Image Credit: Unsplash, Oladimeji Odunsi

The United States was founded on the violence of colonialism, genocide, and slavery. Most people in the US understand or concede this point. However, what slavery’s past means in the present is contested—and consequently, meaningful efforts to address racial injustice are long overdue. The US government has consistently evaded accountability for slavery’s harms, despite a rich history of Black thought and organizing around reparations as a measure for acknowledgment, redress, and closure. US slavery’s violent legacy also continues in the structural racism embedded in the country’s social and economic systems, institutions, and discourses.

A California task force is trying to address this complex history of violence as it engages with Black activists’ debates about who should be eligible for reparations.

First, some background: California’s reparations task force is the first such state-level effort in the US. It’s the result of Assembly Bill 3121 and according to its author, Dr. Shirley Weber, the law was written to “require an in depth examination of the impacts of slavery and its afterlives in California and provide the framework to develop guidelines on how to begin to address the disparities born of a shameful history.” An appointed nine-person task force was then charged with studying and developing proposals for Black American reparations, with “special consideration for African Americans who are the descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.” It began meeting in June 2021 and will submit its first report to the state legislature this summer, with a final report scheduled for 2023.

Over the past nine months, the task force has held monthly meetings to hear public comments, gather expert testimony from scholars, and debate key issues around developing and implementing a reparations plan. The thorniest of these issues involved questions around who should receive reparations and on what basis—or, as the task force must determine: who belongs to “the community of eligibility” for Black reparations for US slavery?

On March 29, 2022, the task force met to listen to impassioned arguments for and against two popular approaches to reparations for US chattel slavery: a lineage-based approach versus a race-based approach. Ultimately, the committee voted 5–4 to define reparations eligibility on the basis of lineage, which would be “determined by an individual being an African American descendant of a chattel enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the US prior to the end of the 19th century.”

Growing Support for US Slavery Reparations

Ten years ago, the questions asked about reparations in US media and policy circles included, “Should America pay reparations?” and “How would it even work?” The response to such questions was generally incredulity or outright dismissal. This continued to be the case even after Ta-Nehisi Coates’ formidable essay, The Case for Reparations, became required reading in liberal circles.

Over the last three years, however, support for Black reparations has gained momentum. In 2019, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held its first congressional hearing on reparations in more than a decade. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced H.R. 40, legislation calling for a federal study of reparations (which former Rep. John Conyers had introduced multiple times since 1989), and the 2020 Democratic primary’s presidential candidates discussed support for reparations during the debates.

While decades of organizing for civil rights, Black power, and Black life laid the groundwork for the shift toward reparations, the unique conjuncture of the coronavirus pandemic and 2020’s uprisings for racial justice following the police murder of George Floyd accelerated this shift. In the two years since, activists, scholars, and policymakers have increasingly turned their attention to reparations as a key component of Black self-determination. And with this shift, the old dismissive questions about reparations have given way to questions about policy design: “On what basis should reparations be given? What form can it take? How could it be delivered? Who should be eligible?”

California’s reparations task force was created to answer these daunting questions. Its work will be a model for other state and federal proposals, which is why the committee’s recent vote to limit eligibility to direct descendants of the enslaved merits further discussion.

Although the vote was close, the committee’s decision reflects an emerging priority among Black scholars and policymakers. Recent policy proposals have focused on the need for reparations to close America’s racial wealth gap of more than $10 trillion dollars. In an NPQ article excerpted from their 2020 Roosevelt Institute report, Resurrecting the Promise of 40 Acres: The Imperative of Reparations for Black Americans, and in their book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen center the case for reparations on compensation for the “Black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.” The reason for this is, as Rashawn Ray and Andre M. Perry argue in a 2020 Brookings Institution report, Why We Need Reparations for Black Americans, “Slavery enriched white slave owners and their descendants, and it fueled the country’s economy while suppressing wealth building for the enslaved. The United States has yet to compensate descendants of enslaved Black Americans for their labor.”

