The common narrative about slavery in the United States is that enslaved Black people were only forced to work on the sprawling cotton fields and sugar plantations of the South — and that it was only the South that built its economy on the institution.
But these stories leave out the experiences of thousands of enslaved African Americans, including those who were transported out west to California in the middle of the 19th century. The California Reparations Task Force, created by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder, is calling up this history and calling for reparatory justice at the same time.
The task force — a body of nine appointed individuals responsible for studying what a reparations program would look like for the state — launched its effort in 2021, and in June 2022 released a comprehensive interim report that examines the state’s history of slavery as well as the oppression of Black Californians since the state was established in 1850.
The report found that though the 13th Amendment empowered Congress to remove “all badges and incidents of slavery in the United States,” California perpetuated new iterations of harm that have “been innumerable and have snowballed over generations.”
The report is the most thorough government-issued report on race since the 1968 Kerner Commission, which found that racism drove the riots of the late 1960s, Kamilah Moore, chair of the commission, told Vox. “My hope is that people use this report as an educational and organizing tool,” she said.
It details that, in addition to the original harms of enslavement and racial terror, the American and Californian governments engaged in political disenfranchisement against Black people, instituted housing segregation and separate and unequal education, and that racism influenced the development of the state’s infrastructure, creating environmental injustice. The report also pointed out that the federal and state governments have made it harder for Black families to stay together, with Black children overrepresented in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems; hindered Black Americans from getting employment opportunities; and made it more difficult for Black Americans to build wealth.
California’s racial wealth gap is understudied, but a few studies of Los Angeles show the disparity. One 2016 study found that the median net worth of white Angeleno households was $355,000 while that of native-born Black Angelenos was $4,000. The same study found that the median value of liquid assets for Black households was $200 compared to $110,000 for white households.
The Reparations Task Force report substantiates the claim for reparations at the state and federal levels. But the commission still has major questions to explore. Mainly: What would reparations even look like? And would California be able to afford the cost?
California’s history of terror easily makes the case for reparations
Though there was a movement to bar the westward expansion of slavery, California’s history with the institution created long-lasting effects, the report’s authors highlighted.
California’s early lawmakers tolerated slavery, and it is estimated that up to 1,500 enslaved Black people lived in California by 1852, according to the report. This was the case despite California joining the Union as a free state in 1850. Enslavers mostly trafficked young men and teenage boys to have them work in gold mines amid the state’s gold rush.
The state passed a fugitive slave law in 1852 that made it “a more proslavery state than most other free states,” the report stated. The law required state officials to help enslavers capture enslaved people who escaped to free states, punished people who tried to help freedom seekers, and limited the enslaved person’s ability to defend themself in court. From 1852 to 1855, anyone accused of being a runaway slave could be sent back to enslavement in the South, even if they had been living in the free state of California since 1850.
And though the federal government in the Reconstruction era abolished slavery, guaranteeing equal protection of the laws and the right to vote, California was slow to sign on to those reforms. It didn’t ratify the Fourteenth Amendment until 1959 and the Fifteenth Amendment until 1962.
This early history had lingering negative effects on life in California that are still felt today. In the early 20th century, the state sometimes held more Ku Klux Klan events than Mississippi or Louisiana, with California KKK members holding top positions in government and police departments, the report points out.
Racial animus informed lawmakers’ decisions around housing, development, education, and family life. The government created segregation through redlining, zoning ordinances, and discriminatory mortgage practices. Black people were sometimes forbidden from living in entire areas and towns, like the suburbs outside of San Francisco and Los Angeles, due to “sundown town” restrictions.
White neighborhoods flourished while Black ones languished since the government actively razed Black areas for alleged “urban renewal” and “park construction,” according to the report. This segregation was a part of school life, too, since the state Supreme Court ruled in 1874 that segregation in public schools was legal. A century later, school desegregation efforts repeatedly failed across the state — and today California is the sixth most segregated state for Black students, according to a study cited in the report.
Disparity is evident in other areas of California life today as well, like the disproportionate representation of Black children in foster homes or the high representation of Black Californians in the state’s legal system as a result of law enforcement’s propensity to stop and arrest them.
“California has this history and the formal plan that we recommend to the governor will reflect the kinds of terror that Black people in California had to endure,” Moore told Vox.
Can California afford the bill?
The report makes dozens of preliminary recommendations to address the glaring disparities it maps out.
For example, to end legal slavery in California, the task force recommends that the state remove specific language in its constitution that allows involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes. To address racial terror, the report suggests that the state hold law enforcement officers accountable for violence by eliminating state law immunities that protect misconduct. To remedy environmental racism, the authors argue for plans to tackle unequal exposure to pollutants. And to address unequal education, the task force wants the state to support Black students with education grants.
While the recommendations are extensive, the task force has yet to suggest cash payments to Black Californians, a pillar of reparatory justice that advocates say could be the most meaningful for residents. At the federal level, economists have estimated that reparations could cost the federal government around $10 trillion to $12 trillion, or about $800,000 for each eligible Black household.
But the task force hasn’t ruled it out. Its report is an interim one, and its members plan to undertake more discussions and research before it must submit its final report to Gov. Newsom. Moore noted that cash reparations aren’t out of the question, particularly with the state’s estimated $97.5 billion state budget surplus.
“California does have the budget to provide reparations in the form of cash payments, and the surplus is even added evidence of the fact that it has the budget,” Moore said.
As of 2020, 39.5 million people reside in California, with 2.8 million, or about 6 percent, identifying as Black. The task force voted that only Black Californians who can prove their direct lineage to enslaved ancestors would be eligible for reparations through the state. Moore says the figure would be within the state’s budget.
Others have argued that in order for cash payments to be reparations, they must close the racial wealth gap in a manner that makes up for the government’s exclusion of Black Americans from programs like Social Security and the G.I. Bill.
According to Moore, the task force will take all these factors into consideration as it works through its next phase.
“We still have a lot to think through,” Moore said. “The final plan for reparations will address payment for rehabilitation, social services, medical services, stolen wealth, satisfaction, and a formal apology.”