California sends final reparations report to state lawmakers as national bill sits in limbo

A bill that would establish a national panel to study reparations is still pending in Congress.

A man holds up a sign during a Reparations Task Force meeting in Oakland in 2022.
A man holds up a sign during a Reparations Task Force meeting in Oakland in 2022. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

California’s Reparations Task Force approved its final report last weekend, recommending a public apology to Black Californians, dozens of policy reforms and monetary payments.

The Task Force was created in 2020, following the death of George Floyd, to document the harm of slavery, propose restorative measures and educate the public.

“America needs to know how enormous the harm is. That’s not been done before,” Donald Tamaki, a task force member and lawyer, told Yahoo News.

Tamaki is one of the panel’s nine members, five of whom were appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, and said the committee retained economists to calculate the harm, which in theory equates to roughly $1.2 million per person, according to a recent report by the New York Times.

“The extent of the harm, it's terrible, it is enormous. It is astronomical,” Tamaki said.

While the task force released an estimated amount for compensation, it did not recommend that the state pay a specific amount; instead, the monetary calculation provides guidance for the “enormous economic extent and impact,” Tamaki said. “I think people have sort of an idea that reparations [are] merely a check in the mail. Well, it does involve compensation. But it does involve all of the others fixing the systems and the culture that created this in the first place.”

In addition, the panel recommended dozens of proposals, including changes to providing equity in health care, education, policing, legal systems, and incarceration, as well as reforming historically redlined communities in the state.

‘The cost is too high’

Task Force members listen to public comments during a meeting in Oakland in 2022.
Task Force members listen to public comments during a meeting in Oakland in 2022. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Experts stress that compensation is not enough. “It's so deep and pervasive, it has to be followed by institutional changes and changes in the culture,” Tamaki said, referring to the impact of slavery and racial discrimination.

But reparations remain an unpopular concept in the U.S., with more than 60% of Americans opposing repayment to descendants of enslaved people, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center Survey.

“For those who think the cost is too high, consider the ongoing price paid for these injustices by all people who call the U.S. home, also paid in the currency of shorter, sicker lives. It’s time to make a down payment on a healthier future,” Mary Travis Bassett, a public health professor at Harvard University, told Yahoo News.

Last year, the task force submitted a 500-page report, which outlined “the harm of 246 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow and racial terror and decades more of continuing discrimination — resulting in today’s outcomes — which are at once shocking but sadly, not surprising,” Tamaki said.

The Golden State has over 2 million Californians that identify as Black or African American, but some experts say reparations would be a complicated process at the state level.

Even for California, the $1.2 million compensation amount does not fit into the current state budget. “$1.2 million per person times approximately 2 million eligible recipients comes to $2.4 trillion. The state's annual budget is approximately $300 billion,” economist William Darity Jr., professor of public policy at Duke University, told Yahoo News.

National reparations bill sits in limbo

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks at a press conference on reparations legislation on Capitol Hill in 2021.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks at a press conference on reparations legislation on Capitol Hill in 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Instead of relying on state budgets to provide reparations, Darity said it “must be a federal project.” Darity served as a pro bono consultant to the Department of Justice’s team that supported the task force and said the states ultimately can’t foot the bill.

“Elimination of the nation's racial wealth gap is approximately $14 trillion and that's a minimum estimate. And only the federal government has the capacity to do that without dramatically raising tax burdens across the country,” Darity explained. “The total budgets for all the state and municipal governments in the United States come to less than $5 trillion.”

But on the federal level, members of Congress have struggled for decades to create a commission to study and develop reparations under House Resolution 40, a bill proposed by the late Democratic Rep. John Conyers, in 1989.

Just last year, national lawmakers demanded that Biden sign an executive order to set up the commission for HR 40, but there has been little to no progress.

“HR 40 is 38 years on the books waiting for someone to say yes. Today, we ask with no apologies for an executive order to be in place,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said during a two-day conference on reparations in Evanston, Ill. last year. “I want for once an acceptance of the history of the journey that African Americans have taken to be an accepted reality in America.”

Evanston is known as the first community to distribute reparations to Black residents. The Chicago suburb has given out roughly $400,000 in reparations.

“I am glad to see California is following in the footsteps of my hometown of Evanston, Illinois. But we must do more. It is past time for Congress to pass H.R. 40,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, whose district includes parts of Evanston and Chicago, told Yahoo News in a statement. “If we as an entire country do not acknowledge that these problems still exist, and if we do not take the necessary steps to address them, we will fail not only all Americans, but also our democracy,”

While Tamaki agrees that the issue of reparations is national, he also acknowledges that progress is slow.

“Congress has not shown the will even to study reparations, let alone do anything about it,” Tamaki said. “The [report], however, says that whatever California does should not be taken to be a substitute for what is the responsibility of the federal government.”

State-level reparations draw equity concerns

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills on May 2.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills on May 2. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet some experts say individual states providing reparations could lead to an equity issue. “In the administration of reparations programs, when you rely upon individual states and municipalities to set up the programs, everybody's will be different,” Darity said. “In fact, there's going to be municipalities and states that don't do anything.”

But the task force’s proposals are not set in stone. Next, they are headed to the majority-Democratic state legislature and then eventually Newsom’s desk.

“They can do whatever they want with that report. They could ignore it altogether,” Darity said. “They could increase the amount, they could decrease the amount or they could offer the same amount. I think there [are] a lot of people who have a sense of optimism about what the state assembly will do.”

“If enacted, this plan would go a long way toward addressing long-standing racial inequities in the state. The effects of slavery are still being felt to this day. The wealth gap between Black and white Americans persists and systemic racism continues to seep into all aspects of our lives,” Schakowsky said.

On June 29, the Task Force will present its final report to the legislature.

“We call upon the California legislature to consider, balance and make a long-standing commitment to implement these proposals now and in the years to come. The harm was centuries in the making, so the repair needs to be long in the implementation,” Tamaki said.