The California model of compensating Black Americans for slavery

A Reparations Task Force says cash payouts should be given to Black Californians whose ancestors were enslaved. But a majority of Americans are against the idea.

The Reparations Task Force delivered its report on June 29 (photo: DW).
The Reparations Task Force delivered its report on June 29 (photo: DW).


California is the first state in the US to take steps toward compensating Black Americans for slavery and the more than 100 years of discrimination that followed it. The California Reparations Task Force, established in 2020, has been debating cash payouts of up to $1.2 million (€1.1 million) per person to descendants of enslaved individuals who helped build America.  

If the state follows the Reparations Task Force's recommendations, which were made public on June 29, it could be looking at total payments of hundreds of billions of dollars for the harm done to formerly enslaved Californians and the discrimination their roughly 2.5 million descendants have endured since. 

California's course could determine the direction of the reparations debate for the whole of the United States. "If California can't get it done, it's going to be hard on the national level," California Democratic State Senator Steven Bradford tells DW.

Bradford sees his state as the "litmus test" for any chance of reaching a national policy on reparations — something he regards as a moral imperative. 

Public sentiment against reparations 

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 68% of Americans are against the idea of reparations altogether.  This overwhelming majority makes California's initiative all the more remarkable. Unsurprisingly, race plays a role in where people stand on the matter. 

With 77% of Black Americans in favor of reparations and only 18% of white Americans in favor, the gulf between the two sides runs as deep as the social divide that erupts every time another Black person falls victim to police violence. 

Reparations as political risk 

The nationwide sentiment against paying reparations may also explain the political stalling by the man who got the California Reparations Task Force off the ground in the first place.

California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Reparations Task Force into law in 2020, but now that the task force has delivered its report, he won't commit to following through on its recommended cash payments.

Moving ahead risks alienating Newsom's white and Latino voter base, while inaction could anger his Black supporters. As a top Democratic prospect to launch a presidential bid when the Biden era ends, Newsom has good reason to keep the debate alive without any money actually changing hands. 

No '40 acres and a mule' 

Like most everything else in America, reparations are a divisive issue — especially between Democrats and Republicans. It is simply "not" an issue, as Florida Republican Byron Donalds, one of only five Black Republicans in the US House of Representatives, told DW. 

Donalds agrees with fellow Republican Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who says America simply "cannot afford it." A bill that would launch a national committee to look into reparations has been stuck in Congress for years. 

Ultimately, California's Democrat State Legislature will have the final say on whether money will actually be paid out, as well as how much. But even before lawmakers sit down to discuss any proposals, California's Reparations Task Force has broken new ground by putting forth concrete financial figures in a sensitive and, for some, abstract debate over fair compensation. The endeavor represents the first time a state legislature has attempted to work out a plan to address and potentially compensate the historic and systemic discrimination of its Black citizens.

So far, only a handful of towns and municipalities across the country have committed themselves to the idea of some form of slavery reparations. These range from a $25,000 housing grant for long-term Black residents in Evanston, Illinois to a $10 million dollar project budget in Providence, Rhode Island. San Francisco and Chicago are also debating budgets to fund some form of reparations.

The 'racial wealth gap'

One motivation for reparations is what is known as the "racial wealth gap." Statistics in the US have consistently shown that median white income outstrips that of Blacks 8:1, and records from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show home ownership — the classic path to building and passing on intergenerational wealth — at just 44% among Black Americans as opposed to 72% among white Americans.

A recent study traces this gross disparity directly back to slavery. "The main reason for this large and lasting disparity between Black and white Americans lies in the conditions surrounding the Civil War," the National Bureau of Economic Research, an independent think tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts, concludes.

For instance, white settlers often received land upon arrival in America. But when enslaved people were eventually freed into a society that they had helped build, they were denied the means to create wealth for themselves. The initial promise of "40 acres and a mule" — a short-lived relic of the Civil War — proved an elusive dream for Black families. White Americans didn't just enjoy a head start: Their racism left precious little room for Black economic growth. 

Tulsa—America's worst racial massacre of the 20th century 

There were exceptions, however. By the early 1920s, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was so successful at creating wealth for its Black residents it was dubbed "Black Wall Street." Hundreds of Black-owned businesses thrived in the neighborhood, making it a wealthy Black microcosm with its own doctors, theaters and schools — until a rumor that a Black shoeshine boy had come too close to a white female elevator operator sparked what would become known as America's worst racial massacre.

On May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of armed white men — supported by hand-made explosives dropped from private planes — went on the attack. Between 100 and 300 people were killed in the incident and the Greenwood District was razed to the ground.

Two years ago, at the age of 107, Viola Fletcher, one of three remaining survivors, told members of the US House of Representatives' Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights she "lost everything that day." 

Currently, a second attempt by Fletcher and two fellow centenarian survivors to sue the city and the state for their respective roles in the massacre is being stalled by a district judge.

"They are waiting for the survivors to die," Eric Miller, who is part of her legal team, tells DW. While the city's mayor has invested in researching more details about the Greenwood massacre, he is avoiding taking a stance on reparations. Mayor G.T. Bynum declined DW's request for an interview.

Legal experts have low expectations for the Tulsa survivors' success, let alone any nationwide approach to reparations. Still, some value of the debate for Black people in America may lie in changing the narrative. 

"There's a narrative that these are just irresponsible people and it's too bad that they are not doing well," Thomas Mitchell, professor at Boston College Law School tells DW. "These folks weren't taking government handouts," he stresses, adding that seeing the counternarrative to victim blaming is "powerful."

Reparations for slavery and discrimination is on the cusp of becoming a grassroots movement in the United States. The question now is whether it will evolve to reignite a national debate. 

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