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Reparations bills in California leave out a key ingredient: Cash

The California Legislative Black Caucus has proposed several ideas about how to offer “reparations” to Black people. Cash payments isn’t one of them.


Ever since California’s Reparations Task Force completed a report last summer on the systemic abuse and discrimination that Black people have faced in California and across the U.S., lawmakers in the California Legislative Black Caucus have been working to craft bills in response.

Last week, they outlined those bills, which include a variety of things but notably don’t include cash payments or anything similar. (The federal government previously paid cash to slaveholders after enslaved people were emancipated and to Japanese Americans who were held in concentration camps in the 1940s.)

The proposed bills call for a formal apology from the governor and state legislature for California’s history of anti-Black racism, propose financial aid for people in redlined communities to get vocational training, and would ban hair discrimination in California athletics, among other things. But no cash payments.

“While many only associate direct cash payments with reparations the true meaning of the word, to repair, involves much more!” Assemblywoman Lori D. Wilson, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said in a news release. “As laid out in the report, we need a comprehensive approach to dismantling the legacy of slavery and systemic racism.”

The report also recommended monetary compensation but left it to lawmakers to decide on the dollar amount.

Historians and economic scholars have criticized the idea that states or cities can effectively operate their own, piecemeal reparations plans in the absence of the federal government. In part, these critics argue, because the necessary payout for injuries incurred through slavery and centuries of systemic, anti-Black discrimination is too large for a single city or state to handle.

So the question of whether California’s reparations proposals would include cash payments or some other sort of direct payment to Black people has loomed large throughout the deliberation process. Such an idea already faces clear headwinds, like a conservative Supreme Court averse to affirmative action and opposition from non-Black Californians (although people would do well to be aware of the well-documented history of Black and Japanese American solidarity on the reparations front).

That cash payments aren’t in the proposed bills doesn’t come as a complete surprise. California Gov. Gavin Newsom told Fox News last year that dealing with the legacy of slavery “is about much more than cash payments.” And ... sure.

In fairness, lawmakers have said that they are approaching the issue as a multiyear challenge that won't be resolved all at once.

But the problem as I see it is that the proposed bills seem to offer much less than cash payments. To an extent that it’s debatable whether one can call them “reparations” at all.