved people and those affected by slavery. Photo by Ken Lund.

This week, California became the first state in the nation to take a specific step toward addressing over a century of systemic racism. Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill on September 30 that establishes a task force to research the history of slavery in the Golden State and to develop a proposal for possible reparations for the descendents of enslaved people and those impacted by slavery.

State Senator Steven Bradford is a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus and represents a district stretching from Inglewood to San Pedro. He backed the bill authored by his Assembly colleague, Representative Shirley Weber from San Diego. Bradford says it had bipartisan support.

“What it does is sets up a task force made up of nine individuals, five appointed by the governor and four that are appointed by the legislature,” Bradford says. “Their task is to examine and come up with possible remedies and solutions for how we approach reparations for those descendants of slaves here, not only in California, but in the United States.”

According to Bradford, cash payments are just one form reparations could take. He sees multiple avenues for redress.

“Whether it’s from free college tuition to investing in small businesses to assisting home ownership, when I presented the bill on the Senate floor, I said, ‘Imagine if every descendent of slaves today had their 40 acres and a mule,’” Bradford recalls. “Just in land alone, they would all be millionaires, so even if it’s assisting African Americans acquiring property, that’s critically important.”

He says forgiving student loans or wiping clean debts to the state of California could be other options.

Some critics have said the issue of reparations is something more in the purview of the federal government rather than the state. Bradford rebuffs that by pointing to California’s history.

“Even though the state of California was formed in 1850 and they held themselves out to be a slave-free state, they didn’t discourage slavery,” says Bradford. “If runaway slaves came to California, they were returned back to their owners, so California wasn’t as innocent as many people want to believe. As it relates to ‘this was somebody else’s problem, this was so long ago, we didn’t own slaves,’ well, my attitude is if you can inherit wealth in this country, you can inherit debt as well. And this is a debt that is owed to African Americans.”

The bill establishing a task force to look into reparations was actually introduced last year. It failed to make its way through both houses of the legislature, so it stalled. Bradford says its passage this year, among a nationwide movement calling for racial justice, was very good timing.

It’s not clear who will be the nine people appointed to the task force looking into how reparations would work. However, Bradford has some advice for the panel.

“Be as knowledgeable and as open-minded and as thorough as possible,” he says. “Go [in] with the same level of obligation and sincerity to address this problem, as we have tried to do with our Native American brothers and sisters, what we’ve provided for many of the Japanese families that were in internment camps during World War II. I would hope we come in with that same level of commitment.” 



Matt Guilhem