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The latest in California's reparations efforts

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last summer, a task force here in California recommended that the state do something that no state has ever done. It recommended that California pay cash reparations to residents who are descended from enslaved African Americans. The Reparations Task Force spent two years studying this issue. It also made dozens of other recommendations for lawmakers. So where do things stand? Well, to find out, we're joined now by NPR's Adrian Florido. Hey, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I know that this week marked the deadline to introduce new bills in the legislature here, so I guess the big question is, are California lawmakers proposing cash reparations or not?

FLORIDO: No. There's been no movement to make cash reparations a reality. But the state's legislative Black Caucus has been promoting about a dozen bills - most filed over the last couple of weeks - that respond to other of the task force's recommendations. So one of these bills would issue a state apology for the role that California played in protecting slaveholders, even though it was never a slave state itself, and for a long history of racist state policies.

CHANG: OK.

FLORIDO: There are also bills to fund programs targeting racial health and wealth gaps. One bill would allow California to return land to Black families who had it taken from them through eminent domain with racist motives. But as I said, all of these fell short of what had been the Reparations Task Force's primary, most headline-grabbing recommendation last summer, which was cash payments as a way to atone for the harms of slavery and its racist legacy.

CHANG: And I remember all those headlines. Why aren't cash payments included in these bills, you think?

FLORIDO: Well, simply, there's not the political support. I spoke with Democratic state Senator Steven Bradford. He is a leader of the Black Caucus and served on the Reparations Task Force. And he supports cash payments. But he says, you know, conversations with his state House colleagues have made it pretty clear that the political will is just not there.

STEVEN BRADFORD: It's the will or the budget. They're going to fall back on, you know, we have a $30 billion-plus deficit. So I've been around this long enough. That's going to be enough reason why folks are going to say, oh, we can't do it now.

FLORIDO: You know, the numbers, Ailsa, that get tossed around vary pretty widely. Bradford thinks that meaningful payments that would amount to at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars per eligible person - cash reparations have never been an easy sell. And so while Bradford said he hopes lawmakers will eventually move toward adopting them, for now, it's not seeming likely. And it's a lot of these other programs and proposals reflected in these bills that lawmakers are leaning on to be able to say that they're doing something on reparations.

CHANG: Well, what are advocates of reparations saying about all of this right now?

FLORIDO: You can imagine they're not thrilled. There's a big network of Black activists in California who've been pressing the state on this issue for years now. I spoke with Yahsmeen Abdusami Oakley. She's a reparations advocate in the city of East Palo Alto. And she said while the bills that lawmakers are pursuing are, of course, welcome...

YAHSMEEN ABDUSAMI OAKLEY: I am disappointed because there is no cash. Compensation is central to reparations. So when we are not discussing compensation, like, what are we really discussing?

FLORIDO: Lawmakers, Ailsa, are stressing that reparations can take many forms. They can look like a lot of different things, but the fact is that cash compensation has always been the main goal of advocates here. And so Abdusami Oakley says that she and others are going to keep pushing for that.

CHANG: Yeah, but the thing is, California's - you know, it's one of the most progressive states in the country, right? So if cash payments aren't looking...

FLORIDO: Yeah.

CHANG: ...That likely here, what does that say about their prospects elsewhere in the country?

FLORIDO: You know, a big part of the reason state lawmakers created the task force in California was because, at the federal level, cash reparations have always been kind of dead on arrival. Most Americans just don't support them.

CHANG: Yeah.

FLORIDO: So the thinking was, you know, let's try to do it at the state level and see if we can give this movement a boost across the country at a more local level. That's why the task force's work was considered so historic. No state has ever gotten this close...

CHANG: Right.

FLORIDO: ...To a cash reparations program on a large scale. So it's just another reason advocates say they're going to keep pushing to keep the momentum going nationwide.

CHANG: That is NPR's Adrian Florido. Thank you, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.