Mulling Reparations, California Sets Aside $12 Million as a Start

Last year, a California task force issued a seminal report urging reparations for Black residents that could add up to hundreds of billions of dollars. But the state’s new $298 billion budget, signed Saturday after a woeful run for California finances, is offering a much more modest beginning: $12 million.

The budget does not call for immediate cash payments for Californians whose lives were shaped by injustices. Instead, it promises some state money if lawmakers agree on proposals that supporters see as early steps to repair the consequences of California’s past.

The state’s approach has drawn criticism as offering far too little in the face of a sprawling, methodical report that laid bare a troubling history and offered recommendations on how to make up for it. Some lawmakers, though, have nevertheless welcomed the money as a start after the state scrambled to close a $47 billion shortfall.

“I thought it was a win,” Assemblywoman Lori D. Wilson, a Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus and represents a Northern California district, said in an interview on Saturday. “To see it in the budget means that we were listened to.”

Though many state lawmakers have, for now, eschewed seeking direct cash payments, they have pressed for ideas like creating a California American Freedmen Affairs Agency and prioritizing Black people for professional licenses, “especially applicants who are descended from a person enslaved in the United States.”

On Thursday, the Legislature placed on the November ballot a proposal to amend the State Constitution to ban involuntary servitude, even for state prisoners. The measure is part of a reparations package that the Black Caucus announced in January.

Other parts of the Black Caucus’s package still await votes by lawmakers, and the $12 million in the budget could be used to carry out ideas that pass before the legislative session ends on Aug. 31.

Some proposals, such as one for a formal apology from the state for “perpetuating the harms African Americans faced by having imbued racial prejudice,” carry relatively small price tags. An estimate for that proposal pegged the cost at less than $150,000, some of which would go toward a plaque at the State Capitol to memorialize the apology.

Other ideas are far more financially daunting. A plan to rectify episodes of what the bill defines as “racially motivated eminent domain” could ultimately cost the state and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a legislative analysis issued on Friday.

California is not the only place in America where the reparations debate is bubbling. Mayor Brandon Johnson of Chicago created a task force on reparations this month, less than a year after New York set up a commission to offer nonbinding recommendations to state leaders. Evanston, Ill., near Chicago, has given housing grants to try to move past a legacy of redlining, and a San Francisco task force raised the idea of the city making $5 million payments to any eligible person.

As California officials weigh their options, one challenge is that the Golden State’s formerly high-flying finances have cratered, after officials significantly overestimated state revenues last year.

For the fiscal year that begins Monday, the state expects to tap about $5 billion of its reserves. The troubled outlook, which came just two years after the state saw a record surplus, is expected to influence how lawmakers view reparations-related proposals, and just about every other policy issue coming before them in the weeks ahead.

That turmoil, Ms. Wilson suggested, made the $12 million all the more poignant, with state officials “recognizing there’s foundations that have to be built.” Though some lawmakers have sounded bullish about ultimately securing cash payments, it is not clear when legislators will mount a sustained campaign for them.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that California’s grappling with its history, a process the state began in earnest after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, was “about much more than cash payments.” The comment provoked an uproar, but many nevertheless regarded it as a practical assessment of the often-thorny politics surrounding reparations.

“I recognize and acknowledge the painful part of our history,” Assemblywoman Kate Sanchez, a Republican who represents a district southeast of Los Angeles, said during a committee hearing about one reparations measure this month. But, she added, “The pains of our past should not be paid by the people of today.”

Ms. Wilson said that she expected California’s debate to continue for some time.

“We are going to carry legislation every single year related to reparations,” said Ms. Wilson, who acknowledged that it could take a decade or more for a full suite of ideas to make it through Sacramento’s corridors of power.

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