Posted on June 7, 2023

Dream of Reparations Hits Political Reality in California

Alexander Nieves and Christopher Cadelago, Politico, June 6, 2023

California Democrats three years ago set out to confront more than a century of discrimination toward Black residents with a push for reparations. Now, those ambitions have faded, and frustration is mounting in their own ranks.

Despite its reputation as a liberal bastion, the Democratic supermajority that controls California’s legislature has recently quashed the kinds of criminal justice reform proposals that are central to the reparations movement, including bills that would have required police officers to obtain a warrant before searching a vehicle and banned police canines from biting suspects.

And even before a closely watched task force could issue its final recommendations aimed at unwinding a legacy of racism, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and others poured cold water on their biggest-ticket item, cash payments for descendants of slaves.


A new poll out this week found that just 39 percent of California’s likely voters support the idea of a reparations task force, a political reality that Bradford — who sits on the panel — and his allies in the Legislature must overcome. In an interview this week, the state senator said he didn’t expect bills explicitly tied to the group’s recommendations to advance until next year, though there are three months left in the legislative session.

Taken together, the failure to advance marquee policing policies, the dimming prospects of cash payments and voter apathy on reparations once again illustrate the limits of single-party rule for progressive lawmakers intent on taking big swings. Over the last decade, sweeping proposals to establish more police oversight and end involuntary servitude as a punishment for crimes failed or took multiple attempts to pass as more moderate Democrats balked at going against the law enforcement lobby. Now, there’s growing concern that California may have missed its moment to act in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, as the nation was gripped by protests and calls for racial justice.


The string of losses and tempered expectations sets the stage for California’s landmark reparations task force to formally present its recommendations to Newsom and lawmakers by July 1. Its extensive report, parts of which are already posted online, will contain around 200 pages of policy proposals for countering the lasting economic and social harms of practices like Jim Crow laws, redlining and the war on drugs. The most ambitious items — such as cash payments, single-payer health care and increased accountability for police officers — go well beyond what most Democrats have been able to stomach in the past and, in many cases, have huge price tags at a time when the state confronts a growing deficit.


Both legislative proposals that failed in recent days had authors who argued they were needed to protect Black residents who are disproportionately stopped and arrested.

Assemblymember Corey Jackson (D-Perris), who carried the police canines legislation, cited research compiled by the task force linking the use of dogs — dating back to slavery — to intergenerational trauma experienced in Black communities. Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, a Los Angeles Democrat, based his bill to restrict vehicle searches on a recommendation from California’s Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board based on research showing that people of color are more likely to be randomly stopped and searched.

Lawmakers’ rejection of those bills last week was a missed opportunity to make a statement in support of reparations, said Natasha Minsker, a policy adviser for Smart Justice California. She argued Democratic lawmakers can’t credibly say they are for a committee that the Legislature and Newsom created but then refuse to back legislation that’s in line with its goals.