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A task force in California considers how to compensate the descendants of slaves

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Josiah Williams has spent years fighting for a simple but profound idea - that Black Americans deserve compensation for the more than two centuries of forced, unpaid labor extracted from their ancestors.

JOSIAH WILLIAMS: It's a debt. It's not just, you know, people just wanting money. It's not a handout. It's a debt being repaid for wrongdoing.

FLORIDO: Williams lives in Oakland, Calif., and he's an organizer with a nonprofit coalition that wants the government to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves.

WILLIAMS: What I would like to see is for us to be able to actually rise and thrive in the country, to actually be given proper opportunity.

FLORIDO: After years of advocacy, Williams feels some reparations may finally be within reach. I met him in San Diego at a public meeting of the California Reparations Task Force.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So thank you all for coming and being a part of history.

FLORIDO: The state legislature set up this panel in 2020 to study how slavery's legacy has harmed Black California residents. This summer, the task force will propose a reparations program for the legislature to consider. Black Californians I met at the meeting were hopeful, but skeptical, like LaKiesha Milner (ph), a high school teacher who wore a T-shirt that read, reparations now.

And where are you from?

LAKIESHA MILNER: I'm from Carson, Calif.

FLORIDO: The task force's recommendations are nonbinding, and Milner says she is waiting to see whether the state legislature will actually adopt them.

MILNER: That's what I see right now, that it's just, again, being talked about. But is something going to happen? Is something going to come out of it this time?

FLORIDO: Before the recommendations make it that far, though, the task force has to answer an almost impossible question - what does the state of California owe its Black residents for the damage done by slavery in a state where slavery was never legal?

KAMILAH MOORE: It is daunting. It's a lot of work. It's also - it's a labor of love.

FLORIDO: Kamilah Moore chairs the California Reparations Task Force. The group has already made some big decisions. It'll recommend, for example, that not all Black Californians should get reparations, only the descendants of slaves.

MOORE: The idea is that reparations is a debt that's owed, and the direct descendants of slaves are standing in the shoes of their ancestors for that owed debt.

FLORIDO: The panel, now, is working on ways to put a dollar figure on that debt. I asked Kamilah Moore whether leading this effort feels like a huge responsibility.

MOORE: Oh, yes, absolutely, and it is - it's also an emotional process as well. If people watch, for instance, the public hearings, during the public comment, it's very cathartic for a lot of people. People are sharing their stories about the different harms and atrocities their ancestors and they themselves have endured, not only in the state of California, but across the United States.

FLORIDO: I want to ask, you know, a basic question that I think a lot of people might be wondering, which is this - slavery has never been legal in California for as long as it's been a state, so why would California, of all places, owe reparations for slavery?

MOORE: Well, the task force, very early in our study phase, invited expert witnesses to speak on this question. And we learned that although California technically entered the union in 1850 as a free state, its early state government actually supported slavery. Also, we learned that 1,500 enslaved African Americans were forced to labor in California, often working under dangerous conditions - in the gold mine, for instance. And then lastly, we learned that in 1852, California passed and enforced a fugitive slave law that made California a more pro-slavery state than most other free states. And so we learned that, you know, California was really free in name only.

FLORIDO: Your task force is deciding what the descendants of slaves should be paid for the harm that they've suffered from slavery's legacy. How can you even start to quantify that harm and then, beyond quantifying it, attach a dollar figure to it?

MOORE: Yes. So we acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to put a dollar amount to the cost of human suffering of this group of people from slavery to present. But, you know, that doesn't mean that we're not going to attempt. And so we've actually hired five economists and public policy experts to help us start quantifying what potential compensation could look like for several state-sanctioned atrocities, including, but not limited to, unjust property takings, health harms, mass incarceration...

FLORIDO: And this, as you can probably tell, is where this work gets really hard, messy and technical. Take one area the task force is looking at - health disparities. Its economists have identified a 7.6-year life expectancy gap between Black and white Californians, in part, Moore says, because of government policies. So to compensate for that, they're plugging it into a formula.

MOORE: So according to academics, an individual's value of statistical life is around $10 million. And they divided it by the...

FLORIDO: That formula led them to a dollar figure - about $13,000.

MOORE: So this would be the value of each year spent in California to which a Black Californian descendant of slaves in the United States would be entitled.

FLORIDO: Complicated - right? - and that's just for one of the five areas of harm the task force is studying. To be clear, the task force has not yet made any decisions on what it will recommend California pay in reparations, either in cash or in programs. One thing the task force is going to have to consider before making that decision is how much it thinks the state legislature and the public will be willing to pay. I asked another member of the task force, state Senator Steven Bradford, about this.

STEVEN BRADFORD: Just to pass something and ask for too much and know that the legislative appetite's not there to vote for it, that would be worse than not doing anything at all. So hopefully we can thread this needle and come up with the right proposal that has enough meat and substance to it where it will have a meaningful impact on people's lives.

FLORIDO: Kamilah Moore, the task force chair, says she feels a lot of pressure to get this right because the nation is watching.

MOORE: I hope that, you know, this task force sets a precedent not only for what other states can do to atone for their own particular atrocities against this special and unique group of people, but, of course, the federal government as well because, you know, it's primarily the federal government's responsibility. They are the entity that has the big enough purse, for instance, to close the wealth gap, and so I do think that the task force is headed in the right direction in terms of that precedent-setting.

FLORIDO: That was Kamilah Moore, chair of the California Reparations Task Force. 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.
William Troop