By RUSS BYNUM and COREY WILLIAMS, Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — In the long debate over whether black Americans should receive reparations for the atrocities and injustices of slavery and racism, California took a big step this week to become the first state American to make some form of restitution a reality.
The state reparations task force has grappled with the contentious issue of which black residents should be eligible – it narrowly decided in favor of limiting compensation to descendants of free and enslaved black people who were in the United States in the 19th century.
Whether Tuesday’s vote by the task force prompts other states and cities to advance their own proposals, and whether they adopt California’s still-controversial standard on who would benefit, remains to be seen. Some veterans reparations advocates strongly disagree with proposals to limit eligibility to only black people who can prove they have enslaved ancestors, while excluding those who cannot and leaving out victims. other historical injustices, such as redlining and mass incarceration.
Still, a lawyer noted that California’s decision was a step that could give impetus to stalled redress proposals elsewhere in the United States.
“It has precipitated a debate and it will influence communities,” said Ron Daniels, president of the 21st Century Black World Institute and trustee of the National Commission for African American Reparations, an advocacy group for scholars and activists. .
As to whether others will take the same approach to eligibility, Daniels said: “That remains to be decided. … We believe that ultimately a broader definition will prevail.
The Daniels-led commission took a position that limiting reparations to descendants of slaves, or Americans whose ancestors were free blacks living during the era of slavery, ignores the effects of racism that persisted for more a century after emancipation.
“There will always be criteria” for reparations, Daniels said. “The problem is that the harms have been so severe that almost no black people are eligible in one form or another.”
Although there is still some debate among historians about exactly when the practice began, chattel slavery in what would become the United States dates back to 1619, when approximately 20 enslaved Africans were brought in Jamestown, Virginia – then a British colony. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and maintained by Rice University.
Slavery in the United States officially ended in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Union Army General William Sherman promised freed slaves compensation in the form of land and mules to farm them – hence the phrase “40 acres and a mule” – after the victory of the North over South during the Civil War. But President Andrew Johnson withdrew the offer.
More than 120 years later, then-Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat, first introduced HR 40, a bill that would create a federal commission to study reparations and make proposals. Conyers reintroduced it in every session of Congress until his resignation in 2017. As a candidate, President Joe Biden has said he supports the creation of the commission, but has yet to officially endorse it. supported as Commander-in-Chief. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, is currently the House bill’s lead sponsor.
Getting government leaders to openly consider slavery reparations was daunting and took decades. But progress has been made at the state and local levels, especially since the national toll on racial injustice that was sparked after the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In Michigan, legislative proposals submitted to the House of Representatives earlier this year call for $1.5 billion federal dollars to be placed in a racial equity and reparations fund within the state treasury. The funds would be disbursed to various state departments and agencies to provide grants, loans and other economic assistance to businesses and economic developments that promote the black community.
The bills have yet to receive a hearing in the House.
Last year, Evanston, Illinois — the first U.S. city to find a source of funding for repairs — began giving eligible Black residents $25,000 housing grants for down payments, repairs or existing mortgages. The program is intended to atone for the history of racial discrimination and housing discrimination. Recipients were randomly selected from applicants, black residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969.
And in Providence, Rhode Island, the mayor announced a city reparations commission in February that will seek to atone for the city’s role in slavery and systemic racism, as well as the mistreatment of Native Americans.
For Anita Belle, a grassroots activist in Detroit, where residents of the predominantly black city voted in November to create a city reparations commission, getting to this point in the pursuit of reparations is cause for celebration. But what happens next is worrying, especially when it comes to who gets what and how much, she said.
“I am happy for all of us who have done the groundwork for all these years,” said Belle, founder of the Reparations Labor Union. “We’re a little scared that these people who jumped on the bandwagon are actually there to sabotage it and make $12.62 repairs, if that. There will be these saboteurs – people who look like us, but who have hidden agendas.”
“You have some of that fear in California where the scope of reparations has been limited to people who can prove they were enslaved,” she added. “People in California will say ‘why am I paying reparations for someone who was enslaved in Mississippi?'”
In California, the task force is taking the next step with economists to determine the cost of compensating more than 2 million black residents, though not all would be eligible. After the abolition of slavery, black migration to California occurred primarily in the decades following World War II, with newly arrived African Americans settling in cities such as Oakland, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The black population rose from just under half a million, or 4.4% of the population, in 1950 to 1.4 million, or 7% of the population, in 1970. Decades later, the 2020 census recorded 2.1 million black residents in California. , or about 5.3% of the state’s population.
Although the proposals and who is eligible seem to vary, they are always types of reparations, according to Rashawn Ray, senior research fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“California chose to focus on black slavery,” Ray said. “In Evanston, it’s the red lining and housing segregation. Both are problems that should be compensated to them according to what is wrong.
But, added Ray, “Federal reparations — definitely and hands down — is what we need. What happens in California should happen in Congress.”
As a former Evanston, Illinois, city councilor and longtime advocate for reparations, Robin Rue Simmons said reaching consensus on eligibility can be difficult because Decision makers should be as broad and inclusive as possible, while identifying the specific harms they seek. Address.
California’s big step could help spur action on reparations proposals in other cities and states, Simmons said, and perhaps add pressure for the federal government to act, which she considers essential.
She doesn’t expect California’s lineage-based eligibility standard to become the norm.
“I don’t think one community should think another has it figured out for them,” Simmons said, “because each community is going to have its own priorities and specific story.”
Bynum reported from Savannah, Ga. AP writers Janie Har in San Francisco and Michael Schneider in Orlando contributed to this story.
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