By JANIE HAR
SAN FRANCISCO — The slavery reparations movement hit a watershed moment Wednesday with the release of an exhaustive report detailing California’s role in perpetuating discrimination against African Americans, a major step toward educating the public and setting the stage for an official government apology and case for financial restitution.
The 500-page document lays out the harms suffered by descendants of enslaved people long after slavery was abolished in the 19th century, through discriminatory laws and actions in all facets of life, from housing and education to employment and the legal system.
“Four hundred years of discrimination has resulted in an enormous and persistent wealth gap between Black and White Americans,” according to the interim report of the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.
“These effects of slavery continue to be embedded in American society today and have never been sufficiently remedied,” the report said. “The governments of the United States and the State of California have never apologized to or compensated African Americans for these harms.”
The Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, the task force’s vice-chair, a pastor at Third Baptist Church of San Francisco and president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, said the report details a litany of injustices that many don’t associate with California.
“It puts in no uncertain terms the practices, the inequities, the disparities,” Brown, a veteran of the civil rights movement who studied under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was arrested with him in 1961 at a lunch counter sit-in, said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. “It gives the general public the facts. It’s not made up, it’s the facts.”
The task force recommends creating a state-subsidized mortgage program to guarantee low rates for qualifying African American applicants, as well as free health care, free tuition to California colleges and universities and scholarships to African American high school graduates to cover four years of undergraduate education.
The committee also calls for a Cabinet-level secretary position to oversee an African American Affairs agency with branches for civic engagement, education, social services, cultural affairs and legal affairs. It would help people research and document their lineage to a 19th-century ancestor so they could qualify for financial restitution.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year task force in 2020, making California the only state to move ahead with a study and plan. Cities and universities have taken up the cause, with the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, becoming the first city to make reparations available to Black residents last year.
The task force, which began meeting in June 2021, will release a comprehensive reparations plan next year. The committee voted in March to limit reparations to the descendants of Black people living in the U.S. in the 19th century, overruling advocates who wanted to expand compensation to all Black people in the U.S.
California is home to the fifth-largest Black population in the U.S., after Texas, Florida, Georgia and New York, the report said. An estimated 2.8 million Black people live in California, according to the report, although it is unclear how many are eligible for compensation.
African Americans make up nearly 6% of California’s population yet they are overrepresented in jails, youth detention centers and prisons. About 28% of people imprisoned in California are Black and in 2019, African American youth made up 36% of minors ordered into state juvenile detention facilities.
Nearly 9% of people living below the poverty level in the state were African Americans and 30% of people experiencing homelessness in 2019 were Black, according to state figures.
Black Californians earn less and and are more likely to be poor than white residents. In 2018, Black residents earned on average just under $54,000 compared to $87,000 for white Californians. In 2019, 59% of white households owned their homes, compared with 35% of Black Californians.
“This didn’t just happen,” Brown said. “It happened because of discriminatory practices, like devaluing Black property, like the disproportion of arrests and locking up Black folks into the criminal justice system, like disenfranchising people, like having food deserts in our communities where we couldn’t get quality food, not having health services, not having our fair share of doctors. It has ripple effects.”
The task force makes sweeping initial recommendations, including within the prison system: Incarcerated people should not be forced to work while in prison and if they do, they must be paid fair market wages. Inmates should also be allowed to vote and people with felony convictions should serve on juries, according to the report.
Despite California being a “free” state in the run-up to the U.S. Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan flourished, with members holding positions in law enforcement and city government. African American families were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods that were more likely to be polluted.
Missouri native Basil Campbell, for example, was purchased for $1,200 and forced to move to Yolo County in 1854, leaving behind his wife and two sons. Campbell eventually paid off his purchase price, married and became a landowner. When his sons petitioned for a portion of his estate after his death, a California judge ruled that marriage between two enslaved people “is not a marriage relation.”
In 1958, a Black school teacher, Alfred Simmons, rented a house from a White person in the all-white neighborhood of Elmwood in Berkeley. The Berkeley chief of police complained to the FBI and the Federal Housing Administration told the White landlord that future mortgage applications would be denied because renting to a Black person was an “unsatisfactory risk determination,” the report said.
“California was not a passive actor in perpetuating these harms,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta, whose office assisted the task force.
Brown said that if the report “doesn’t change minds, America is going down the tubes.”
“As long as America is unkind, disrespectful and unjust to Black folks,” he said, “she will never come into her own.”
— Bay Area News Group staff writer John Woolfolk contributed to this report.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism