Black Californians may be owed $800bn in reparations, economists tell state | California

The leader of California’s first-in-the-nation reparations taskforce on Wednesday said it would not take a stance on how much the state should compensate Black residents whom economists estimate may be owed more than $800bn for decades of over-policing, disproportionate incarceration and housing discrimination.

The $800bn is more than 2.5 times California’s $300bn annual budget and does not include a recommended $1m per older Black resident for health disparities that have shortened their average lifespan. Nor does the figure count compensating people for property unjustly taken by the government or devaluing Black businesses, two other harms the taskforce says the state perpetuated.

“All forms of discrimination should be considered in reparations,” Thomas Craemer, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut, told the panel on Wednesday. “The taskforce should feel free to go beyond our loss estimates, and determine what the right amount would be.”

Black residents may not receive cash payments anytime soon, if ever, because the state legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom will ultimately decide whether any reparations are to be paid. The taskforce faces a 1 July deadline to recommend the forms of compensation to be awarded and who should receive it, along with other remedies.

But the panel’s chair, Kamilah Moore, said on Wednesday it was up to the state legislature to ascribe a restitution amount based on the methodology economists recommended, and which the taskforce approved on Wednesday.

“The taskforce is pretty much done regarding the compensation component. Our task was to create a methodology for calculation for various forms of compensation that correspond with our findings,” she said in an e-mail.

The estimates for policing and disproportionate incarceration and housing discrimination are not new. The figures came up in a September presentation as the consulting team sought guidance on whether to use a national or California-specific model to calculate damages.

For those who support reparations, the $800bn economists suggest underscores the long-lasting harm Black Americans have endured, even in a state that never officially endorsed slavery.

Several people who gave public comment Wednesday spoke of the urgent need to pay Black Americans for all that was taken from them.

“My family came from the south because they were running for their lives, they were fearful of being lynched, just for voting,” said Charlton Curry of Sacramento, California, who discusses reparations on his Big C Sports podcast.

man holds book in foreground as others smile in backgroundPin
Dr Amos C. Brown Jr vice-chair of the taskforce, right, holds a copy of the book Songs of Slavery and Emancipation at the Capitol in Sacramento last year. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

“Cash payments are necessary. Money talks,” he said, noting that white people benefited from free US government land through the 1862 Homestead Act, and Japanese Americans incarcerated during the second world war and Jewish Holocaust victims received reparations.

Critics pin their opposition partly on the fact that California was never a slave state and say current taxpayers should not be responsible for damage linked to events that germinated hundreds of years ago.

Bob Woodson, a prominent Black conservative, calls reparations impractical, controversial and counterproductive.

“No amount of money could ever ‘make right’ the evil of slavery, and it is insulting to suggest that it could,” he said in an email to the Associated Press, adding that Black communities relied on faith and family to build thriving communities following slavery. “Some of these communities only began coming apart after we lost sight of these values, which also hold the key to these communities’ restoration.”

Financial redress is just one part of the package being considered. Other proposals include paying incarcerated inmates market value for their labor, establishing free wellness centers and planting more trees in Black communities, banning cash bail and adopting a K-12 Black studies curriculum.

Newsom signed legislation in 2020 creating the reparations taskforce after national protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. While federal initiatives have stalled, cities, counties and other institutions have stepped in.

An advisory committee in San Francisco has recommended $5m payouts, as well as guaranteed income of at least $97,000 and personal debt forgiveness for qualifying individuals. Supervisors expressed general support, but stopped short of endorsing specific proposals. They will take up the issue later this year.

Vice-President Kamala Harris on Wednesday said from Ghana that she and Joe Biden supported a reparations study, but the president has so far sidestepped calls from advocates to create a federal commission.

The statewide estimate includes $246bn to compensate eligible Black Californians whose neighborhoods were subjected to aggressive policing and prosecution of Black people in the “war on drugs” from 1970 to 2020. That would translate to nearly $125,000 for every person who qualifies.

The numbers are approximate, based on modeling and population estimates. The economists also included $569bn to make up for the discriminatory practice of redlining in housing loans. Such compensation would amount to about $223,000 per eligible resident who lived in California from 1933 to 1977. The aggregate is considered a maximum and assumes all 2.5 million people who identify as Black in California would be eligible.

Redlining officially began in the 1930s when the federal government started backing mortgages to support home-buying, but excluded majority Black neighborhoods by marking them red on internal maps. The racial gap in homeownership persists today, and Black-owned homes are frequently undervalued. Redlining officially ended in 1977, but the practice persisted.

Monetary redress will be available to people who meet residency and other requirements. They must also be descendants of enslaved and freed Black people in the US as of the 19th century, which leaves out Black immigrants.

In their report, the consultants suggest the state taskforce “err on the side of generosity” and consider a down payment with more money to come as more evidence becomes available.

The taskforce on Wednesday also endorsed methodologies for devaluation of black businesses and unjust property takings. Those methodologies have no numbers due to a lack of data.

“It should be communicated to the public that the substantial initial down-payment is the beginning of a conversation about historical injustices, not the end of it,” they said.

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