Darity and Mullen highlight an historic failed attempt at reparation—the US government’s revoked promise to deliver 40-acre land grants to the emancipated after the Civil War—as the foundation of the black-white racial wealth gap. They argue that this gap, “the most glaring indicator of racial injustice in America,” can only be closed with monetary compensation. Other efforts will be needed to undo income inequality within racial groups. This is because, as NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez writes, what differentiates Black reparations from a general economic rights project is the mutual imbrication of race and class in a society built on white supremacy.

In prioritizing financial redress for the racial wealth gap, Darity and Mullen do not center their case exclusively on the horrors of American chattel slavery. They also consider the impact of legal segregation and ongoing structural racism. Ultimately, however, they advance two criteria for Black reparations eligibility:

“First, an individual must establish that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the US.”

“Second, an individual must demonstrate that they have self-identified as black, negro, or African American on an official document—perhaps making public the self-report of their race on the US Census—for at least 12 years before the enactment of a reparations program or a study commission for reparations, whichever comes first.”

Ray and Brooks arrive at a similar conclusion in their report, arguing that “Given the lingering legacy of slavery on the racial wealth gap, the monetary value we know that was placed on enslaved Blacks, the fact that other groups have received reparations, and the fact that Blacks were originally awarded reparations only to have them rescinded provide overwhelming evidence that it is time to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Blacks.”

Local Efforts and Their Limits

Despite past efforts to provide reparations—for example, to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II—chattel slavery has not been addressed at the US state or federal level. In lieu of a large-scale program for apology and redress, numerous local efforts have been and are being organized across the country—including in cities like Asheville, Boston, and San Francisco, and educational institutions like Georgetown University—with varying modes and outcomes, as is evident in criticisms of Evanston’s housing grants. While most reparations efforts engage the civil sector’s resources and knowledge, others, like the NJ FAM Fund formed by eight New Jersey mayors, rely on private social impact investing in Black and Latinx business and real estate development. Private ventures raise questions, however, about the extent to which they can distribute wealth equitably without a corresponding change in power dynamics.

Darity and Mullen argue that while these efforts frequently constitute “acknowledgment” of harm, they are insufficient for redress. They often lack monetary compensation, and even those that provide payment are limited by their lack of funds. Without money and scale, they remain inadequate to tackling the racial wealth gap.

Statewide reparations could redistribute some wealth, but they are not the only way. Importantly, California’s bill states that “any state level reparations authorized under these provisions are not to be considered a replacement for any reparations enacted at the federal level.”

Defining the “Community of Eligibility”

California’s reparations task force hearings reanimated longstanding debates and differences among Black reparations activists—and this was reflected in the committee’s narrowly split vote.

The task force’s chairperson, Kamilah Moore, described limiting eligibility to proof of lineage as “necessary,” stating that anything else would “aggrieve the victims of slavery.” In public comments at the committee’s March 29 hearings, supporters of lineage-based reparations expressed their strong opposition to race-based claims. Among them were organizations like the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants—which worked to ensure the bill’s passage, via its Los Angeles chapter and the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California—as well as activists who identified variously as American Descendants of Slavery, Freedmen, or Foundational Black Americans. Despite political and organizational differences, these activists shared practical and ethical reasons for supporting eligibility limits for Black reparations.

Some activists’ opposition to race-based reparations stemmed from a procedural concern about the value of lineage as a “race-neutral” approach that courts would be less likely to strike down, given California’s affirmative action ban.

Activists also argued that limiting the community of eligibility is necessary for justice. As one speaker put it, “Righting the wrong of America’s greatest shame can only be done through the descendants of those painfully wronged.” For these activists, race-based reparations would inflict further harm on direct descendants by obscuring the unique trauma of slavery and the intergenerational transmission of its harms. Some also feared that, if race was the only basis for eligibility, part of the debt owed to US descendants would be usurped by African and Afro-descendant immigrants. While a Black Alliance for Just Immigration report shows that Black immigrants to California constituted approximately 178,000 of the state’s 2.6 million Black residents in 2014—or less than 7% of the state’s Black population—this number does not include the American-born descendants of these immigrants.

