California’s proposals to rectify past discrimination advance through senate

California lawmakers are moving forward with a set of proposals meant to compensate Black residents for the state’s history of racism and discrimination against African Americans.

Under the legislation passed by the state senate this week, California would create an agency to help Black families research their family lineage as well as a fund for reparations programs and compensation for Black families whose property the government unjustly seized through eminent domain.

Steven Bradford, a Los Angeles-area Democratic state senator who authored the legislation, said the state “bears great responsibility” to right historic wrongs against Black Californians. In remarks on Tuesday, he argued that California was a “free state in name only” and owed a debt.

“These are not a handout or charity by any measure,” he said. “It is what was promised, it is what is owed and what is 160 years overdue.”

The proposals, which passed the senate largely along party lines and are now headed for the assembly, are part of a slate of bills inspired by recommendations from a first-in-the-nation taskforce – formed after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd – that spent two years studying how the state could atone for its legacy of racism and discrimination against African Americans.

The taskforce authored a 500-page report that laid bare decades of state-sanctioned racism and a 1,000-page final report with recommendations for how the state could remedy the injustices.

State lawmakers are moving on some of the taskforce’s proposals, but crucially are not introducing a proposal this year to provide widespread payments to descendants of enslaved Black people, which has frustrated many reparations advocates.

A recent poll found that although most California voters feel the “legacy of slavery continues to impose a toll on Black residents”, cash payments are highly unpopular among many voters.

Still, California has moved further along in its consideration of reparations proposals than any other state. Illinois and New York recently passed laws to study reparations. At the federal level, a bill in the US Congress, introduced in the 1980s, to look at reparations for Black Americans has stalled.

Roger Niello, a Republican state senator representing the Sacramento suburbs, said he supported “the principle” of the eminent domain bill, but he did not think taxpayers across the state should have to pay families for land that was seized by local governments.

“That seems to me to be a bit of an injustice in and of itself,” Niello said.

The votes came days after a key committee blocked legislation that would have given property tax and housing assistance to descendants of enslaved people. Last week, the state assembly advanced a bill last week that would make California formally apologize for its legacy of discrimination against Black Californians. In 2019, Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology for the state’s history of violence and mistreatment of Native Americans.

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Some opponents of reparations say lawmakers are overpromising on what they can deliver to Black Californians as the state faces a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

“They’re setting up these agencies and frameworks to dispense reparations without actually passing any reparations,” said Bill Essayli, a Republican assembly member who represents part of Riverside county in southern California.

Essayli has opposed reparations efforts while acknowledging the state’s early treatment of Black Californians was “despicable”. In remarks earlier this year, he said the state had been at the “forefront of the fight for racial equality” in recent decades.

It could cost the state up to $1m annually to run the agency. The committee did not release cost estimates for implementing the eminent domain and reparations fund bills. But the group says it could cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars to investigate claims by families who say their land was taken because of racially discriminatory motives.

Chris Lodgson, an organizer with reparations-advocacy group the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California, said ahead of the votes that they would be “a first step” toward passing more far-reaching reparations laws in California.

“This is a historic day,” Lodgson said.

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