Who should receive reparations in California for slavery? Answers raise more questions

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus
Former Assemblymember Shirley Weber of San Diego, now California’s secretary of state, speaks during a news conference in Sacramento in June 2020. Weber was chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, which pushed for colleagues to pass legislation to address reparations.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
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Antoinette Harrell has spent nearly three decades of her life verifying cases of slavery in the South before and after emancipation.

She visits grave sites, interviews grandparents, explores dusty attics, digs through records and follows all leads she can find to track down the family histories that many were stripped of more than a century ago when their ancestors were split up and enslaved.

And she has advice for California’s Reparations Task Force as it prepares to answer the pivotal question of who should receive reparations for slavery.


State law directs the group to prioritize those who trace their lineage to African Americans enslaved in the United States. Public attention has also focused on whether all Black people deserve some form of restitution for the lingering effects of slavery in a society that continues to discriminate based on skin color today.

But Harrell, a genealogist and historian, said eligibility based on lineage may be difficult and costly for some to prove. Names changed. Families were broken apart and trafficked across state lines. And details died with prior generations.

“The first thing that many women did, and men as well, when they became free is they walked around for miles and miles searching for their children, searching for their wives, searching for their family, their mother, their father,” said Harrell, who is one of nearly a dozen expert witnesses who will testify before the task force Tuesday. “Generations later, that search still continues today.”

In a year of national protests against racial injustice, state lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 3121 to force the state to begin to confront its racist history and systemic disparities that persist today.

Sept. 30, 2020

In its effort to determine who should receive reparations, members of the nine-person panel have found that every potential conclusion raises even more questions.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who authored the legislation that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in 2020 to establish the task force, emphasized in January that providing reparations is “an issue of descendancy and lineage” and said those with ancestral ties to African Americans who were enslaved in the United States should be prioritized.

Harrell said basing reparations on lineage raises the questions of what should qualify as proof in California and whether the state should provide funding for the costs of tracing ancestry. And, if no proof exists, should those who believe they are descendants be excluded from reparations?


“I would not say they should be able to prove because not everybody is going to be able to prove,” Harrell said. “Records have been destroyed. Courthouses have been burned. Names have changed three or four times.”

The questions underscore the complexity of California’s quest to become the first state in the nation to approve statewide reparations for slavery.

The panel has a monumental challenge: crafting a historic reparations proposal that earns the support of Black Californians and a majority of California lawmakers.

Dec. 9, 2021

The nine-member task force appointed by Newsom and legislative leaders — which comprises elected officials, civil rights leaders, attorneys and reparations experts — was charged with a mission “to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans, with a special consideration for African Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.”

It will issue two reports to the Legislature. The first is expected to be published June 1 and include findings to support the existence of state-sanctioned racism rooted in slavery from before and after emancipation to the present day.

The second report, due in July of next year, is expected to recommend remedies, including an apology, eligibility requirements for proposed reparations and a description of how to educate the public on their work. Those recommendations must be passed in a new law approved by the state Legislature and the governor to take effect.

Though the law ends the committee’s work after the second report is filed, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill that would keep the task force together for another year into mid-2024.


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March 9, 2022

“We need to be able to have that flexibility,” said Jones-Sawyer, who sits on the task force. “I think it would be harmful if we all disbanded and then people start asking questions after we make our conclusions and we’re still not there to be able to talk about that.”

Jones-Sawyer and others said they share Weber’s philosophy that descendants of those who were enslaved in the United States should be prioritized for reparations in California but noted that some of the remedies must extend beyond lineage.

“We should be concerned about every Black person in America,” he said. “And not to be crude, but I’ll be honest with you: When a white racist shoots and kills a Black person in the back because they’re Black, they don’t care if you came in from a slave ship or a cruise ship. They don’t care if you’re an immigrant. They don’t care if you’re from the Caribbean. They don’t care if you’re mixed. They’re just seeing you as Black.”

Over the last 10 months the task force has heard testimony from experts about how federal, state and corporate policies led to continued discrimination against Black people when they tried to buy a house, rent an apartment, seek healthcare services, apply for insurance, qualify for loans, access public transportation, attend school and in many other aspects of life long after slavery was made illegal.

Gov. Gavin Newsom authorizes returning the land known as Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of a Black couple that had been run out of Manhattan Beach.

Sept. 30, 2021

In doing so, the group is laying the groundwork to make the case that some remedies should affect all Black people, said Lisa Holder, a civil rights lawyer, activist and scholar on the task force.

“We all agree that based on the way that the legislation was written, based on general principles of the movement, we do think it’s important to give priority to descendants of people who were enslaved in the United States,” Holder said. “But because the exploitation and discrimination continued after the enslavement era, we also have to consider the descendants of all people who experienced that continuing exploitation after slavery.”


Jones-Sawyer said a big priority for the task force must be to try to eliminate barriers to success for Black people to begin a process of stopping racism in this country.

“We’ve got to understand all Black people are harmed,” Jones-Sawyer said. “We need to come up with something that makes sure that future Black people aren’t continuing to be harmed.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, warned the task force last month that race-based reparations could face legal challenges.

“In the United States, under current constitutional law, and in California under Proposition 209, laws that give a preference on the basis of race are either inherently suspect, or perhaps per se illegal, and therefore the question is: How can reparations be structured in a way that would get through judicial review?” he told the task force.

Voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996 to prohibit government agencies and institutions from giving preferential treatment to people on the basis of race or gender. In 2020, Weber unsuccessfully pushed a statewide ballot measure to repeal the law, which she and others argue has deepened inequities in education and government contracting opportunities.

But Chemerinsky also said state law only applies to government contracting, employment and education. Holder has encouraged the task force to focus on housing, land reparations, mechanisms for improving healthcare and giving people tax credits and tax abatements that do not implicate Proposition 209.


Similar to Harrell, she’s also concerned that not all descendants will be able to prove their ancestry.

“I think it’s extraordinarily difficult to trace your lineage in the United States back to an enslaved person because it was intentionally made difficult to do so by the power structure because Africans who were stolen from Africa were treated as chattel, treated like cows and horses and pigs,” Holder said.

To help African Americans qualify for reparations designed specifically for descendants of those who were enslaved, Harrell recommends that California cover the cost of proving that lineage, such as funding public records requests and travel, and partner with nonprofits that trace genealogy as a form of reparation.

“To repair genealogy is a part of debt repairing,” Harrell said. “There’s no amount of money that we can put on what it takes to repair. I want to know who I am. That was a birthright that was taken away from me.”