California finally has a plan for reparations. But why does it seem so disorganized?

(Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

California finally has a plan for reparations. But why does it seem so disorganized?

California politics, homepage news

Erika D. Smith

February 2, 2024

On Thursday morning, state Sen. Steven Bradford sat down alone at a table at the Capitol in Sacramento.

He played with a stack of papers as he waited for reporters in the room to quiet down and then, with confident seriousness, announced a detailed plan for legislation that would provide reparations for black Californians.

“I started developing this package several months ago,” said Bradford. ‘This policy has a


impact that is now necessary to repair some of the damage identified.”

You might think the Gardena Democrat was about to explain California’s long-awaited legislative strategy to compensate Black people for the lasting harms of slavery and systemic racism. A strategy that was reportedly in the works since the state-appointed task force on reparations, of which the senator was a member, ended its work in June with a long list of recommendations for the legislature and the administration. Gavin Newsom.

But Bradford didn’t explain that.

That’s because California doesn’t really have a legislative strategy for reparations. At least not one that is a coherent vision.

Instead, we have so far a confusing and growing collection of bills, some of which are half-baked and all of which have been introduced by lawmakers who, despite their claims to the contrary, don’t seem to be on the same page about what to do. setting priorities or how to proceed.

The implications of this are profound and a bit embarrassing, especially for a state where officials regularly proclaim they want to lead the nation on a multi-year recovery campaign.

Certainly, some of what is happening is just due to the normal way the legislative process works in Sacramento. Lawmakers often cooperate


others, but are also free to go rogue.

“Each individual member is elected on their own and has a constitutional right to introduce whatever bills they deem appropriate,” said Assembly Member Lori D. Wilson, a Democrat from Suisun City and chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “And so we as a caucus would never interfere.”

But reparations are not a normal issue. It is one of the most important, transformational policy frameworks for Black Americans in generations. It is also controversial, difficult to define and a magnet for disinformation, so even the appearance of infighting and disorganization among its adherents can easily undo it.

Polls already consistently show that the idea of ​​compensating the descendants of people who were enslaved is unpopular with most voters. And I suspect it will be particularly unpopular this year, given the state’s yawning budget deficit.

So as officials in other states, including New York with its own recently approved task force, look to California to lead, they likely have the same question as me: What hope is there to get more people united behind a vision for raising of US reparations? while the people pushing the legislation don’t even seem to be united?

Recall that just 24 hours before Bradford took his seat in that room of the Capitol, the Legislative Black Caucus, of which the senator is a member, quietly announced a sweeping reparations package for 2024.

The fourteen bills included are separate from what Bradford introduced, except one that calls for restitution for racist property seizures (see: Bruce’s Beach or Section 14 in Palm Springs). In fact: a number


the bills seem well-intentioned, but are headache-inducing.

Like Assembly Member Kevin McCarty’s (D-Sacramento) upcoming bill for “Financial Assistance for Career Education for Redlined Communities.”

Or one from Assemblymember Corey Jackson (D-Perris) who would “amend the California Constitution to allow the state to fund programs aimed at increasing the life expectancy of specific groups, improving their educational outcomes, or removing them from the poverty.’

Or even one from Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles) who would “address food injustice by requiring advance notice to community stakeholders prior to a grocery store closure in underserved or at-risk communities.”

Fortunately, the bill in the caucus package that will likely get the most attention makes perfect sense. It is from Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) and will demand a formal apology from the governor and Legislature for the role California played in the atrocities against enslaved Black people and their descendants.

“We’re even thinking about how we can make sure it’s shown,” he told me, “so people can see that the apology isn’t just something written on a piece of paper.”

While that bill is still in the works, it will likely be introduced this month and complement a resolution from Assemblymember Akilah Weber (D-La Mesa) explaining exactly what those atrocities are and why California is to blame.

All told, the number of reparations could ultimately reach the 2030s, and likely vary in priorities. Wilson told me that it was only on the fourteenth that the caucus decided that they could provide collective support.

“This is a similar process that we do every day,” she told me. “We have a number of bills that we, as members of the caucus, believe will impact California. And so we’re coming together and figuring out which ones are going to be our absolute priority.”

Still, it’s hard to ignore the confusion that accompanied this week’s announcements, I’m told, to meet the artificial deadline of the start of Black History Month, as if there weren’t 29 days in February.

Bradford was forced to answer questions at his news conference Thursday about why he was not present when the rest of the caucus announced his bill and whether members agree on a legislative strategy for reparations.

“I wouldn’t say we’re divided,” he repeatedly told reporters, clearly irritated.

Jones-Sawyer echoed Bradford, assuring me, “We are all united to get something done. That’s not the issue. The issue is: what are you going to put forward first?’

“But this,” he added, referring to all the questions and confusion, “is exactly why we hire a marketing agency.”

It certainly can’t hurt.


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