California Should Enact Reparations to Atone for the Legacy of Slavery

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Poverty News & Policy Updates, The Safety Net

April 23rd, 2024

Michael Tubbs is the founder of End Poverty in California, a senior fellow for the Rosenberg Foundation and a special advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Crystal D. Crawford is executive director of the Western Center on Law & Poverty. Joseph Tomás Mckellar is executive director of PICO California, the state’s largest multi-faith, multi-racial community organizing network.

This article originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee.

Too often, the reparations conversation jumps straight to the bottom line: Who should be compensated? How much should they be paid? And who pays?

But to get the answers to those questions we must first create the political environment in which reparations are recognized as a moral necessity. That starts with telling a new and authentic story: Why do we need reparations? What exactly are we trying to repair? And how do we all stand to benefit?

Indeed, one reason there is now a need for reparations is that throughout our nation’s history we have been told a false story—one that demonizes Black people in an attempt to justify not only the slave trade, political disenfranchisement, and unspeakable horrors committed against Black bodies, but continuing barriers to opportunity and full participation in our society. Through the media, books, popular culture, religion, and more, people in power have utilized tropes and stereotypes to communicate that Black people are less than and to deny our full humanity.

California’s Historic Reckoning 

We can’t take California to where it needs to go if we don’t understand where it’s been. An important step in making reparations fully viable is to develop a curriculum for our public schools that provides students with an accurate historical account of state-sanctioned discrimination and its vestiges, and anti-Blackness that continues to impact systems, policies, practices, and outcomes today.

There are no shortages of resources that can inform this curriculum—from the new documentary Stamped from the Beginning, to The 1619 Project Curriculum, to The California Reparations Report which delves into enslavement, racial terror, housing segregation, separate and unequal education, environmental racism, and much more. At a moment when conservatives are censoring educators because they fear the impact of honesty, California can play a leading role in declaring that we actually can handle—and benefit from—the truth. And this historic accounting must not be limited to classrooms, but also explored in our local and state legislatures, houses of worship, and other venues where we gather as a community.

We must also tend to our public memory with monuments that mark the sins of our past in order to both educate and declare that these sins will not be repeated. 

Our Own Forgotten History

In California, examples of our forgotten or buried history include a majority-Black neighborhood in Palm Springs that was destroyed as families were forced out through eviction, demolition, or the burning of their homes in the 1960s. In 1945, O’Day Short, his wife Helen, and their 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son were murdered just two weeks after police and a vigilante group threatened them for moving into the white neighborhood of Fontana. And KKK violence through the 1960s included cross-burnings in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Riverside; more than 100 cases of KKK violence in Kern County in 1922 alone; and the cross-burning and stoning of an African American family’s home in a white Bay area neighborhood. These and other acts of systemic violence and their impacts must not be ignored or glossed over. Indeed, the Californian Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals reports that 73 percent of Californians support such monuments. 

As we shine a light on our history, we should also take immediate steps to pay reparations now. Willa and Charles Bruce owned a popular lodge, café, and dance hall on what became known as Bruce Beach. It led to several other Black families moving into the neighborhood. When the KKK failed to drive them out of town, the City of Manhattan Beach used eminent domain in 1924 to destroy the neighborhood, stealing more than two dozen properties. The California legislature and Governor Newsom acted to return the Bruce’s property to the Bruce’s descendants, hopefully a precedent-setting act of how we can repair the denial of generational wealth to Black families.

Global Examples

We can also look at the examples of the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Rwanda to help inform our effort to develop a shared understanding of why reparations are needed and just. In South Africa, the Commission undertook to investigate “gross human rights violations” under the apartheid regime; develop compensation recommendations for the victims of those human rights abuses; and to determine which perpetrators received amnesty in exchange for “full disclosure of all relevant facts” (1,200 individuals were granted amnesty and 5,000 were denied.) 

In Rwanda, where an estimated 800,000 people were massacred in just 100 days, the mandate of The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission is “to promote unity, reconciliation, and social cohesion.” Many Rwandans have participated in the Commission’s peace education programs which examine the origins of division, work to overcome “mutual fear and suspicion,” and promote unity. The Commission also offers age-appropriate curricula for all Rwandans which teach the pursuit of national reconciliation and then tasks graduates with training others. Additionally, there are dialogue groups that focus on reconciliation and “shared citizenship” between people with diverse identities. 

The Time To Act Is Now

We need not wait, however, to take laws off the books that continue to do systemic harm to Black people. The California Task Force offers literally dozens of policy reforms to end discriminatory harm and suffering, including: Repeal 3-strike sentencing; eliminate legal protections for peace officers who violate civil or constitutional rights; repeal proposition 209 which prohibits the consideration of race in public education, employment, and contracting; remove the barrier of proving identity to vote; eliminate barriers to licensure for people with criminal records; eliminate or reduce charges for phone calls within detention centers; repeal crime-free housing policies that ban renting to individuals with a criminal history; extend the right to vote to people currently incarcerated; and many more. 

As we learn about our shared history it becomes increasingly clear that reparations are really about repairing our social fabric and shared humanity, and recognizing Black people as equal and fully human: We ensure that we will not repeat past mistakes. We compensate for what was lost. And we reduce barriers, unlocking the potential of a population that has been locked out of full participation for 400 years. 

And that will benefit all of us.