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New Law Mandates California To Study The Issue Of Reparations For Slaves' Descendants

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In January 1865, as the Civil War staggered into its final months, the U.S. made a promise. It would take 400,000 acres of confiscated Southern land stretching from South Carolina to Florida and redistribute it to formerly enslaved Black people in 40-acre parcels. Well, that order did not last long. Within the year, Lincoln's replacement, President Andrew Johnson, broke that promise and handed the land back to plantation owners. That was the nation's first systematic attempt to provide reparations for slavery. More recently, the late Michigan Congressman John Conyers tried and failed for nearly three decades to get Congress to consider the same issue. Now, California has taken Conyers' bill and used it as an inspiration for a new bill signed into law last week. It is the first state law of its kind.

California Assemblywoman Shirley Weber is the author of that bill, and she joins us now. Welcome.

SHIRLEY WEBER: Thank you. It's good to be here.

CHANG: Good to have you. So what this new law does is basically set up a task force to study the issue of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people and to make further recommendations from there. Tell me, what are you hoping to see come out of this task force?

WEBER: Well, I think there are a couple of things we hope will happen. Obviously, we hope there will be a number of recommendations on what the state needs to do in order to repair the damage that's been done. But hopefully, in addition to that, we will have robust conversations about the really deep and long and pervasive impact of slavery and racism in California and across the nation.

I've talked to too many people who tell me, well, I'm not a slaveholder; I didn't own any slaves. What does that mean to me? Well, you may not have owned them, but the impact of your forefathers owning them as well as the impact of the various laws and limitations placed upon African Americans that made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to compete educationally and economically and socially still has its lingering impact. And we see that in the streets today.

CHANG: Well, give us some concrete examples of what form might these reparations take.

WEBER: Well, you know, it could be like it is at Georgetown, where those folks who were slaves in that land in Georgetown - every descendant of those individuals now can have access to free education at Georgetown. We could look at the issue of loans and grants for people starting businesses. I mean, you have businesses that are suffering and sometimes failing in this pandemic because of our - the lack of support and financing that made it almost difficult, if not impossible, for them to own land and to own their businesses. We need to look at housing patterns. California had some very, very racist housing patterns that existed. But there are a number of things that need to exist and to indicate that a tremendous amount of damage was done and puts California on the hook, as well, because...

CHANG: Yes.

WEBER: ...Most people think California was a free state.

CHANG: Right. A lot of people don't think of California as a slave state. But explain...

WEBER: No, we (ph) don't.

CHANG: ...What role California did play when it came to slavery.

WEBER: Well, we had one of the most racist governors who talked about removing all Black people from the state of California, free or slaves. We created laws that prevented them from being able to testify in court against a white person. We had lots of things embedded in our land ownership that prevented folks from buying or selling homes to African Americans. All of those things are important as we begin to say, is this why African Americans continue to struggle, have the least amount of wealth amassed, have low home ownership? All those kinds of things that - even after generations and generations of struggle, we still find that these things prevail. And even though a few sneak through, the vast majority do not.

CHANG: Now, let me ask you - dealing with the legacy of slavery is an issue that this entire country needs to reckon with. So there are a lot of people who'll say, let's look to a federal solution. How would you respond to that?

WEBER: Well, we have. We looked for federal solution for 30 to 40 years. At this point, it's just not happening at the federal level. And so after waiting, we said - you know what? - California can do this. And our governor said - you know what? - we can lead the way. And that, we think, will motivate others to do likewise.

CHANG: California state Assemblywoman Shirley Weber was the author of a new state law to study reparations for slavery.

Thank you very much.

WEBER: Thank you for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.