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What could reparations look like in California?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In 2020, California's legislature did something no state has ever done. It created a task force to look at the legacy of slavery in the U.S. and at the history of racism in California and how those histories have harmed the state's Black residents and to suggest possible ways the state could atone for that harm. The California Reparations Task Force laid it all out in an 1,100-page final report. And it made a blockbuster recommendation that California should pay the descendants of enslaved people who today live in the state cash reparations.

So a year later, where does this effort stand? Earlier this month, California lawmakers set aside $12 million in the state budget for reparations - not for cash payments, though, for other things. Although cash payments have been the reparations movement's central goal, both in California and nationally, politically, it's been tough. For more, we called on NPR race and identity correspondent Sandhya Dirks, and when we spoke, she began by explaining how California got to this point.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: So reparations for slavery is something Black people have been fighting for since even before slavery was abolished. But at the national level, there's really never been enough political support. Then, four years ago, after George Floyd's murder by police in Minneapolis, there was this moment, protests and conversations about racial justice. So lawmakers in California said, maybe we can do something. And they set up this reparations task force to study the state's history of racism and suggest concrete ways to atone for that history.

FLORIDO: So tell us about what this task force did.

DIRKS: Well, it spent two years collecting expert evidence and testimony, holding public hearings across the state. And then last summer, it issued this report recommending a long list of policies aimed at closing racial gaps in wealth, health, education and achievement - things like free college tuition, housing aid, tax breaks. But the biggest recommendation was for California to make cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people - in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.

FLORIDO: So that was a year ago, and now this week, we learned that the new state budget will include $12 million for reparations. So is that for those cash payments?

DIRKS: No. I mean, so far, there's been no movement on cash payments. The 12 million is money for, as of now, unspecified legislation. It could go to a slate of bills introduced by members of the Black Legislative Caucus to address some other parts of the task force's report.

FLORIDO: Like what?

DIRKS: One bill would end forced labor in state prisons. Another would provide grant money to combat violence in Black communities. And another would do something simple but deeply symbolic - accept responsibility for California's role in upholding slavery. It also recognizes the state's role in perpetuating systemic discrimination that exists to this day. Another bill would create a California Freedmen's Bureau, named for the agency set up after the Civil War to help formerly enslaved people. The idea is that bureau would help create the infrastructure for administering reparations.

FLORIDO: So Sandhya, are there any bills that would actually, you know, compensate people?

DIRKS: Well, there is one. State Senator Steven Bradford introduced what people are calling a land back bill. It would enable the state to compensate Black people whose land it took using policies like eminent domain. There's a long history of that tool being used for racist reasons.

FLORIDO: California's budget is almost 300 billion - that's with a B - billion dollars, Sandhya. So 12 million set aside in this year's budget for reparations doesn't sound like very much. Can the state really do anything meaningful with that money?

DIRKS: Well, I asked that question of state Senator Steven Bradford. He's also a member of the Reparations Task Force, and he admits the amount is basically budget dust.

STEVEN BRADFORD: Does 12 million come close to healing or addressing all the massive wrongs and continued, you know, vestiges of slavery and - no, no - and discrimination? But it lets folks know that we're serious about it. It's a beginning.

DIRKS: Other supporters of reparations say, while it's not a lot of money, it's a symbolic amount and that it's a bookmark or a promise. Kamilah Moore, who led the state's Reparations Task Force, also says it's a good start.

KAMILAH MOORE: And I'm hoping to see more legislation that gets at direct benefits to descendants of slaves in this next legislative session, but I think it was a good idea for the California Legislative Black Caucus to start off with bills that relate to more structural policies.

FLORIDO: So Sandhya, I mean, it sounds like lawmakers and even some advocates are sort of framing this money as an important first step. But what about the cash payments? Is there just no support for that?

DIRKS: There just isn't enough. State Senator Bradford has said so himself. Governor Gavin Newsom has also publicly been very tepid on the idea of cash reparations. They say it's largely a budgetary issue. And these are all Democrats. Among Republicans, there's even more opposition. James Gallagher is the state assembly's Republican leader. And he doesn't think cash reparations are what's going to close racial gaps.

JAMES GALLAGHER: Yes, I think in our current society, there are not impediments to, you know, Black Americans succeeding. But are there things in history that have certainly put Black Americans behind in terms of being able to build wealth? Yeah. I mean, I think we know that's true.

DIRKS: And he also says it's just not fair for taxpayers today to have to pay for injustices of the past. But Adrian, to be clear, it's not Republicans holding up these more robust reparations. Democrats have a supermajority in the California legislature. If they wanted to make this happen, they could. Gallagher told me he feels like this is all a performance with very little substance to back it up.

GALLAGHER: And to me, like, what Democrats continue to do in this situation is act like they're doing something in terms of reparations but not really doing it.

DIRKS: What's so interesting is that grassroots reparations activists are saying something very similar. As we heard earlier, some are framing the 12 million and the bills as a solid start. But for Black people in the state who saw this as a chance for California to do something big and bold, there's a feeling of frustration, like things are already being watered down.

FLORIDO: If reparations are proving so tough to pass in California, you know, one of the most progressive states in the country, what does that say about prospects for the broader reparations movement going forward, do you think?

DIRKS: Well, it's always been really hard to get public support for reparations. Poll after poll has found that aside from African Americans, there's just not a lot of support for cash payments. Some polls have found that the general public don't believe Black Americans deserve reparations. The post-Floyd racial justice movement that led to this big momentum for reparations, it's dissipated. Democrats have kind of dropped it, and on the right, there's been an outright backlash, what some activists call whitelash.

Many prominent conservatives have made an issue of denying systemic racism is real, and there's also a growing movement to challenge programs that address systemic racism in court. Now, all of that said, California reparations advocates are not giving up, and the state is still engaged in one of the largest-scale efforts to compensate people for historic racism in our country's history.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with NPR race and identity correspondent Sandhya Dirks. Thanks.

DIRKS: Thanks, Adrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.