California comes to terms with the costs and consequences of slavery
Last September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that provided for the formation of a task force to study and develop reparation proposals for descendants of slaves and those affected by slavery by July 2023. The task force has just begun to hold meetings.
This is the first time in the history of the United States that a state has undertaken such a study. It was not for a want of trying. In 1989, the late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced H.R. 40 for this purpose, and in subsequent sessions of Congress. In fact, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol overshadowed the bill’s re-introduction by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). After 30 years of trying, the House will finally vote on the bill, but its fate remains uncertain with the slim Democratic majority in the House. The prospects are even less hopeful for passage by the Senate. Should the bill pass the House, it would require 10 willing Senate Republicans to join 50 Democrats.
No government has assumed legal responsibility for the treatment of Black people. This is what makes the California bill so distinctive. Accounting for the harm of slavery and its afterlife is a necessary condition to assign responsibility and to arrive at a just basis for compensation. Ongoing resistance and reluctance to consider reparations — whether at the state or federal level — has much to do with acknowledging the fact that the exploitation of Black people was intrinsic to the making of the United States.
The coerced labor of Black people drove the economic development of the country before its formation and after the so-called “revolution” of 1776. This system of exploitation radiated from southern states and implicated others through the web of the insurance, manufacturing and transportation sectors of the growing national economy. It facilitated the removal of millions of people from the continent of Africa; the separation of family members while buying and selling and insuring men, women and children as property; the theft of the fruits of their labor; the rape of Black women, children and men; and the systematic denial of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Many white Americans benefited from and were complicit in this system. These dehumanizing conditions for Black people enabled generations of white people and their descendants to experience a standard of living that otherwise would have been unimaginable.
Rather than accounting for the human costs and consequences of this relationship, the country has found inventive ways to deny or deflect it, beginning with the narrative of the Civil War. The sacrifice of so many lives purified the conscience of many Americans about slavery while masking their own complicity. Over time, some have insisted that they should not be held accountable for a system that predated them. Others have regarded affirmative action as a form of reparations, in spite of entrenched opposition and denunciations of “reserve discrimination.”
Even apologies for slavery have been qualified. As with a similar congressional apology to Native Americans, the 2009 Senate and House resolution apologizing to African Americans added this disclaimer: “Nothing in this resolution — (A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”
It is too early to predict the outcome of the California Reparations Task Force before it reports its recommendations in 2023. Still, California has established a precedent for the country. More than 155 years after the abolition of slavery, a state government — in the name of the people — finally has acknowledged responsibility in the treatment of Black Americans. Whether other not other states or the federal government will acknowledge the costs and consequences of slavery in the making of the United States remains to be seen.
Douglas M. Haynes, Ph.D., is vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of California, Irvine. He also is head of the Office of Inclusive Excellence and chief diversity officer at UCI and its medical center.