Historic California law establishes path to reparations for Black people, descendants of slaves

California is the first state to adopt a law paving the way for Black residents and descendants of slaves to receive reparation payments.

The legislation, which was authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat representing San Diego and chair of California’s Legislative Black Caucus, does not commit to any specific payment. Instead, it establishes a nine-person task force that will study the impact of slavery on Black people in California and recommend to the Legislature what kind of compensation should be provided, who should receive it and what form that compensation will take.

Gov. Gavin Newson signed the law Wednesday afternoon.

“After watching last night’s debate, this signing can’t come too soon,” he said during a video conference with lawmakers and other stakeholders, including rapper Ice Cube, who used his celebrity to champion the bill.

“As a nation, we can only truly thrive when every one of us has the opportunity to thrive. Our painful history of slavery has evolved into structural racism and bias built into and permeating throughout our democratic and economic institutions,” Newsom said in a statement.

In a year filled with protests and calls for racial reckoning, the law received bipartisan support in the state Legislature. Advocates hope it will become a model for other states and make amends not just for slavery, but for some of the institutional practices that continued to disproportionately affect Black people in the U.S.

“This is an extremely important time for all of us,” Weber said Wednesday. “California tries to lead the way in terms of civil rights, and we have a responsibility to do that.”

Born in Arkansas, Weber said she and her family relocated to California because they saw “tremendous opportunity.” But, Weber added, California has more work to do in acknowledging the state’s history with race and inequality.

“California has come to terms with many of its issues, but it has yet to come to terms with its role in slavery,” she said. “After 400 years, we still have the impact.”

California was founded as a free state, or a state where slavery was illegal, in 1850, yet several laws made significant allowances for residents to retain enslaved people so long as they lived in California temporarily or purchased the slaves prior to statehood.

Slavery became illegal throughout the United States in 1865.

A similar proposal to study reparations for Black Americans was first introduced in Congress in 1989. It never passed, but Congress held a hearing on the proposal last year.

Weber’s bill was authored last year before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody triggered national protests. It was also written before the coronavirus exposed disparities in the country’s health care system, which made testing, treatment and prevention less accessible to communities of color.

“This is not just because of the circumstances we face. What happened is that, of course, those circumstances reinforced the fact that what we were saying all along was true,” Weber said. “Some think we’re just responding to the moment but we’re responding to the history of California and the life of Black people in California and in this nation.”

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