In 2020, California implemented a reparations task force to determine how to address the state’s systemic disenfranchisement of Black people. And earlier this month, the group announced their findings. The task force decided that each Californian descendant of free or enslaved African Americans living in the U.S. before the end of the 19th century should be given $223,200 in reparations. The logistics of these repayments are still unclear, but the proposal is one of the first of its kind and a significant step forward in the conversation on reparations.
This is a marked point of progress on the long road to receiving federal reparations for Black people. In 1898, The National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association had 600,000 members – all of who organized to obtain compensation for slavery from federal agencies (Zinn Education). During the 1920s, Marcus Garvey organized hundreds of thousands of Black people to demand reparations (ACLU). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr advocated for reparations in his book “Why We Can’t Wait” in 1964 (HRW). The Black Panther Party called for them as part of their 10-point program (Time).
• Tell President Biden to create an H.R. 40-style reparations commission.
• Download and review the reparations toolkit from the Movement for Black Lives.
• Listen to this episode of the ACLU’s At Liberty podcast to learn more about California’s fight for reparations.
• Research efforts for reparations in your state and local community. See how you can support, amplify, or advocate as needed.
In fact, in her 2019 public lecture at the Columbia Journal of Race and Law, activist, attorney, and scholar Nkechi Taifa emphasizes that, since the end of slavery, “there’s been no substantial period of time where the call for redress has been neglected.” Read her full speech via Columbia and more examples of reparations through history via ACLU.
But in 1988, Congress passed legislation paying reparations to Japanese Americans that were descendants of those held in detention camps, along with funding dedicated to educating the history of Japanese internment and a pardon for all those convicted of resisting arrest. This action created a framework for approaching reparations for Black people in the political sphere (WWII Museum). As a result, the H.R. 40 bill was introduced a year later, led by the late Michigan Representative John Conyers. It’s named after “40 acres and a mule,” referencing the broken promise of 1845 to redistribute land to formerly enslaved people.
The House and the Senate issued apologies to Black Americans for the impact of slavery and Jim Crow back in 2008 and 2009 (NPR), a hollow gesture without joint accountability or reparations for the harm. (They also apologized for the harm that happened “to Native Peoples” during this time). But otherwise, there’s been no significant progress on behalf of the federal government.
Despite this, public perception is rapidly shifting. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations,” brought the topic to the front page in 2014 (The Atlantic). And the racial reckoning of 2020 swiftly shifted sentiment in favor of passing reparations. Reparations have been a persistent demand from major Black-led organizing groups. And the Human Rights Watch and dozens of other organizations sent a letter to Congress urging the review and passing of H.R. 40 (Human Rights Watch).
Texas Representative Shelia Jackson Lee took on this work after the passing of Rep. Conyers. She reintroduced the latest version of H.R. 40 on January 4, 2021. This pivotal step got buried in the news; two days later, white supremacists stormed the Capitol building – resulting in another slew of calls for accountability. It’s difficult to imagine what more is needed to make this case a national priority.
• The state of California’s task force has proposed that each Californian who is a descendant of free or enslaved African Americans living in the U.S. before the end of the 19th century should be given $223,200.
• Cities and states are developing unprecedented reparations initiatives to reinvest in Black communities.
• Social sentiment on reparations is changing swiftly, mainly due to the racial reckoning of 2020.
• There’s still work to be done for federal recognition and action around reparations.