‘If not us, then who?’: inside the landmark push for reparations for Black Californians

<span>Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
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Dawn Basciano’s ancestors arrived five generations ago in Coloma, California, as enslaved people, forced to leave behind an infant son enslaved to another family in Missouri.

Those ancestors, Nancy and Peter Gooch, were freed in 1850 when California joined the union as a free state, and 20 years later, their son and his family were able to join them in the fertile agricultural land north-east of Sacramento. Their journey west was funded by the sweat and hard work of Nancy, who grew and sold fruit, mended clothes and cooked for the local miners.

Nancy and her descendants would go on to purchase more than 400 lush acres of farmland in Coloma. But what should have been a story of triumph ended instead as a tale all too familiar to formerly enslaved Black Americans across the US. The state of California seized the majority of that land under the guise of eminent domain to build a state park, and the family never received just compensation.

The economic injustices, the education injustices, the social injustices, the judicial injustices go on and on and on

Shirley Weber

“We were denied the financial security and wealth associated with land ownership,” Basciano said. Pearley Monroe – Nancy’s grandson, and Basciano’s great-grandfather – spent the rest of his life mourning the loss.

Now, the story of Basciano’s family and others are under review by a California reparations taskforce. The first of its kind in the nation, the committee is tackling the daunting and unprecedented work of recommending reparations – whether they be monetary or through policy – for Black Californians, particularly those who are descended from enslaved people.

Shirley Weber, the California secretary of state, who authored the law that formed the taskforce, has said California must forge its own path on the thorny topic of reparations, an issue the federal government has tried and failed to resolve for decades.

“We came to understand very clearly that California has the ability and the power to do it,” she said at a public hearing in June. “And if not us, then who?”

The taskforce was formed in 2020 after the legislature and Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, approved a law requiring the study and development of reparations proposals. Since then, the nine-person taskforce, comprising civil rights leaders, attorneys, lawmakers and academics, has spent months gathering evidence, listening to expert testimony, hosting public meetings and considering proposals, with the goal of submitting its recommendations to the legislature next summer.

Related: California launches first-in-nation taskforce to study reparations for Black Americans

The taskforce is undertaking this vast challenge with the knowledge that the historic injustices suffered by the descendants of slavery are deep, systemic and difficult to quantify.

“The economic injustices, the education injustices, the social injustices, the judicial injustices go on and on and on,” said Weber in June. “We must be aggressive in our efforts to be honest and direct and to figure out what we need to do in California and be an example to the rest of the nation in how we begin to reckon with ourselves.”

Reckoning with history

California’s unique history with slavery and its aftermath has made addressing reparations a particularly complicated task.

Though California joined the union as a free state in 1850, 11 years before the civil war, many who took to the Sierra Nevada foothills during the Gold Rush in the years before statehood brought enslaved people with them. While the state constitution proclaimed “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of a crime, shall ever be tolerated”, the legislature passed a fugitive slave law in 1852 that allowed those who had been brought to California before it became a free state to be returned to the south.

In one case that went all the way to the state supreme court, a slaveholder brought a man, Archie Lee, to California after statehood and after the fugitive slave law had lapsed. But the courts argued that the slaveholder was so “young and ignorant” of California’s laws that he should not be deprived of his human property, Stacey Smith, an associate history professor at Oregon State University, testified at a public taskforce meeting in September.

Shirley Weber, now California’s secretary of state, wrote the law that formed the taskforce.
Shirley Weber, now California’s secretary of state, wrote the law that formed the taskforce. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Other experts testified about the years of discrimination that followed after slavery was abolished, from environmental racism to the state’s history of redlining – a discriminatory practice of denying financial services to specific people to prevent them from moving to or living in certain areas – and how discriminatory housing practices led to segregation in schools. They also testified about the Great Migration, when millions of Black Americans fled the south and Jim Crow to places like California, hoping for a better life, but found instead “structural barriers of exclusion” like restrictive housing covenants that forbade homeowners from selling to Black people, said Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

“The caste system followed the migrants wherever they went and became not merely a southern phenomenon, but a national one,” she testified. Black Californians also faced rampant racism in the communities where they tried to settle. Wilkerson spoke of how after Emory Hestus Holmes, a second world war veteran, purchased a three-bedroom home for his family in Pacoima, California, in 1959, the neighbors led a relentless harassment campaign in an effort to get them to move away. They prank-called them at all hours, threw rocks through their windows, burned a cross on their lawn and spray-painted on their garage: “Black Cancer Lives Here, Don’t Let It Spread”.

