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If California decides to adopt a reparations program, here are the next steps


More than two years ago, California's state legislature did something no state has ever done. It created a task force on reparations - nine people whose job it was to study the way that the legacy of slavery in the U.S. had harmed Black residents of California and to recommend whether and how California should compensate people for that harm, whether it should pay reparations.


FLORIDO: A few weeks ago in Sacramento, the state capitol, hundreds of people streamed into an auditorium. Every seat was filled. People stood at the edges of the room. Dozens waited outside for a chance to get in. The mood was electric. It was a big day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome. Good morning. Today is Thursday, June 29. And this is the last hearing of the California Reparations Task Force. Let's give it up.


FLORIDO: It was the day the task force was to deliver its final report to the state legislature. The nine task force members sat on stage, each with a copy nearly 1,100 pages thick - a meticulous history of racist policy in California, its impact on people's lives and, yes, a recommendation that the state should pay reparations. Steven Bradford, a state senator on the task force, spoke from the stage.

STEVEN BRADFORD: The task force report is documented with citations and footnotes. People can choose to ignore it. They can be uncomfortable with the history, but you cannot deny the truth.

FLORIDO: Black Americans have been seeking reparations since even before slavery was abolished. And while a few cities across the country have adopted very small-scale programs, nothing has ever happened like what's happening now in California.

BRADFORD: Now's the time to face it, folks, to own up to the debt that is owed. And we can do this. We can do this if we're committed to it.

FLORIDO: The Reparations Task Force has recommended cash payments, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, for any Californian who can show they are the direct descendant of a Black enslaved person or a free Black person alive before the 20th century. The report also recommends tax breaks, free tuition, help with health care and other programs designed to help African Americans overcome the systemic racism that is slavery's legacy. Monica Montgomery Steppe, a San Diego city councilwoman also on the task force, said the time for all this is now.

MONICA MONTGOMERY STEPPE: We must believe that reparations can come to fruition. We've come such a long way, and this work must not be in vain.


FLORIDO: None of this is a sure thing, even in a state like California, which has a Democratic supermajority in the legislature and a progressive governor. Even so, Allie Whitehurst, a teacher, drove two hours to be here because she wanted to watch the task force hand its report over to lawmakers.

ALLIE WHITEHURST: I want to be a part of this historic moment.

FLORIDO: Why does it feel historic to you?

WHITEHURST: It's closer than we've ever been. And so I know it's just a report with recommendations. The heavy lifting is what's next with legislative action. But this is a historic moment for me, for us. Yes.

FLORIDO: Other people I spoke with at this meeting said that from here, public pressure will be critical. Stewart Hyland is a union organizer who came from the city of East Palo Alto.

STEWART HYLAND: You can't just have a study and stop. It has to be pushed. It has to be implemented. We just know it won't if we don't push, if we don't continue to say there's a community that needs to have this happen.

FLORIDO: A key person going forward is Democratic State Senator Steven Bradford, who we heard from just a little bit ago. He was on the task force, and now it is his job to convince his fellow lawmakers to pass a bill. I spoke with him yesterday and asked him how it's going.

BRADFORD: We're still in early stages. I mean, chances are that the real meat of the legislation and what is in that Reparations Task Force won't take shape until sometime next year. This is still a issue that's impacting not only California but the rest of the nation, and we will have to address it. We still have colleagues who continue to say that this is not a issue that they're concerned with.

FLORIDO: I wonder if they're asking you, why California? I mean, California was not a slave state.

BRADFORD: We were not a slave state in name only, but in practice and deeds, we very much were. We had a fugitive slave law. We had a governor that owned slaves. And if you were brought here as a slave, you were treated as such. If you were a pregnant woman who gave birth as a slave here, your child was born a slave. We did that. So other than saying that we weren't a slave state, we were very much a slave state here in California.

FLORIDO: To your colleagues in the legislature or to Californians who might say, no one who was enslaved is even alive today, so why are their descendants owed anything - how would you respond to that?

BRADFORD: If you can inherit generational wealth, you can inherit generational debt. This is a debt that is owed to those descendants of slaves and to their ancestors. Again, many of the folks who are living in luxury and opulence today weren't alive when their land baron grandparents and great-great-great-parents (ph) were enslaving Black folks to do the work in order to acquire their wealth. So I think it's a no-brainer here for me.

FLORIDO: Well, the task force's list of proposed reparations is long and, I think it's fair to say, very ambitious. It recommends significant cash payments, upwards of a million dollars for some people, but also things like tax breaks, free tuition, improving access to health care. How realistic do you think that these proposals are, especially considering that California recently had to close a budget deficit of more than $30 billion?

BRADFORD: I would not focus on the cash payments, but all those other things - health care, free tuition, homebuyers assistance, tax breaks - all those can be easily provided to descendants of slaves. If we model this after the G.I. Bill, we provide our veterans who fight in this country with those kind of benefits on a regular basis. But, again, where there's a will, there's a way. Reparations was never about cash. It was about land. So helping those individuals who have never owned property in the state become landowners - we can do those things.

FLORIDO: You say reparations was never about cash payments, but cash payments are really the central part of the task force's recommendation. Are you suggesting that you think cash payments might not actually be a realistic possibility here?

BRADFORD: Well, you just spoke to the budget deficit that we have in California. I'm just being a realist here and, you know, on a level set for folks that if it's not cash payments, there are other ways that we can compensate individuals. So I think cash payments are a distraction, and that gives the other side a reason to say no to reparations. So to singularly focus on cash payments, I think, is doing this a big injustice and misrepresenting the overall purpose of reparations. And that was to provide some kind of restitution, so to speak, for the harms and atonement for 250 years of free labor in this country.

FLORIDO: You don't have a lot of time left in the state Senate. You are termed out next year, and the same is true for the one other member of the task force who's also in the legislature. Do you worry that if you aren't able to get something through before you leave - that these recommendations could just get shelved and forgotten about?

BRADFORD: If it's all about one or two people, yeah. This should be something that the entire legislature, the entire state of California embraces. It shouldn't be about one individual. So I wish I had more time than I let my voice be heard on this issue, but, again, we need to hear everybody's voice in this.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with California State Senator Steven Bradford, a Democrat who recently finished serving on California's reparations task force. Thanks for taking the time.

BRADFORD: Thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "B****, DON'T KILL MY VIBE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.