With a packed house behind him, Milton Hall, a Los Angeles Mid-City Neighborhood Council representative, approached the microphone. Under his breath, he lamented about missing the beginning of his golf game to attend this meeting, a gathering of California’s reparations task force for descendants of American slavery. 

The task force is the first of its kind, enshrined by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 to propose potential reparations for Black families harmed by “debilitating economic, educational, and health hardships.” An interim report this summer listed dozens of potential reparative acts: providing free health care, reducing the scope of law enforcement, raising the minimum wage, and cleaning up environmental pollution, among others. But it’s the possibility of cash reparations that has created the most tension.

“I want to say that I have concerns,” Hall, a Black combat veteran, said during the Sept. 23 meeting. “I’m afraid that if you give checks to folks, the average person is going to go to the liquor store, they’re going to go to the weed shop, and we’re going to lose equity in our neighborhoods.”

The room was full of mostly Black Angelenos, some rocking African print clothing and shirts adorned with the faces of Rosa Parks and other Black civil rights leaders. They responded to Hall’s comment with dead stares and an avalanche of ridicule and vigorous debate. Attendees bumped heads on who among their neighbors is worthy of redemption and support, exposing deep-seated self-judgments that have seeped through Black communities. 

“Black folks have a right to disagree,” James Woodson, director of the California Black Power Network, said about the growing tensions during the debate. “What we should not do, however, is try to decide who is worthy and who is not. Reparations are meant to be a unifying force.” 

The nine-member task force made a two-day stop in Los Angeles last month to invite public comment on a potential pathway for reparations. The panel — consisting of elected officials, doctors, lawyers, and activists — has eight Black members and one Japanese reparations expert. It is expected to deliver specific policy recommendations to the governor’s office and state legislature next summer.

But public comments at the Los Angeles meeting highlighted a growing tension among advocates and opponents of reparations for Black Americans: Would a cash infusion alone reverse centuries of targeted violence against Black neighborhoods? How can Black folks address the ways that racism has created internal divisions among the Black community? 

The state’s exploration of reparations could set a national precedent as discussions about repairing the damage of slavery and systemic discrimination gain attention. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee advanced legislation that would create a national commission to study reparations, similar to California’s task force — but that bill has stagnated. 

The California Department of Justice said creation of the state’s task force acknowledges how state and local governments have profited from practices that brutalize Black Americans and “exclude them from meaningful participation in society.” In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the more than 720,000 Black residents have battled decades of housing discrimination, mass incarceration, environmental pollution, and the war on drugs.  During the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, Black Californians were incarcerated at a rate five times higher than their share of the population. 

Decades later, the fallout of the epidemic is still palpable. 

“You don’t have to give no money to no crackhead,” said Zachariah McGee, who said he supports cash reparations in other instances. “Why would you do that?”

Shortly after McGee, Mylandro Jones, a single father and undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, approached the microphone. 

“I want to speak on the people talking about crackheads shouldn’t get any money,” he said. “My stepmom was a crackhead; she was still a Black woman. She deserves money just like anybody else does. She’s still a human being.” 

Jones went on to explain how the vestige of slavery has impacted his life, from the flooding of drugs in his community to being regularly targeted by police and spending time shuffling between homeless shelters. California’s housing situation, anchored by a notoriously high cost of living and decades of discriminatory housing policies, is one of the state’s most distinct markers for racism. A recent Capital B News analysis found that California’s Black residents experience homelessness at a rate 14 times higher than white, Latino, and Asian residents combined. 

For Woodson, the bigger concern is that direct cash payments alone would cause more money to trickle to white business and landowners. 

“How do we make sure that the cash payments folks get don’t just get transferred to the very people who have profited from oppressing and enslaving us?” he said. “We need to figure out a way to get cash payments, while also funding programs and services.” 

Task force member Steven Bradford, a Democratic state senator representing South Los Angeles, asked the audience not to allow the debate around reparations to cause more division within the state’s already splintered and segregated Black community. 

“We need to stay unified; we need to be together,” he added. “We aren’t always going to agree, but we have to put forth a unified front.”

For decades, academic researchers have studied how slavery has negatively impacted Black Americans’ self-view. One of the most widely accepted theories, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, outlines how slavery left Black Americans with a distorted self-perception, allowing racist institutions to escape accountability by describing racial inequality as Black folks causing their own “self-destruction.” 

Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu, an Oakland-based historian and artist, said reparative acts should address this internalized oppression by not only providing cash payments to Black communities, but also diminishing the effects of European beauty standards and the emphasis on the Western way of living.

“The root word of reparations is repair,” she said. “For any reparations plan to be feasible, it must repair the harm done to people of African descent across every area of society.”

An estimated 80% of the state’s 2.6 million Black residents would be eligible for reparations, according to the task force outlines. Eligible people are described as “African American descendants of a chattel enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the U.S. prior to the end of the 19th century.”  Earlier this year, the task force confirmed that Black Americans descended from those who immigrated after 1900 will not be eligible for reparations.  How Black folks will be expected to prove their lineage has not been determined. 

At the meeting, the panel outlined specific government wrongdoings that necessitated financial reparations for Black Californians, including the state’s disproportionate use of eminent domain to take Black-owned properties; incarceration and over-policing in Black communities; medical racism; and the defunding of schools in Black neighborhoods. However, the task force said it would be nearly impossible to correctly calculate specific amounts of monetary compensation for many of these factors. 

State economic consultants have argued that Black Californians can be compensated based on the health impacts of racism. In California, Black people have the highest death rates from cancer due to environmental racism, food insecurity, and health care discrimination. This, coupled with the many other causes of premature death in the Black community, leaves Black folks expected to live roughly eight years less than white Californians. The consultants concluded that the gap in life expectancy for Black Californians is worth upward of $125,000 per year, or nearly $1 million.

Bradford urged the audience at the meeting to tailor their expectations about the likelihood of the state passing reparations. 

“For a state that didn’t have slavery, don’t think they’re going to be quick to vote on this final product of this task force,” he said. 

The sentiment is expressed by Kujichagulia-Seitu, who argues that task forces like California’s have historically been used to stifle political movements by delaying any ability for swift and meaningful change. Task forces can deliberate for years without providing any tangible results, which allows political energy to dwindle. 

“Putting a task force together implies that there is not already a body of knowledge in existence,” she said. “They have examined the problem long enough to have effective, holistic solutions, of which compensation is only a small part.”

Adam Mahoney is the climate and environment reporter at Capital B. Twitter @AdamLMahoney