New York was a vital cog in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but it’s California where those pushing for reparations to the descendants of enslaved people are making progress.
A task force in California has proposed a series of recommendations for compensating descendants of the formerly enslaved, including cash payments that could top $1 million, for lost wealth and opportunity dating to the state’s birth in 1850.
The panel identified “Historical Atrocities” beyond slavery, touching on voting, housing, education, and mass incarceration, among other areas. In addition to the payments, it recommends a formal apology for state-sanctioned racism.
The future of the California proposals, which have been met with skepticism, is highly uncertain, but the effort is gaining attention back East, where “enslavement is a defining feature of New York City’s origin story,” as a 2022 report by the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative put it. The Golden State, by contrast, was not technically a “slave state,” though it allowed enslavement to endure for many years.
“When people lead with the pessimistic question of, ‘This is not feasible, why are you wasting your time?’ we have no idea of what is feasible or not, tomorrow or the next day,” said Darrick Hamilton, the founding director of the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School, and a member of New York City’s Racial Justice Commission. “The point is to commit to justice because it’s the right thing to do.”
The task force’s final report is expected to go to the California legislature this summer.
Here is a primer on reparations and where things stand.
Why is anyone talking about reparations?
The issue goes back to the earliest days of emancipation, with the promise of “40 Acres and a Mule” to formerly enslaved families by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson reversed course and reparations remained illusory. But in recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement rekindled calls for reparations, as have journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose article, “The Case for Reparations,” in 2014 spurred a vigorous national debate.
This extended even to northern cities like New York, where historians say institutional racism and segregation deprived generations of Black families of wealth. And it isn’t just government institutions considering such action. The Episcopal Diocese of New York has set aside endowment funds for a future reparations project.
But California wasn’t a “slave state,” what’s the fuss?
California technically opposed slavery, but it flourished there nonetheless. In any case, the state task force was created in 2020 amid the racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd. It held numerous public hearings and looked beyond slavery. It noted in its May 6 report that the state and its most powerful officials played a significant role in the subjugation of Black residents. “California — its executive branch, courts, and Legislature — denied African Americans their fundamental liberties and denied their humanity throughout the state’s history, from before the Civil War to the present,” the commission wrote in its report.
The state’s policies extended through the 19th and 20th centuries, and included practices such as over-policing, “separate and unequal education,” environmental racism and housing segregation, according to the panel. “In California, the federal, state, and local government created segregation through redlining, zoning ordinances, decisions on where to build schools and highways and discriminatory federal mortgage policies,” the commission.
Where’s New York on reparations?
New York doesn’t have a reparations commission, but it isn’t for lack of trying or subject matter.
A bill to create a commission, tasked with confronting “the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the City of New York and the State of New York,” remains in committee in the state Senate. In 2021 the bill passed in the state Assembly, under sponsor Charles Barron. “Never in the history of New York state has that happened,” Barron said Friday.
The 2022 report by the Equal Justice Initiative found that by 1730, “42% of New York City’s white residents directly enslaved Black people. For most of the 18th century, enslaved people comprised approximately 20% of the city’s population.”
By 1771, according to the report, 33% of the residents in modern-day Brooklyn were enslaved Africans. By the 19th century, an estimated 40% of all revenue from the U.S. cotton trade poured into New York City, primarily through financial firms and shipping companies that managed the trafficking of human bodies.
Why is New York taking a backseat on this issue?
Close observers of reparations argue that the state’s reputation as a cultural frontrunner is often overstated.
“The perception of New York is that it is a leading state,” said Cynthia Copeland, a public historian who served as the co-chair of the Reparations Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. “But often, I find through history, that New York is wanting to be very conservative, and kind of drags its feet.”
She noted that New York abolished slavery in 1827, well after other states had done so.
However, she added, “Once New Yorkers do determine that an issue is really of great importance, we really do put our feet to the fire and move things forward.”
What’s the biggest obstacle to reparations in California?
The biggest, according to critics, is the price tag. The commission hasn’t identified sources of reparations funding, which could exceed $800 billion in a state that has a $300 billion annual budget, and any recommendations would need to be approved by the state legislature. Gov. Gavin Newsom has already generated controversy by stating that “dealing with the legacy of slavery is about much more than cash payments,” remarks that were widely interpreted as an attempt to downplay the likelihood of large cash payouts.
But it isn’t just about the money: A 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 30% of Americans favor reparations payments while 68% are opposed.
What about the federal government?
For many proponents, reparations is ultimately something that needs to happen at the federal level.
“The reality is that the federal government is the entity with both the moral authority and the monetary sovereignty to implement in full force a reparations program,” said Hamilton, the director of the Institute on Race and Political Economy at The New School.
However, he said, momentum builds at the local and state levels, and other scholars argue that states have been complicit in racial inequity.
“States had a lot of leeway in applying federal policies, so they bear a tremendous responsibility for federal wrongs,” said Jovan Scott Lewis, chair of the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of California’s Reparations Task Force.
In any case, Congress has its hands full doing ordinary things, like paying its bills. Talks in Washington to raise the U.S. debt ceiling stalled on Friday.