On Wednesday California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a task force that will develop a detailed plan for reparations for African Americans, making California the first state to mandate a study of how it can make amends for its alleged role in oppression of black people. State senators in the state overwhelmingly supported the bill in a bipartisan vote Saturday.
The law empowers a nine-member task force to come up with proposals for how the state 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. The recommendations would not be binding. The task force must submit a report to the state legislature one year after its first meeting.
According to the LA Times: "…state lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 3121 to force the state to begin to confront its racist history and systemic disparities that persist today."
"This is not just about California, this is about making an impact, and a dent, across the rest of the country," Newsom said moments after signing the bill.
"As a nation, we can only truly thrive when every one of us has the opportunity to thrive," Newsom continued. "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."
The law does not limit reparations to slavery, although it requires the task force to give special consideration for black people who are descendants of slaves
However, California never had a government-sanctioned system of slavery. It entered the Union in 1850 as a free state after gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada mountains, 11 years before the start of the civil war. But the state did let slave-owners bring their slaves to California.
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."
Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, reparations have gone from a suggestion to a political hot button issue. A federal bill establishing a commission to study the issue was introduced in 2019. A similar proposal to study reparations for black Americans was first introduced in Congress in 1989. Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden said earlier this year that he supports studying the feasibility of reparations.
Reparations would not be unprecedented in the United States. The US government partially funded German reparations to Holocaust victims following World War II. In 1988, the federal government set up a reparations program for Japanese-Americans who were held in concentration camps during World War II.
The governor would appoint five members of California’s task force. The other four would come from the Legislature, with two each appointed by the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly. The law says the task force must include at least two people from "major civil society and reparations organizations" and at least one person from academia who is an expert in civil rights.
The task force must have its first meeting no later than June 1. It must submit its recommendations to the state Legislature one year after its first meeting. The new law also calls on the task force to educate the public about the history of slavery in the US and California and the discriminatory policies that came after.