SACRAMENTO, Calif. – San Francisco resident Pia Harris hopes for reparations in her lifetime. But the nonprofit program director is not confident that California lawmakers will turn the recommendations of a first-in-the-nation task force into concrete legislation given pushback from opponents who say slavery was a thing of the past.
It frustrates Harris, 45, that reparations opponents won’t acknowledge that life for Black people did not improve with the abolition of chattel slavery in 1865. Black families have been unable to accumulate wealth through property ownership and higher education. Black boys and teenagers are still told to watch out for law enforcement, and Black businesses struggle to get loans, she said.
“I want them to stop acting like it’s so far removed, and it’s not currently happening,” said Harris of the lingering effects of slavery and discrimination. “I want them to understand that we’re still going through things now as a community. It’s not — it hasn’t been over for us.”
Black Californians have watched closely as the state's reparations task force forged ahead in a two-year study, finally signing off this month on a hefty list of recommendations that will be submitted to lawmakers. It's uncertain what lawmakers will do with the proposals, which include payments to descendants of enslaved people and a formal apology from the state.
The Associated Press interviewed a handful of Black advocates and residents who followed the task force’s work — as well as those who have long been engaged in the conversation about reparations. The activists who fought for civil rights in the 1960s and young entrepreneurs echoed a common fear: They hope California's exploration of reparations does not become another example of the government offering false hope.
Reparations proposals for African Americans date back to 1865, when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that newly freed people be given up to 40 acres (16 hectares) of land. That didn't happen. In recent decades, Democratic lawmakers in Congress have tried to pass legislation to study federal reparations to no avail.
In 2020, California became the first state to approve the creation of a reparations task force — in order to study the state's role in perpetuating systemic racism and to find ways to atone. Although California entered the union as a “free” state, it did not enact laws guaranteeing African Americans’ freedom, according to a draft report from the task force.
The state faces a projected $31.5 billion budget shortfall, which reduces the possibility of legislative support for some of the task force's more ambitious recommendations, including direct payments to eligible residents and the creation of a new state agency to help those families research their ancestors and to file claims.
One key lawmaker has already warned residents not to expect large payments.
The task force did not recommend specific payment amounts but estimates from economists say that the state is responsible for more than $500 billion due to decades of overpolicing, mass incarceration and redlining that kept Black families from buying homes in appreciating neighborhoods.
Damien Posey, 44, grew up in historically Black neighborhoods in San Francisco, where he heard gunshots at night and was bussed to schools in neighborhoods that weren't so welcoming to Black children. He spent a decade in prison on a weapons charge and later started a nonprofit called Us 4 Us Bay Area to mentor youth and reduce gun violence.
Meaningful reparations would include an official state apology, public funding for nonprofit organizations that assist Black residents, and cash reparations for every eligible person for the pay denied to their ancestors, who built this country with their labor, he said.
“And our people deserve it, honestly,” he said.
Compensation is an important part of state reparations proposals because Black Americans have “been deprived of a lot of money,” due to discriminatory policies, said Les Robinson, 66, an associate pastor at the Sanctuary Foursquare Church in Santa Clarita, a city about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Los Angeles.
But money isn’t everything, Robinson said, and the task force's other important work shouldn't be lost in a fixation on dollar figures alone. He pointed to efforts to retell California history through a different lens — one that examines the state’s role in perpetuating systemic racism despite its label as a “free” state.
Robinson was “hit by a tsunami of emotions” when he learned in 2017 he was descended from a man who founded the first Black church in California and played a critical role in the state’s pioneering African American community.
He was disappointed that more people — himself included — were not taught the story of Daniel Blue, his great-great-great-grandfather who created what is now known as the historic Saint Andrews African Methodist Episcopal Church in Sacramento.
Robinson is skeptical that reparations will be approved by lawmakers, if history is an indicator.
“People wonder why African Americans at large are angry,” he said. “Because we’ve been lied to. We’ve been bamboozled. For centuries — not decades — centuries.”
Like Robinson, former Black Panther Party member Joan Tarika Lewis has been researching her lineage and was proud to discover several ancestors came to California in the mid-19th century and helped other Black people escape slavery.
Lewis, who became the party's first female activist when she joined as a teenager, wants more Black residents to learn about their heritage and for all Californians to know more about the contributions of Black pioneers and civic leaders. Lewis, 73, also wants to raise more awareness about what the community has lost.
Her father operated a boxing gym in West Oakland that served as a community space for young people to learn from their elders. But then government officials took the land, and in its place built a freeway and commuter line. The family was paid a pittance for what would go on to become valuable San Francisco Bay Area property.
Lewis is optimistic that state lawmakers can make reparations happen if they have the political will.
So is Vincent Justin, a 75-year-old Richmond resident and retired bus driver who has fought for racial equity for decades. He marched in the 1960s with Martin Luther King Jr., Huey P. Newton, Stokely Carmichael and other major civil rights figures.
Though the fight has been long, he hopes reparations will one day be approved at the federal level.
“I think that we’re going to come to a fair and equitable ending,” he said.
Har reported from San Francisco. Sophie Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/ Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @ sophieadanna