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California Greenlights Slave Reparations Without Plans To Prove Ancestry

Pro-reparations protesters / Getty Images
• March 30, 2022 12:10 pm

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California is moving forward with plans to provide reparations to black residents descended from African slaves, despite not knowing how many will prove their ancestry.

A state task force on Tuesday voted 5-4 to compensate African Americans whose ancestors were slaves, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. During a fraught meeting, members eventually agreed on a payment program but did not define how a black Californian would prove he or she is descended from enslaved people. There are more than 2.5 million black residents in California, but it's unclear what portion had enslaved ancestors.

Task force members were nearly evenly split over denying reparations to those without enslaved ancestors. Members who supported reparations to all black residents argued that slavery affected every black person, even those who emigrated freely to the United States.

"All roads start with chattel slavery. That's absolutely how we begin," said Reginald Jones-Sawyer, a state legislator and task force member. "The fact that we all came in, whether on a slave ship or a cruise ship—Guess what? We're all in the same boat now."

California is the only state with a reparations task force, appointed in 2020 by law under Gov. Gavin Newsom (D.). The bill passed the state Assembly and Senate by wide margins.

Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates repopularized public debate and spurred lawmakers to action over reparations with his 2014 essay, "The Case for Reparations." The California legislation cites "popular culture makers," in addition to scholarly research, as the impetus for the task force.

The bill also argues that one million incarcerated black Americans, high black unemployment rates, and racial wealth disparities warrant reparations payments. Past legislation has also deputized insurance companies to comb records for policies that "provided coverage for injury to, or death of, enslaved people."

The California legislature expects a full reparations report by June 2023, when it will consider passing legislation based on the report. If the legislation passes, California will be the first U.S. state to pay reparations to black citizens.