An apology is the cornerstone of reparations bills in California. What would it do?

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An apology is the cornerstone of first-in-the-nation reparations legislation to repair the wrongs of slavery and the systemic injustices that followed.

A bill to formally apologize to the descendants of enslaved Black people on behalf of the people of California is now in the state Senate after a historic Assembly vote last week.

Lawmakers of the California Legislative Black Caucus and scholars say a state apology is the mission statement for the lasting change they hope the proposed laws will achieve — the official acknowledgment that puts the crucial work in context.

“The apology — it’s fundamental for the process. You need that on record,” said Dr. Marcus Anthony Hunter, professor of sociology and African American Studies at UCLA. “An apology was needed on day one. It’s so fundamental, so overdue. We hope that this is part of a continuous action, not the destination.”

With 14 bills presented by the California Legislative Black Caucus and the more than 100 recommendations crafted from two years of work by a specially created Reparations Task Force, lawmakers say the official apology is a catalyst for action.

“This is the cornerstone of why we’re doing this. (The bill package) will put this in context. Now we begin the process of actualizing the other 100 recommendations (covering) every field of human endeavor,” said the bill’s author, state Sen. Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-South Los Angeles.

The reparations bills include three of the most critical now before California state lawmakers: Bills that will form the foundation for how the historic effort will be implemented; create funding to fulfill reparations policy; and open a path to return land taken by the state or local government. The bills are authored by state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, the caucus’ vice chair.

‘The framework for reparations’

Senate Bill 1331 would create the Fund for Reparations and Restorative Justice. The fund would draw 6% of state budget reserves to pay for policies to compensate descendants of enslaved Black people or descendants of a free Black person living in the country before the end of the 19th century.

SB 1403 would create the California American Freedmen Affairs Agency, the body responsible for overseeing and monitoring the state agencies and departments that would implement reparations — “the necessary foundation for the implementation and success of reparations,” Bradford said.

The agency is inspired by the 1865 federal act that created a Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical services and land to African Americans newly freed from enslavement.

Senate Bill 1050 creates a pathway to return land or provide restitution to Californians who have had their land or property taken by the state or local government for racially motivated reasons, bill author Bradford said. It will also create a way for the state to review claims of abuse and determine whether compensation is warranted.

The three Bradford bills passed the state Senate on Tuesday and are on now to the Assembly.

“After two years of study by the California Reparations Task Force on the impact of slavery and institutional discrimination on African Americans in California, we are now taking action,” Bradford said in a statement following the Senate votes. “These three bills are critically important for setting up the framework for reparations.”

Legislation to right wrongs

Proposed legislation to address the generational wealth and communities lost to racist eminent domain and discriminatory redlining. Proposed laws that would increase Black Californians’ access to healthy food and prescription medicines, job training and career opportunities; and offer grants to decrease violence; among other directives.

“We’re very confident they will pass. We’re a very powerful, very thoughtful, strategic group,” Jones-Sawyer said. “This is a chess game, not checkers. We have a long-term plan on how to get this done.”

The bill would also enshrine the apology at the state Capitol. One of the bill’s Senate stops will be the Senate Appropriations committee.

“We’re asking for money to display the apology prominently in the Capitol with the same gravitas as if we’re placing the Declaration of Independence in glass or the Emancipation Proclamation in glass,” Jones-Sawyer said. The estimated cost would be $150,000.

“You can walk over and look at it with pride,” he said.

From California’s complicity in slavery to racial terror in the last century and ongoing discrimination in land ownership, housing, education, policing and more, the lawmakers said they are making a moral argument for the overdue.

“An apology will not erase the history, it will not automatically correct the harms Black Californians are suffering today,” said Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Oakland, at the Assembly hearing. “But an apology does this,” Bonta continued. “It acknowledges the painful truth that California was wrong; creates a path toward healing; holds all of us, everyone with the power to influence policies accountable. This body can take a significant step toward justice and reconciliation.”

The state issued apologies in 2019 to California’s native peoples for the legacy of violence and mistreatment they endured; and in 2020, for its role in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in interment camps during World War II.

“This apology is part of repairing the moral, physical and dignity harm that we, as a state, have caused,” said Assemblymember Akilah Weber, D-San Diego. “It’s the right thing to do,” Weber continued. “When you have done a wrong, you first acknowledge it. Second, you apologize. Third, you do better. Let’s change the wrongs by first apologizing for them.”