California’s reparations task force delivered its final recommendations to lawmakers in Sacramento Thursday, and some in the audience commented on the absence of one of the early champions of the task force, Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Task force members also noted the irony of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action in higher education on the day the task force’s nearly 1,200-page final document, with hundreds of recommendations, is released to the public.
“I would encourage the Supreme Court to read the interim report,” said Cheryl Grills, a task force member. “I would encourage them to read the final report and understand the legacy of enslavement, and the ongoing harms that are with us to this very day.”
Secretary of State Shirley Weber, whose bill created the task force, called the High Court ruling a “heartbreaking” regression.
The state’s nine-member task force set out in 2020 with the mission to form recommendations for how California could repair the harm from centuries of systemic racism and the legacy of slavery. California became the first state in the nation to have such robust public discussions on reparations.
It wasn’t always pretty. During 200 hours of public meetings, there were some tense exchanges among the hundreds of public commenters and witnesses. And thousands of pages of public documents were written with the help of the state’s Department of Justice.
Now, two years later, Weber and several members of the Black Caucus addressed a full Secretary of State’s auditorium.
“I felt very strongly that if any state could do it, it would be California,” said Weber, during a news conference beforehand.
Key parts of the recommendations include reparations payments to descendants of enslaved people, a formal apology, and dozens of policy changes aimed at redressing discrimination against African Americans.
One persistent debate was over who would be eligible for reparations. The task force voted in 2022 that descendants of enslaved people or of Black people living in the United States before 1900 would qualify.
Kamilah Moore, who chaired the task force, said Thursday its decision means the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling on racial preferences won’t affect reparations payouts, if approved.
“Our work remains unaffected by that decision largely because of the wisdom that we had in consulting with legal experts … and that’s why most of our policy prescriptions are not race-based, but they’re based on lineage,” she said. “We made the right decision.”
If adopted the recommendations could mean hundreds of billions of dollars in payments to eligible Black Californians — the broadest proposal in the nation’s history to address past injustices. Taskforce members noted, however, that the panel did not recommend specific reparations amounts, though its report included calculations of what may be owed to most Black Californians.
“Our goal was to study and expose and educate. We have done that,” said state Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena who is on the task force. “Now it’s up to Californians and the rest of America to read the report and understand what’s there.”
It’s unclear how those recommendations will be received.
Newsom, who made introductory remarks at the task force’s first meeting two years ago, did not attend this, the final meeting. As the meeting convened, Newsom was in Nevada County meeting with state fire officials and the press to discuss plans for the wildfire season.
Some at the reparations hearing questioned his absence.
“The last thing the fire needs is another politician,” said Jonathan Burgess, a fire battalion chief from Sacramento and advocate for reparations. “If you (Newsom) are not here, I want you to know that Black America is watching nationwide.”
Weber said the reparations report was produced for the Legislature, not the governor.
“I’m not responsible for the governor,” she said. “The governor can only do so much. It is the legislature that has to formulate the programs.”
In prior public statements, Newsom has not said if he would support the task force’s findings.
Thursday, while taking questions from reporters at the wildfire meeting, Newsom said the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling only reinforces the need to take the reparations report seriously. He said the Supreme Court is “rolling back rights.”
“The context of that decision today only reinforces the seriousness of purpose to which we will review it,” he said of the recommendations.
“I’ve been pretty consistent in my public comments that that’s what I intend to do, to take this very seriously. And I take the responsibility to answer and to be accountable to what’s going on as it relates to race, race relations, in the state and the nation.”
Newsom noted that three years after California voters struck down racial preferences by approving Proposition 209 in 1996, Black college student enrollment plunged at some schools by about 50 percent. Today, out of 7,000 students admitted to UC Berkeley, 228 are African American, he said.
The task force report includes at least 17 proposals for education-related reparations — everything from repealing Prop 209 to funding free tuition in public colleges.
Newsom declined to say what he plans to do about the taskforce recommendations beyond reading them.
In prior interviews Newsom has noted that Ronald Reagan okayed reparation payments to Japanese Americans affected by internment during World War II, but he added that reparations doesn’t have to be writing a check.
“Reparations come in many forms,” he said.
Burgess, who said his great-great-grandfather was brought to California as a slave to mine for gold, agreed with Newsom that reparations can be more than a check.
“A check alone will not repair the injustices done,” he said, “and it would be an injustice to this nation for reparations for descendants to be just a check.”
The reparations task force report, which identifies methods for calculating reparations, suggests Black residents may be owed a total of more than $800 billion for decades of over-policing, disproportionate incarceration and housing discrimination. That price tag is more than two-and-a-half times the size of the state’s annual budget.
California lawmakers recently passed a nearly $311 billion state budget package covering a nearly $32 billion deficit with a combination of spending cuts, delayed spending and borrowing.
Few lawmakers have spoken in support of the preliminary recommendations of the reparations task force, but many have said they were awaiting the final report. In CalMatters’ informal email poll of all 120 state legislators, five lawmakers not on the task force responded.
Those who have expressed support include La Mesa Democrat Dr. Akilah Weber, Moreno Valley Democrat Corey Jackson, Tina McKinnor, a Democrat from Inglewood, and Damon Connolly, a Democrat from San Rafael.
In opposition is Assemblymember James Gallagher, a Republican from Chico, who in a statement asked: “How can we ask new immigrants and low-wage workers to foot the bill for something done 150 years ago, on the other side of the country?”
Bradford said many lawmakers were understandably waiting to see the final report, out today.
“There’s going to be support there, but again asking people right now to stand up and state definitively that they are in support of that, very few are willing to do that at this point,” said Bradford.
Many Californians support an apology, but the idea of payments to Black Californians has garnered mixed support. In a 2023 survey by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California, nearly three out of five Californians supported the state issuing a formal apology for human rights violations and crimes against humanity for enslaved Africans and their descendants.
Although most Californians surveyed believe racism is a problem, a majority of adults and likely voters said they had an unfavorable impression of the state having a reparations task force.
Grills and task force member Don Tamaki said more than 300 California-based organizations have endorsed the task force’s work. Attorney General Rob Bonta also spoke in favor of the work of the task force.
At a press briefing before the hearing, task force member Lisa Holder held up the hefty report, saying it’s the collective work of the Department of Justice, hundreds of scholars and the community.
“Only half the story has ever been told; here is a document that tells us the full story,” said Holder. “We are not post-racial … Anyone who says that we are colorblind, that we have solved the problem of being anti-Black, I challenge you to read this.”
The audience of more than 200 people filled the auditorium, and more than two dozen others waited outside, switching with attendees to witness parts of the meeting. Some people came from across the state to attend the final task force meeting.
“After being denied our 40 acres and a mule … our time has come. It’s time to right the many centuries of wrong,” said Sabrina Watts-Jefferson, who was referencing an unfulfilled promise made to newly freed enslaved people in 1865.
Donny Brown declared Thursday “a day of celebration and rejoicing” and led the auditorium in a chant: “What do we want? Reparations! When do we want them? Now!”
Before and during the nearly 5-hour final meeting, task force leaders told personal stories about how racism affected their families.
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said when he was a struggling college student his grandmother told him that when he was a baby, a Ku Klux Klan member called her and said, “Get your son out of school or your grandson will never make it.”
Jones-Sawyer said it made him realize “You have absolutely no right to give up (your) education.”
Weber told of fleeing the Jim Crow south because her sharecropper father was going to be lynched because he stood up for himself at a weigh station.
She said her family relocated to California, where her parents “believed in this little girl called Shirley Weber from Hope, Arkansas, and always told me every day: ‘Little girl, you’re going to be somebody, someday.’”