In support of a race-based approach to reparations, another task-force member, Lisa Holder, criticized lineage-based proposals to limit eligibility as exclusionary and inadequate. The LA-based civil rights lawyer said, “The system that folks are advocating here, where we splice things up, where only one small slice benefits, will not abate the harms of racism.” Supporters of race-based reparations argued that an inclusive approach is necessary to fully address slavery’s legacy of systemic discrimination and violence. They contended that Black immigrants to the US face the harms of anti-Black racism that resulted from slavery and segregation, including criminalization and mass incarceration, discrimination in education, health, and housing, lower wages and the growing racial wealth gap, and more. Additionally, Black immigrants to the US come primarily from African, Caribbean, and Central and South American countries that were formerly colonized by Britain and Europe and subject to US military interventions.

Some race-based reparations activists understood lineage-based activists’ desire to prioritize direct descendants, but they expressed concerns about determining eligibility by lineage alone. Referring to the approaches up for discussion, Akili, an activist and Institute of the Black World 21st Century board member said, “Let us not take a narrow and divisive approach. Let us start with an all Black people [approach] and then prioritize.” Kamm Howard, National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America co-chair and standing member of the National African-American Reparations Commission, asserted that many Black Americans would struggle to provide documentation of proof of lineage in a timely manner, if at all, as the lives of enslaved people were not always chronicled in official records—and when they were, the records were sometimes destroyed.

To facilitate the research necessary to prove lineage, Hollis Gentry, a genealogist who testified before the committee, recommended that the state provide financial assistance for lineage tracing through public, state, and private libraries. Advocates for race-based reparations remained wary of the state’s power to identify descendants and were particularly concerned about an overreliance on state records. As Jessica Aiwuyor, founder of the National Black Cultural Information Trust warned, methods like DNA testing are “invasive,” and Black Americans with disabilities and limited access to technology could be excluded from participation.

Toward National and Global Reparations?

The nuances surrounding Black activists’ debates on the question of US slavery and its legacy are due, in part, to the slave trade’s transnational history of violence. Around the world, growing calls for reparations—from Jamaican protests for reparations that met the British royals’ Caribbean “tour” to the Indigenous #LandBack movement across Turtle Island—also indicate the potential for transnational efforts for reparative racial justice.

Indeed, perhaps one way out of the impasse revealed by this discussion of California’s public hearings—that is, the tension between lineage-based approaches to slavery’s past harms and race-based approaches to present harms—can be found in Professor Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s compelling new book, Reconsidering Reparations. In it, Táíwò proposes a “constructive” approach to reparations for slavery and colonialism, arguing for reparations as a “future-oriented project” that centers peoples’ vulnerability to climate change as it works to build a more equitable and just world. The costs of building such a world would be paid with the wealth of those who have benefited from global racial empire and must therefore inherit the liabilities of its injustices.

California’s task force will continue to meet and its corpus of documentation and debate is a major step in the fight for Black reparations. While eligibility limits and local reparations efforts are tempting for their immediate tangibility—and indeed could be critical steps toward racial equity—these debates illustrate how movements for reparative justice are shaped by global forces and would benefit from coordination across national borders. The reasons for such coordination are two-fold:

  1. To make sure that all Black people who have suffered from transatlantic slavery and its legacy of structural racism are provided with the redress they deserve, especially from the governments, institutions, and owning-class families that profited from their ancestors’ labor.
  2. Our current global economy is rooted in violent systems that created unjust wealth disparities. We must transform these systems to ensure that any redistributed wealth remains with the people and communities that are owed.

There are no easy answers, but at least the supporters of lineage-based and race-based approaches can agree on one thing: Reparations are essential to realizing racial and economic justice.