California reparations plan poses new challenge for Gov. Newsom

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I was thankful, this week, to read my NBC News colleague Curtis Bunn’s report on the occasionally tense conversations surrounding California’s slavery reparations task force and its plans to compensate descendants of enslaved people. 

On May 6, the task force voted to approve its recommendations for how the state ought to compensate and apologize to Black residents for historic discrimination they and their families have suffered. The proposal will now be given to state lawmakers to consider for potential legislation. Members of the task force determined California’s history of racist discrimination, and its past enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people, made the state responsible for damages incurred by enslaved or free Black people who were in the country by the end of the 19th century. 

Over the past couple years, I’ve written about the task force’s early deliberations and findings, and how the debate over whether and how California could provide reparations to Black people was bound to be a contentious one. 

As Bunn reports, that’s been the case: 

Public hearings on the issue of reparations have not gotten into fisticuffs, but they have been highlighted by Black people stepping to the podium or calling in by phone to express the depths of their emotions about how slavery has impacted them generations later, how important reparations are, and in what form they should come.

Later in the article, Cheryl Grills, a member of the task force, explains what’s driven some of the meeting’s most impassioned exchanges. 

She says: 

Author ‘Zora Neale Hurston said, in essence, that there’s nothing more painful than having an untold story buried deep inside of you,’ she added. ‘That’s the situation for Black folks. This assault has been going against people of African ancestry, where for hundreds of years, they’ve been in a world that profoundly devalues them. If you’ve gone through all this time of not being heard, at some point you’re going to be angry. And then at these hearings, we’re trying to make sense out of something that actually has no logic to it, has no justifiable rationale to it. So, at some point, you want the world to acknowledge that, yes, this happened, and this hurt me. And it comes out in many ways.’

Much of this tension appears to stem from urgency. As someone who’s hosted reparations debates in the past, I’ve always sensed an urgency among pro-reparations folks to make elder Black people whole, while the opportunity still exists, for traumas they and their families suffered. But conservatives’ crusade against truthful teachings of American history has surely pressurized the debate and made things ever more urgent. 

And the reparations discussion is where the rubber meets the road for self-identifying liberals who’ve expressed outrage over right-wing efforts to hide history. 

Presently, Republicans are leading an assault on historical memory through bans on books by Black authors, bans on books about the Black experience, and crucially, direct attacks on academic disciplines like critical race theory, all of which provide a foundation of knowledge upon which reparations pushes — like the one we’re seeing in California — can be built. 

Many liberals these days are vocal critics of Republican book-banning efforts, yet they tend to be far quieter in their support for Black reparations. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, has repeatedly bashed Republicans for banning books. Yet, in a statement after the task force agreed on its reparations recommendations, potentially including cash payments, the Democrat seemed noncommittal to the idea.

“Dealing with legacy is about much more than cash payments,” he said in a statement this week. It’s unclear thus far whether Newsom would support legislation including cash payments.

But the potential disconnect here poses interesting questions for liberals like Newsom. If this history ought to be learned — and I believe it should — to what end? Is the purpose of education merely to inform, or rather to inform for the purpose of revolutionizing and repairing?

We’ll soon find out how the California Legislature feels about this. The success or failure of the reparations plan to become law will tell us a great deal.

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