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Home | Newsroom | Racial Justice | California should enact reparations to atone for the legacy of slavery. Here’s why / Opinion

California should enact reparations to atone for the legacy of slavery. Here’s why / Opinion

UPDATED FEBRUARY 29, 2024 1:47 PM

Too often, conversations over reparations jump straight to the bottom line: Who should be compensated? How much should they be paid? And who pays? But to get the answers to those questions, we must first create a political environment in which reparations are recognized as a moral necessity. That starts with telling a new and authentic story: Why do we need reparations? What are we trying to repair? And how do we all stand to benefit? Indeed, one reason there is now a need for reparations is that throughout our nation’s history, we have been told a false story — one that demonizes Black people in an attempt to justify not only the slave trade, political disenfranchisement and unspeakable horrors committed against Black people, but that continues placing barriers to opportunity and full participation in our society. Through media, books, popular culture and religion, people in power have utilized tropes and stereotypes to relay a message that Black people are less than and deny our full humanity. OPINION We can’t take California where it needs to go if we don’t understand where it’s been. CALIFORNIA’S HISTORIC RECKONING An important step in making reparations fully viable is to develop a curriculum for our public schools that provides students with an accurate historical account of state-sanctioned discrimination and its vestiges, as well as anti-Blackness that continues to impact current systems, policies, practices and outcomes. No shortage of resources can inform this curriculum — from the new documentary “Stamped from the Beginning,” to The 1619 Project Curriculum, to The California Reparations Report, which delves into historical issues like slavery, racial terror, housing segregation and environmental racism. At a moment when conservatives are censoring educators because they fear the impact of honesty, California can play a leading role in declaring that we actually can handle — and benefit from — the truth. This historic accounting must not be limited to classrooms but also explored in our local and state legislatures, houses of worship and other venues where we gather as a community. We must also tend to our public memory with monuments that mark the sins of our past to both educate and declare that these sins will not be repeated. OUR OWN FORGOTTEN HISTORY In California, examples of forgotten or buried history include a majority-Black neighborhood in Palm Springs that was destroyed as families were forced out through eviction, demolition or the burning of their homes in the 1960s. In 1945, Black refrigerator engineer O’Day Short, his wife, Helen, and their 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son were murdered just two weeks after police and a vigilante group threatened them for moving into the white neighborhood of Fontana. KKK violence through the 1960s included cross-burnings in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Riverside; more than 100 cases of violence in Kern County in 1922 alone; and the cross-burning and stoning of a Black family’s home in a white Bay Area neighborhood. These and other acts of systemic violence and their repercussions must not be ignored or glossed over.

As we shine a light on our history, we should also take immediate steps to pay reparations now. Willa and Charles Bruce owned a popular lodge, cafe and dance hall on what became known as Bruce’s Beach. In 1924, after several other Black families moved into the neighborhood — and after the KKK failed to drive them out of town — the city of Manhattan Beach, California used eminent domain to destroy the neighborhood, stealing more than two dozen properties. The California Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom acted to return the Bruce’s property to their descendants. We hope this will be a precedent-setting act of how we can repair the denial of generational wealth to Black families. Anthony Bruce, center, holds up the property deed to Bruce’s Beach in 2022 as his wife, Sandra, second from right; Kavon Ward, with the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement, far right; and state and county officials cheer. A unanimous bill passed by the California Legislature cleared the way for the property’s return to descendants of a Black couple that had been driven out of Manhattan Beach in the 1920s. Christina House Los Angeles Times file/TNS GLOBAL EXAMPLES We can also look at the examples of the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Rwanda to help inform our effort to develop a shared understanding of why reparations are needed and just. In South Africa, one commission investigated “gross human rights violations” under the apartheid regime; developed compensation recommendations for the victims of those abuses; and determined which perpetrators received amnesty in exchange for “full disclosure of all relevant facts” (1,200 individuals were granted amnesty and 5,000 were denied). Following the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, where an estimated 800,000 people were massacred in just 100 days, many Rwandans have participated in The National Unity and Reconciliation Commission’s peace education programs, which examine the origins of division, work to overcome “mutual fear and suspicion” and promote unity. The commission offers age-appropriate curricula for all Rwandans which teach the pursuit of national reconciliation and tasks graduates with training others, and dialogue groups focus on reconciliation and “shared citizenship” between people with diverse identities. THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW We need not wait to take laws off the books that continue to do systemic harm to Black people. The California Task Force offers dozens of policy reforms to end discriminatory harm and suffering, including repealing three-strike sentencing; eliminating legal protections for peace officers who violate civil or constitutional rights; repealing Proposition 209, which prohibits the consideration of race in public education, employment and contracting; removing barrier of proving identity to vote; eliminating barriers to licensure for people with criminal records; eliminating or reducing charges for phone calls within detention centers; repealing crime-free housing policies that ban renting to individuals with a criminal history; and extending the right to vote to people currently incarcerated. As we learn about our shared history, it becomes increasingly clear that reparations are really about repairing our social fabric and shared humanity, and recognizing Black people as equal. We must ensure that we do not repeat past mistakes, compensate for what was lost and reduce barriers to participation — unlocking the potential of a population that has been barred from full participation for 400 years. Michael Tubbs is the founder of End Poverty in California, a senior fellow for the Rosenberg Foundation and a special advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Crystal D. Crawford is executive director of the Western Center on Law & Poverty. Joseph Tomás Mckellar, who also contributed to this piece, is executive director of PICO California, the state’s largest multi-faith, multi-racial community organizing network.

This story was originally published February 29, 2024, 5:00 AM.