On September 30, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill- 3121 (AB-3121), Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. This bill authorizes the establishment of a task force to study and make recommendations on reparations for slavery. The crux of this bill stipulates that more than 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States from 1619 through 1865; slavery was constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the United States from 1789 through 1865. As a result of slavery, African Americans continue to suffer debilitating economic, educational, and health hardships, a disproportionate representation in the federal and state prison systems, an unemployment rate nearly twice the current White unemployment rate, and an average of less than one-sixteenth the wealth of Whites.
Reparations are understood to be compensation and other measures provided to victims of severe human rights violations by the parties responsible. Reparations are measures taken by the state to redress gross and systematic violations of human rights law or humanitarian law through the administration of some form of compensation or restitution to the victims. Reparations are unique because they directly address the situation of the victims. Reparations, if well designed, acknowledge victims’ suffering, offer measures of redress, and provide some form of compensation for the violations suffered.
The governments in these United States have paid reparations in the past in attempts to make victims whole. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, approximately 127,000 Japanese Americans (62% of whom were U.S. citizens) were forcibly removed from their homes and businesses and were relocated and incarcerated in concentration camps. The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned. Thirty-five states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have compensation statutes for those wrongly convicted and imprisoned. Payments range from $140.00 per day in California to $200,000 in the District of Columbia. In a majority of these states, payment is made either to the individual wrongly incarcerated or to their immediate family.
The first indentured servants arrived in what is now the U.S. in 1617. The idea of indentured servitude was born of a need for cheap labor. Generally, indentured servants included redemptioners, victims of religious or political persecution, persons kidnapped for the purpose, convicts, and paupers. Servants typically worked for no pay for a period of four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While indentured servitude, per se, was not slavery, the life of the indentured was controlled by the individual with whom the indentured made the contract. These contracts could be sold, and if the indentured tried to escape the servitude, they could be forcibly returned. The plight of the indentured servant forced them to move to the frontier when their period of servitude was over, as this was the only place they could obtain property and live free.
In 1619 the first Black Africans came to Virginia. With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants and given the same opportunities for freedom as White indentured servants. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 – removing any small freedoms that might have existed for Blacks.
History tells us that the indigenous population of North America at the time of the first White settlement, Jamestown, VA in 1607, was somewhere between 50 and 60 million. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the 2020 total population of Native Americans is 6.79 million, or about 2.9% of the total population of the U.S. European colonization of what is now the United States resulted in a precipitous decline in the Native American population through the introduction of disease, warfare, ethnic cleansing, and slavery. After its formation the United States, as part of its policy of settler colonialism, perpetrated a systematic ethnic cleansing of the Native American people, and those who survived were removed from their ancestral lands and were subjected to one-sided treaties and to discriminatory government policies.
So, why would California pass a reparations bill? California was admitted to the Union is 1850 as a Free State. While some slave owners who brought slaves (less than 4,000) to California refused to recognize the State emancipation of slaves, numerous court cases from 1849 to 1858 routinely found in favor of the slaves, including California’s refusal to recognize the Fugitive Slave Law. This law gave the slave owner the right to seize runaway slaves and return them to the State from which they fled.
Why did California limit the reparations bill to the decedents of African slaves? The California gold rush spanned from 1845–1855. This brought White immigrants to California. Native Americans became the major and immediate source of labor for mining. In those 10 years the Native American population in California decreased by two-thirds. In order to craft California’s own code of labor, An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was passed in 1850 which “legally” curtailed the rights of Native Americans. Native American children could be seized for indenture, while convicted Native Americans could be hired out of jails as forced labor and a Native American could not testify for or against a White. From 1845-1855, 24,000 to 27,000 California Native Americans were taken as forced laborers by settlers. This included the forced labor of between 4,000 to 7,000 children. Between 1851 and 1852, three Native American commissioners negotiated treaties with the Native Americans which resulted in eighteen treaties being written, allocating 7.5% of the State as reservations. The United States Senate rejected these treaties and in 1853 the government designated its own five reservations. These reservations had very poor living conditions and displaced many of the Indians from their native lands.
Why did California not include the descendants of other depressed populations? The descendants of Appalachian coal miners are still living well below the poverty levels, are undereducated, and suffer with higher than average medical compromises. The coal miners in Appalachia lived in company towns and shopped at company stores. The miners pay was even given as chits to the company store. The amounts of the chits and the cost of the goods and housing kept the miners in debt to the mining companies, which prohibited them from leaving. These conditions were not unique to Appalachia. The same types of working conditions, housing conditions, and indebtedness were experienced by laborers in the industrialized North. There have been academic discussions that suggest the living conditions of the Appalachian miners and the laborers in the industrialized North were equal to and in some case less than the conditions experienced by Southern slaves. The Irish, Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanics all suffered severe human rights violations in this country, but California did not include these populations in their reparations bill.
Why has California not addressed the modern-day slavery that exists in these United States? An article published in 2018 estimates the number of “. . .people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States right now is 403,000.” Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves, defines a slave as someone who is, “forced to work without pay under threat of violence and unable to walk away.” In today’s language, we commonly use another term in place of slavery: human trafficking.
What is the motivation for California AB 3121 and why does it only target African slaves? Are the California Governor and legislature so short sighted and narrow minded that they just failed to fully examine the issues? Is the motivation truly to make third and fourth generation descendants of Black slave’s whole? Could it be that the California legislature focused on African slave descendants because there are 2.3 million African Americans in California as opposed to 720,000 Native Americans and it all comes down to votes?
Why has California not addressed any of the issues outlined in AB 3121 at the state level? California posted a near all-time high graduation rate of 83 percent for the Class of 2018, but the rate of student eligible to apply for state universities did not improve, according to data released by the California Department of Education. This might suggest that the high school educational standards in California are so low as to allow 83% to graduate but are too low to allow these graduates to enter college. Data indicates that the average income in Los Angeles County is approximately $300,000 for Whites and $4,500 for Blacks. There are in excess of 150,000 homeless persons living on the streets of California and Blacks are still overrepresented in the jails and prisons in California.
So, what is the motivation? In the last several years, California has experienced a flattening of the State population and businesses are leaving the State. For the last several years, California’s unemployment rate, Covid 19 notwithstanding, has run about 4-4.5%. With a very high cost of living and a minimum wage of $12.00 an hour, and high school graduates not being prepared to enter college, and a State deficit in excess of $54 billion, maybe California is running out of money. Could it be that California limited their reparations bill to Black African slave descendants because race relations in this country are declining and adding other oppressed groups would dilute the outcome? Could it be that California hopes the Federal Government will pick up the mantle of reparations and ease California’s financial strife?
A number of years ago, I read an interesting article about Governor George Wallace, who was the Governor of Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. Because of Governor Wallace’s stance on integration, he was vilified as a racist. The crux of the article suggested that Governor Wallace was not a racist, but he used Alabama’s integration opposition so the Federal Government would seize control of the Alabama school systems. When the Federal Government took over the school systems, the Government assumed the financial responsibility for improving Alabama schools for which the State of Alabama did not have the recourses to make the requisite improvements. Maybe California is trying to do the same thing. Just food for thought!!