Injustices that ‘can’t be quantified’

Early on in the process, the taskforce reviewed other examples of reparations programs throughout the world. Germany paid $89bn in restitution to Holocaust victims while the United States paid $20,000 each to the 82,219 Japanese Americans who were unlawfully incarcerated during the second world war. In 2015, the United States authorized payments of up to $10,000 per day – a total of $4.4m each – for the dozens of people taken hostage in Iran in 1979. A Kirsten Mullen, co-author of From Here to Equality, told the taskforce that following that same math, the payment for one Black American who endured a single decade under Jim Crow would be $36.5m.

But the challenge before this taskforce is that so many of the injustices suffered and opportunities lost by Black Americans “can’t be quantified”, Weber said at a September meeting.

Weber’s father was a sharecropper in Hope, Arkansas, who had to flee to California after he tried to organize for fairer wages. Descended from enslaved people, his community had been terrorized into deference following a number of race riots that ripped through the country. “You can’t quantify my father’s lack of education and the negative experience that he had just trying to survive for himself and his family,” Weber said. “You have to begin to say, OK, what do we do in terms of opening up this particular society in a way that really makes an effort to create the opportunities not just for those who are here but also for the next generation to come?

Weber added: “You can’t buy that with $20,000.”

The scale of the injustices under assessment by the committee is almost inconceivably vast. Given stolen land and housing discrimination alone, Black Americans were denied the greatest source of family wealth today – home ownership, Wilkerson testified. This robbery of family inheritance and generational wealth has created a wealth gap between Black and white Americans that some studies say would take 228 years to close.

The state senator Steven Bradford, a member of the committee studying reparations.
The state senator Steven Bradford, a member of the committee studying reparations. Photograph: Irfan Khan/AP

For Dawn Basciano’s family, the loss was enormous. Not only did they lose the majority of their farmland on her paternal side – land that would have provided steady employment for extended family as well money and legacy – her fourth great-grandmother on her mother’s side had assets unfairly taken from her as well when her brother died and the state auctioned off the swaths of property he owned in downtown Sacramento under the pretense that he had no living heirs or descendants – “although his sister, my fourth great-grandmother, was alive and well”, Basciano testified in September.

“What do reparations look like? There is so much,” Basciano said. “I almost feel guilty for feeling the pain that I feel, but it’s real. It resonates with me. This is my family. These are the stories that have been told and retold, and it hurts. How do you fix that? How do you right a wrong that is so systemic?”

Basciano pointed out that there were hundreds of thousands of families that had stories like hers. In September, Newsom signed a law that would return a lucrative beachfront property in Manhattan Beach, California, that had been taken from the Bruce family in the 1920s through eminent domain. The Manhattan Beach city council had voted to oppose issuing a symbolic proclamation to apologize to the Bruces, citing concerns it would make the city liable for future lawsuits.

Though any recommendations made by the taskforce will not be binding, Weber urged its members to be bold in their proposals, including universal preschool for all children to help address educational and childcare inequities. Other witnesses and experts have suggested monetary reparations, low-interest loans, public apologies, just compensation for stolen land, the return of historically stolen land and ways for descendants of slavery to attend university at no cost.

The taskforce will continue to meet in the new year. Weber acknowledged that whatever the body comes up with will probably only be the beginning.

“This 400-year challenge is not going to be solved in 400 days,” Weber said. “It will take much more than that, and a commitment from the state of California, the fifth-largest economy in the world, to make that happen.”