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Reparations – To Be Or Not To Be?

Wendy Gladney

Upland, CA

Do you think the United States of America should financially compensate Black Americans or Black communities for past wrongs like slavery, racial discrimination, and systemic inequality? If your answer is yes, then you believe in reparations. The history of reparations for Black Americans is a complex and ongoing issue that can be traced back to the post-Civil War era, when the United States government made promises of “40 acres and a mule” to formerly enslaved individuals as a form of compensation for their years of bondage. What most people do not know is General William T. Sherman drafted the Special Field Order in 1865 that would give only formerly enslaved Black people in the states of Georgia and South Carolina, 40 acres per family from Confederate seized land. The order did not refer to all freed enslaved Black people, only those from those two states. However, this promise along with many others was largely unfulfilled, and subsequent policies such as the Jim Crow era and segregation further entrenched racial disparities and denied African Americans equal rights and opportunities.

In the 20th century, calls for reparations gained momentum during the civil rights movement. Civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for economic justice and reparations as a means to address the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. In 1969, the National Black Economic Development Conference called for $500 million in reparations to be distributed over ten years. I remember years ago hearing Mollie Bell on KJLH Radio talk about the need for reparations. At that time, I was a bit naïve and did not fully understand what reparations meant, but her words stayed in my ears and eventually touched my heart. Throughout the years there have been people, groups, and organizations that have kept the topic of reparations alive and on the table, but not until recently has it been a legislative discussion in California.

In September 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 3121 (AB 3121) into law. AB 3121 established a state-level task force known as the, “Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.” The purpose of the task force is to study the impact of slavery in the United States, as well as the lasting effects of discrimination and racial injustice experienced by African Americans, with an emphasis on descendants of persons who were enslaved in the United States. The AB 3121 Task Force is required to submit a report to the California legislature no later than this month. The report should include the findings of their study, the task force’s recommendations for reparations proposals, and any suggested legislation or actions to implement those proposals.
One of the aims of the task force is to contribute to the broader national conversation on reparations and to inform potential policy decisions regarding reparations for African Americans in California. It has been estimated that it would cost California over $800 million.

There is so much inequity that still exists within this country when it comes to how Black people have been and still are being treated. There are still mixed emotions and perspectives if reparations are still needed. America will never be able to right all its wrongs from the past regarding slavery, but what I believe could be helpful is to have the state of California, as well as the other 49 states, invest in education, healthcare, housing, and economic development in predominantly Black communities so the gap will continue to decrease even in future generations.

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