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The Value Gap: Reparations are a ‘human rights issue’ that will boost the economy, says California task-force chair

The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.

California’s precedent-setting reparations task force released its first report Wednesday, the culmination of a year’s worth of challenging and sometimes emotional work.

The nine-member task force, established in 2020 after the passage of Assembly Bill 2131, first met last June. It is responsible for studying the lingering effects of slavery and recommending to the state legislature how Black Americans might be compensated. Local reparations efforts are underway across the country, but California is the first to examine the issue at the state level.

The nearly 500-page interim report details California’s participation in slavery, as well as its post-abolition policies and laws that served to further disenfranchise and harm Black residents. The report also presents recommendations to try to rectify those harms, including financial compensation and changing and updating policies and laws. A final report from the task force that will recommend a more detailed plan for reparations is due next year.

The interim report calls for implementing “a detailed program of reparations for African Americans.” Its many recommendations range from general to specific, such as:

Establish an office to support potential claimants with genealogical research and to confirm eligibility.

Fund a long-term truth and reconciliation commission.

Provide housing grants and business loans.

Provide funding for free tuition to California colleges and universities.

Fund voter-registration efforts for Black voters.

Eliminate racial disparities in police stops.

Task force chair Kamilah Moore, a 30-year-old entertainment attorney and reparations scholar based in Los Angeles, calls reparations a “sacred political project” that “stems from a broken promise to Black people” after slavery was outlawed. (The vice chair of the task force is Amos Brown, a pastor and well-known civil-rights activist who is president of the NAACP’s San Francisco branch.)

Ahead of the document’s release, Moore talked with MarketWatch about the challenges the task force has faced and will continue to face, plus the financial and economic case for reparations and how it would affect the nation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:

MarketWatch: How did you come to chair the task force? What has been the most challenging part of chairing the task force so far?

Moore: Any California resident could apply to be part of the task force, so I applied and was appointed by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. At our first meeting in June last year, the task force elected me to be chair. I made a speech. I guess it was compelling enough. 

I studied [intellectual-property] and entertainment law, but I also studied reparatory justice. When I was at Columbia [University], I asked them to create a class on reparations. I also participated in a study-abroad program my third year of law school, in Amsterdam, and did my thesis on global reparatory justice in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

As for the challenging part, because reparations is a hyper-political issue, there are different opinions about what it looks like and who should be eligible within the Black community. There’s still lingering conversation about eligibility. [Editor’s note: Resisting a call to open up reparations to all Black people living in the United States, the task force voted 5-4 to limit eligibility to descendants of slaves. At times, the public testimony and debate on the issue became heated.]

I had to manage all that, and it was difficult.

Another challenge is communications. We’re trying to get the right communications support to share what we’re doing with the Black community and the larger California community. We’re struggling to educate people about why California is doing this, and to show what the state’s role was in maintaining slavery.

MarketWatch: For those who haven’t paid attention to this issue, what would your summary be of the financial and economic case for reparations? 

Moore: We’ve had conversations about the racial wealth gap and the lineage wealth gap [or the lack of generational wealth experienced by enslaved people and their descendants]. White Americans have much more wealth than Black Americans, and we have the statistics in the report to show that.

An economic consulting team worked with us for our report, a team of five, three of whom are economists. One of them is Thomas Craemer, professor of public policy [at the University of Connecticut], who has done research around reparations for slavery and calculated lost wages. He argues that the debt owed to descendants of slaves in the United States is in the quadrillions.

The goal is for the economic consultant team to come up with different forms of compensation for the community depending on the particular harms that the task force has outlined: homelessness; housing discrimination, or eminent domain; mass incarceration; police violence; and trans-generational harms. Trauma can be transferred through a family, through epigenetics. How do you come up with a model to compensate for that?

MarketWatch: What do all Americans need to know about how you expect reparations to affect the economy?

Moore: I expect it to have a positive impact on the economy, to go beyond the dominant messaging that reparations is a handout or that Black people aren’t good with money. I trust the economists who have studied the issue, such as Dr. Lisa Cook, who became the first Black woman on the Federal Reserve Board. She has talked about reparations and how it could positively benefit the economy.

[Editor’s note: Cook, in a 2020 podcast interview, said all non-enslaved people in the economy at the time had benefited from slavery and that “we absolutely need some sort of reckoning with that.” Proposals to study the possibility of reparations “should all be taken seriously,” she said.]

[Reparations] will work to close the lineage/racial wealth gap, which would in turn stimulate the economy, via the proliferation of African Americans being able to buy a home or vehicle, open a business, and/or contribute to the existing economy. Compensation could also help with healthcare costs and other expenses related to the cost of living. 

There is some scholarship about Jewish people who received reparations [because of the Holocaust]. Their descendants fared better in education and other areas versus those who did not receive the payments. That’s an example of how important reparations can be.

MarketWatch: Do you think the task force has engaged enough Black people in California on this issue? How about outside the state?

Moore: Yes and no. We’ve gotten a critical mass of support in some ways, but there’s more outreach needed. That’s not to negate what we’ve accomplished so far.

Most of our meetings so far have been 9 to 5 on weekdays. Californians have to work. The only people willing to [make time for those] are people who are already very passionate about reparations. When we get our new communications firm, they will be able to utilize a whole year’s worth of content to spread the word. We will build more support over the summer. Our next meeting is in September and will be in person, and I hope we have a packed house for that.

Black people outside the state — all people in general — should be looking at California because it leads the way on many progressive issues. As California goes, so goes the nation. The eligibility decision particularly has the potential to set a precedent, and probably already has.

More broadly, something that’s in AB 2131 is a pre-emption clause, which states that no matter what California does on reparations, the federal government is not off the hook. It doesn’t pre-empt the U.S. from acting as well. The California task force is conscious and aware that reparations is a federal issue first and foremost. We are recommending that President Biden create by executive order a commission for reparations.

MarketWatch: Do you worry that California’s efforts on reparations will be derailed by the polarization in this country? Are you optimistic that state lawmakers will take the task force’s suggestions and take them to the finish line?

Moore: I’m optimistic but really conflicted, looking at the reality of where we’re at. [Polarization] does have potential to affect the work we’ve done so far.

I’m just going to be honest. If you saw the details that the Buffalo shooter [allegedly] had on his gun, at the butt of the rifle, it said, “Here’s your reparations.” What has been on my mind since day one is white supremacy. To white supremacists, reparations is a threat. I think of our [unpaid] task force’s safety.

A lot of people who are anti-reparations are unaware, uneducated and misinformed. We need an education campaign about [the task force’s report that shows] how California benefited from slavery, had anti-Black laws, was home to the Ku Klux Klan at one point.

At the end of this, I would like for reparations to be seen as a nonpartisan issue. It’s a human rights issue.

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