California’s Black legislators make case for reparations bills while launching statewide tour

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 Several members of California’s Legislative Black Caucus launched a statewide tour in San Diego Saturday to promote a slate of 14 reparations bills, including a measure that could change the state constitution to end forced prison labor.

That measure and several others designed to mitigate the effects of racism and slavery will face important legislative deadlines in the next two weeks.

Caucus members and other reparations proponents said they will hold similar State of Black California community listening sessions events in six cities over the next five months.

The Black Caucus’ 14 reparations bills tackle education, business, criminal justice, health care and civil rights, and include two proposed constitutional amendments that they hope to place before voters in November.

One of the amendments, ACA 8, would ban one of the last vestiges of slavery: forced labor in jails and prisons.

The California Constitution and the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime. That exception has enabled corrections facilities to require inmates to work for little or no pay.

Many states have ended those requirements. California is among 16 states that allow it due to exceptions in state constitutions, although Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont voters have removed it from theirs.

An effort to stop forced inmate labor in California failed to make it out of the legislature in 2022.

Ending slavery in any form

Assemblymember Lori Wilson, a Democrat from Suisun City, proposed an updated initiative that asks voters to affirm that “slavery in any form is prohibited,” but language was recently struck from her proposal that spelled out what that statement meant.

The language now says a prison or jail “shall not punish” an incarcerated person for refusing a work assignment, and it notes that a prison or jail can still reward a prisoner for voluntarily working, such as giving them credit and reducing their sentence.

The bill does not address the issue of cash payment, such as requiring that inmates be paid a minimum wage. In 2022, the California Department of Finance estimated it would cost the state $1.5 billion to pay prisoners the state’s minimum wage.

At the panel discussion Saturday, Assemblymember Corey Jackson, a Moreno Valley Democrat, said the proposal’s softened language was a deliberate choice to make the bill more palatable to voters by proposing incremental changes.

Polls that tested variations of the ballot initiative found higher support for a simplified version, he said.

“Of course, we also know that when you make something more simplistic you are watering down its effectiveness,” he said.

If voters approve it, a partial victory would be better than none and would set the stage for subsequent amendments with similar goals, he said.

“We need to chip away at it, rather than do a total elimination” of forced prison labor, Jackson said later in an interview with CalMatters.

The bill to place the proposed amendment on the ballot must first pass the state Senate’s Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee on June 18 and then the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 24, in order to meet a June 27 deadline to finalize ballot measures.

There could still be changes during its final hearings, the legislators said.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, an Inglewood Democrat who also spoke at the event, said he’s pushing for a stronger version.

“It’s quite clear we want to eliminate involuntary servitude in California,” he said. “Anything less than that is falling short of the objective.”

Seeking a subtle balance

Wilson told CalMatters in a telephone interview that the changes don’t weaken the bill, but there may be more small language revisions.

“The first line is a very bold statement, that slavery is prohibited,” she said. “We all started with what we as legislators agreed to, as well as what we think voters agreed to.”

Voters believed prisoners should work during their sentences, Wilson said, though most agreed they should not be forced to work when they are ill or when a work shift conflicts with a rehabilitation program.

The debate over forced prison labor illustrates the subtle balance that Black Caucus members must often strike to turn the recommendations of the state’s Reparations Task Force into policies.

California became the first state in the country to form a reparations task force three years ago and the first to introduce a comprehensive reparations package of more than 100 recommendations last year.

Several cities, including San Francisco and Evanston, Ill., have proposed their own compensation programs for descendants of slaves or victims of racism, often with pushback. A recent lawsuit challenging reparations for Evanston’s Black residents gives a preview of the political and financial opposition California’s efforts likely will face.

Some Black California legislators noted that Republican colleagues have pledged to vote against reparations bills and some Democrats also have expressed reservations.

Nevertheless, the Black lawmakers said they will continue trying to build support for their reparations bills through the listening tour and by starting with modest measures that could serve as proof of concept.

“We want to make sure we have some wins we can build up to,” Jackson said at the event. “People need to know that when you do things on reparations the state isn’t going to fall apart. As a matter of fact, it’s going to improve the state overall.”

What would be reparations benefits?

In addition to the ballot initiative to restrict prison labor, another proposed constitutional amendment, authored by Jackson, would counteract Proposition 209, the 1996 measure that banned preferential treatment and affirmative action.

Jackson’s initiative, ACA 7, would authorize the state to pay for programs designed to improve life expectancy and educational outcomes of “groups based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, or marginalized genders, sexes, or sexual orientations.”

The Black Caucus’s other priority reparations bills would expand educational assistance, address food insecurity, prevent community violence, restore property taken through race-based use of eminent domain, and draft a formal apology for California’s role in slavery.

If reparations measures succeed, the benefits for California could offset their costs, because more disadvantaged Californians would be contributing to its economy instead of dropping out of school or landing in prison, said sociologist Manuel Pastor, director of USC’s Equity Research Institute.

“When you have this level of over-incarceration, you are throwing away talent,” he said. “When you have this low level of education you are short-changing productivity in the future. So equity is everyone’s business.”

He pointed to figures showing Black Californians earning less than White counterparts, even with the same education levels. Moreover, those disparities worsened between 1990 and 2021.

“At each and every level of education there is a wage penalty for being Black or Latino,” Pastor said.

Those gaps contribute to what he called “asset stripping” of Black people and families, creating social and economic shortfalls that snowball over generations.

“People asked, why would I want reparations, why would I want to upset the apple cart?” said Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who created the state Reparations Task Force when she was an Assemblymember in 2020. “We need reparations to restore us to a healthy state.”

The next community listening session is scheduled in Santa Barbara on July 13.

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