California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill confirming reparations for slavery

California became the first state in the U.S. to consider a law regarding slavery — Bill AB 3121 — on Wednesday. The state proposes to study the issues of slavery and provide amends to Black descendants of enslaved people.

Assembly member Shirley Weber of San Diego first introduced the bill to state legislators back in February. While California has historically led the country on civil rights issues, Weber believes that “we have not come to terms with our state’s ugly past that allowed slaveholding within our borders.” 

She added that Newsom’s signature on the bill demonstrates that California is dedicated to “leading the nation on confronting and addressing systemic injustice.” 

The bill calls for the initiation of a nine-member task force to provide recommendations for reparations, a formal apology and how to educate the public about the history of African Americans. It does not commit to any specific payments but rather acknowledges that there will be reparations through compensation or restitution

California’s rich diversity is our greatest asset, and we won’t turn away from this moment to make right the discrimination and disadvantages that Black Californians and people of color still face,” Newsom said on Wednesday. 

The task force created by the bill will consist of five gubernatorial appointees and four people chosen by the state legislature. The Governor is to call the task force together no later than June 1, 2021, in which the task force will then be required to deliver recommendations no later than 12 months after that date.  

The proposed law will join with two others in the state that attack structural racism and bias in the legal system by prohibiting the use of race, ethnicity and national origin to seek or obtain convictions or impose sentences. These new laws will also serve to reduce discrimination in jury selection. 

Following the death of George Floyd, Democratic lawmakers called for an initial vote on the bill to move forth with reparations. In a press release regarding the vote Newsom said, “Our painful history of slavery has evolved into structural racism and bias built into and permeating throughout our democratic and economic institutions.” 

Republicans have been critical of the concept. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared last year that he opposed the idea of reparations, arguing, “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he called America’s “original sin.”

The bill states that 4 million African people and their descendants were enslaved in the United States from 1619 to 1865, and the practice was constitutionally approved for more than 75 years. 

California’s history of slavery was not short-lived. The Gold Rush period from 1848 to 1855 served as the most prominent years of slavery in the state. Southerners brought slaves to California to work in the gold mines, stripping them of their freedom. 

In 1852, the state legislature passed the California Fugitive Slave Law, legalizing the arrest and removal of runaway enslaved Africans who arrived with their enslavers before statehood. This law allowed slaveholders to bring their slaves into the state with the mindset of eventually returning to the South. If slaveholders did not wish to return to the South, they auctioned off their slaves to the highest bidders, according to The Journal of Negro History in 1918.  

Racial discrimination has continued into modern times. For decades, White homeowners refused to live in the same districts as Black people. Issues such as school and job segregation were battled within the 1900s. 

The new California law will open more opportunities to seek justice for African Americans. Questions still arise regarding what kinds of reparations will be made and exactly who will receive them. This will be determined by the task force.