California reparations bills clear first state Senate hearings. ‘It’s what is owed’

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Reparations bills to fund reparations policy and tackle past racially motivated eminent domain that took property from and displaced Black Californians sailed through their first hearings this week at the state Capitol.

The bills are part of the historic 2024 Reparations Priority Bill Package introduced in February by the California Legislative Black Caucus.

“This is a debt that is owed to the people who helped build this country. Reparations is a debt owed to the descendants of slavery,” said the bills’ author, state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, vice chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus.

Bradford also sat on the first-in-the-nation California Reparations Task Force to advance the case for reparations to California descendants of enslaved Black people.

“This is not a handout or a charity of any sort,” Bradford said Tuesday. “It’s what is owed, what is promised, what is 160 years overdue.”

Reparations Task Force member state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, listens during a task force meeting in 2023.
Reparations Task Force member state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, listens during a task force meeting in 2023.

The historic toll of eminent domain — government’s taking of private property for public use — on California’s Black communities and Black Californians’ generational wealth is behind Bradford’s Senate Bill 1050, which passed with a 6-1 vote in the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill 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, Bradford said. It will also create a way for the state to review claims of abuse and determine whether compensation is warranted.

“The power of eminent domain has been repeatedly used to move Black and brown people off their land, to destroy homes and to devastate the opportunity for families to build generational wealth,” Bradford said.

Between 1949-1973, as America’s white middle class had taken flight, 992 cities displaced 1 million people through eminent domain, according to Eminent Domain and African Americans, a 2007 report for the Institute for Justice. Two-thirds were Black.

“How do we heal harm like that? We provide compensation and we give land back,” testified Kavon Ward, founder of Los Angeles-based Where Is My Land?, an organization that supports Black people in their quest to reclaim land taken through eminent domain and other racially motivated policy.

Examples abound across California’s historically Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco’s Fillmore District, to once-thriving Black and Latino communities like the East Bay’s Russell City. The city of Hayward annexed the community in the 1960s, seizing the land to make way for an industrial park, evicting its residents and demolishing their homes and businesses.

The city of Hayward formally apologized in 2021 and created a reparative justice project to work with former Russell City residents and their descendants to determine appropriate restitution for forcibly relocating Russell residents.

Jessie Johnson was a Russell City resident in 1963. “We were forced out of our land,” she testified Tuesday. “You can’t see pain, but you can feel it. It hurt and it hurt very badly.”

Johnson’s mother-in-law and grandparents also lived in Russell City. Johnson recalled her husband, a Navy sailor, returning home from sea duty to find his community gone.

“Our houses had been burned down. Our homes were devastated,” Johnson said. “Please, give us our land back. We want to be paid and compensated for the hurt and the loss.”

Roger Niello, R-Sacramento, cast the lone “no” votes on both reparations bills Tuesday; as well as Bradford’s bill last week to create the agency that would oversee reparations for Black Californians.

Senate Bill 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 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.

SB 1403, also carried by Bradford, passed out of the judiciary committee and is now on to the Senate’s government organization committee.

“This agency will be the necessary foundation for the implementation and success of reparations,” Bradford said at last week’s committee hearing. “The most important responsibility of this agency will be determining which individuals are eligible for reparations programs and services — the descendants of chattel slavery.”

On Tuesday, Niello, who also sits as vice chair of the state Senate’s Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, said the eminent domain bill would force California taxpayers to bear the costs of local jurisdictions’ injustice instead of holding local governments to account.

“My initial reaction was that this is a piece of legislation that I can support. But you made it the responsibility of all of the taxpayers of California for the injustices of local jurisdictions. That seems to me to be a bit of an injustice also,” Niello said from the dais. “It’s an entirely supportable concept that I can’t support.”

Bradford said local jurisdictions will be held responsible if they played a direct role in taking land for racially motivated reasons.

“The damage is real and not only should local agencies be responsible but the state as a whole and nation as a whole because we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the racist policies that still exist in America and here in California,” Bradford said.

A fund for reparations

Senate Bill 1331 passed out of the senate committee 5-1, with Niello opposing, and 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. The number reflects the percentage of California’s Black population.

The bill also allows the fund to receive money from federal, state or local grants; or from private donations or grants.

Senate Bill 1331 was written to “recognize the financial challenges and budget deficit that the state currently faces,” Bradford said, acknowledging California’s multi-billion-dollar deficit. “It does not take funding away from any program.”

“If the (state) budget is a reflection of our values, our priorities, reparations has to be funded,” Bradford said. “The cost of reparations will be high, but so was the harm done to African Americans. That harm and those disparities continues to this day.”