By Tashi McQueen,
AFRO Political Writer,

Reparations for descendants of Africans enslaved in the Americas has long been a topic of public discourse.  But discourse has yet to lead to action.

The topic, again, was among those addressed during the recent Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. Moderated by Julia A. Wilson, dean of Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, the discussion offered a different take on how reparations could be realized: taking a state-by-state approach.

“Reparations are not an [anomaly]. When people are harmed and there is an identification of that harm, you do your best with the resources you have to ensure that it never happens again. We’ve never had that happen in the African-American community,” said Shirley N. Weber, California’s secretary of state, during the session.

California is the first state to permit a study of reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S.

“We saw the resistance to [reparations] at the federal level and the fact that [because] our federal government is much more divided than before it’s harder to get things done,” said Weber. “I thought, I’m going to put together a bill to establish a task force. We introduced the bill in California, which was passed, so the task force was formed.”

The task force worked for about two years on the initiative, ending with a report released on June 29. Recommendations included disrupting the mental health crisis and prison cycle in African-American communities, declaring election day a paid state holiday to increase voter turnout and creating an agency to provide a range of services to Black residents.

New York followed California’s lead, passing legislation to establish a commission to consider reparations in June 2023. New Jersey and Vermont also considered studying reparations but no legislation has been passed. In 2021, Evanston, Ill. – a Chicago suburb – became the first U.S. city to make reparations available to Black residents through a $10 million housing program. 

Weber said such examples show how Black Americans across the U.S. can move forward outside of federal efforts for reparations, which have been slow.

“I advocate that wherever you can get [movement], take action. If [the plan] is not moving us forward there’s no point,” she said.

“We won,” she said of their efforts in California, “but we won because folks were helping us fight the battle in the communities and the Legislature.” 

Donna Weathersby, a symposium attendee from Chicago, said she was glad to hear more “progressive dialogue” about reparations to Black Americans for the persistent negative effects of slavery in the U.S.

“African Americans made this country,” she said. “We wouldn’t be the country that we are without the free labor that our ancestors provided.”