California will consider paying reparations to descendants of slavery, becoming the first state in the US on Wednesday to adopt a law to study and develop proposals around the issue.
The law establishes a nine-member taskforce to develop recommendations for how California could provide reparations to Black descendants of enslaved people and those affected by slavery, and would look into what form those reparations might take and who would receive them.
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The recommendations would not be binding. The taskforce must submit a report to the state legislature one year after its first meeting.
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“As a nation, we can only truly thrive when every one of us has the opportunity to thrive,” Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, said in a statement. “California’s rich diversity is our greatest asset, and we won’t turn away from this moment to make right the discrimination and disadvantages that Black Californians and people of color still face.”
Reparations have been a controversial subject in the US for some time, especially amid the reckoning on racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Union general William Sherman’s promise of “40 acres and a mule” to newly freed people never came to fruition following the end of the American civil war in 1865, and instead, “our painful history of slavery has evolved into structural racism and bias built into and permeating throughout our democratic and economic institutions”, Newsom said.
California entered the US as a “free state” in 1850, 11 years before the start of the civil war. But its history with slavery was much more complicated than that, according to the California Historical Society. Many who took to the Sierra Nevada foothills during the Gold Rush in the years before California’s statehood brought enslaved people with them.
The state constitution proclaimed “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of a crime, shall ever be tolerated”, yet the legislature passed a fugitive slave law “specifically targeting Blacks who escaped in California and had not fled from slave states”.