California clearly owes reparations to its black communities. This is what it might look like

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Every year, from 1989 until his death in 2019, Representative John Conyers of Michigan introduced a bill, HR40, to establish a commission to study and develop a path towards reparations for African Americans. for the legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination perpetrated. against them. And every year, for almost three decades, this bill went nowhere. It is only after its passage that this bill is finally seriously considered in Congress.

HR40, however, is far from the only attempt to address and remedy the lingering effect of centuries of state-sponsored bigotry. Local reparation programs for African Americans have progressed in cities like Sacramento,
Evanston, Illinois, and Amherst, Mass. Perhaps more importantly, the California legislature created a first in the country state-level task force last year to study and help repair our state’s legacy of racial injustice. Repair, after all, is the root of the word “repairs”.

This Task Force to Study and Develop Redress Proposals for African Americans hears personal and expert testimony – and its findings should be important to all Californians concerned about social justice and equality.

Certainly, over the past few generations, there has been an impressive growth in black political leadership, college graduation rates, and market success in California. Still, the accomplishments of some should not overshadow the disproportionate share of black Californians who have been left behind. Experts who spoke to the task force last week highlighted the myriad of ways that government, private businesses, banks, neighborhood associations and tax systems have hampered the ability of black families to earn and accumulate capital, especially through home ownership.

Professor at Golden Gate University Law School Helen Kang, a specialist in environmental racism, testified that during World War II, San Francisco and the Navy created separate social housing at Bayview-Hunters Point to accommodate up to 17,000 black workers from migrant shipyards from the South. Kang also described the “environmental degradation” of black neighborhoods such as Bayview-Hunters Point. She noted “radioactive contamination” from the shipyard, the power plants located there (and nowhere else in the city), lung-damaging particles from the concrete production in the neighborhood and “the station. smelly sewage treatment that treats 80% of the city’s wastewater. “

Across the bay in Richmond, banks used redlining to deny mortgages to black shipyard workers in the South who lived, as they had no choice but to do so, in separate quarters. , University of Texas historian Jacqueline Jones testified.

The result of redlining – and other methods of exclusion, including private covenants that kept blacks out of high-end white neighborhoods – was that African Americans were unable to accumulate equity capital. that their white counterparts amass, generation by generation, through real estate, Professor at Portland State University CNE Corbin testified.

According to Stephen Menendian, researcher at UC Berkeley, co-author of a report on segregation in the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, federal tax policy favoring homeowners with deductions for mortgage interest has compounded the negative impacts of redlining, covenants, and bias in the real estate industry.

The effects of these discriminatory policies persisted, resulting in a racial wealth gap in which white families in the United States in 2019 had eight times the wealth of black families, according to the University of Connecticut professor. Thomas Craemer.

Craemer advocated that reparations can and should be used to address this racial wealth gap. It won’t be easy. But solutions – and precedents – do exist.

Closing the gap in California alone could cost $ 778.6 billion, Craemer said. He recommended that California “put pressure on the federal government” to assume the burden. He also pointed to an important precedent: the post-WWII German government made monthly payments to Holocaust victims, giving “weight and credibility to words of apologies for historic injustice.” .

Beyond individual payments, a trust fund, backed by government and private institutions, such as banks that have benefited from red and predatory loans, could fund a wide range of societal remedies. Such a trust could help black Californians make down payments on homes or pay for college. The fund could also help support California’s only historically black educational institution, the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.

Reparations funding could be used to advance essential work of national memory and education about America’s original sin, slavery. Support could go to cultural institutions like the African Diaspora Museum in San Francisco or to street art commemorating black lives lost in lynchings or police violence in California. A trust fund could also support retraining of local police.

To move beyond a painful past, a society must first recognize it and then repair it. Last week, the task force made major contributions to the recognition.

Soon he will have to guide us, through concrete proposals, on how to proceed. The challenge for the task force, and that of all Californians, is to remove structural barriers to equality and reduce the racial wealth gap. These are essential steps if we are to live in a just and widely prosperous society.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor and deputy chief prosecutor for the city of San Francisco. Elizabeth Herbin-Triant is Associate Professor of Black Studies and History at Amherst College.


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