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A discussion on reparations: California and beyond

How to go from talk to action?

Berkeley Conversations

Last fall, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill establishing the nation’s first task force to study and make recommendations on reparations for slavery. Bolstered by the Black Lives Matter movement and the national reckoning with police brutality sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, the idea of reparations is getting a fresh look across the country, too.

But how to go from talk to action? And how to answer some of the critical questions, including who should be eligible, and what type of payment would be best?

On Thursday, five academics probed the many facets of the debate in the latest installment of UC Berkeley’s livestreamed Berkeley Conversations, agreeing that this is a moment worth seizing to begin to repair the nation’s inequalities. The event was sponsored by Berkeley Law, at the suggestion of the school’s Staff Circle on Anti-Racism, and moderated by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

“I think it’s hard to actually ground this question of money until we know what it is we are trying to achieve. What’s the goal of reparations, and who would be the recipients?” asked Berkeley Law professor john a. powell, the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion and director of the Othering & Belonging Institute. “There has clearly been a set of injuries. It’s not as clear who the perpetrators of those injuries are, who benefited from those injuries and, therefore, who should pay.”

The narrow approach, he said, would award cash payments to the descendants of slaves, for the injury of slavery. But there are injuries to other groups as well, including Native Americans, and there was also a global slave trade, raising the question of whether a reparations program should be international.

Also on the panel were professor Charles Henry, of the Department of African American Studies; professor Jovan Scott Lewis, of the Department of Geography; Cecilia Cissell Lucas, from the Interdisciplinary Social Science Program; and New York University professor Michael Ralph.

Henry outlined other points in American history when reparations were broached. The discussion has come in cycles, he said, from the post-Civil War “40 acres and a mule” program and the push to grant pensions to those who had been enslaved around the turn of the 20th century to more recent efforts made to compensate descendants of those killed in the 1923 massacre in Rosewood, Florida. He thinks we may be in another such cycle.

“I think part of that is due to the overt white nationalism of the Trump administration, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, and on the quite obvious racial injustice in the United States,” he said.

Reparations don’t have to be just money, Henry noted. Lewis outlined one rogue operation that functioned as a type of reparation: Young Jamaican men who fleeced wealthy white people in an award scam.

“In other words, the debt can move,” said Lewis, who’s written a book about the operation.

Lucas discussed current efforts at the local level, and the benefits of starting there.

“The more we continue to do this, the more we create the terrain where more meaningful legislative changes become possible,” she said.

Speaking last, powell emphasized that social change has to go beyond a cash payment.
Slavery created a system that perpetuates inequality, he said, and that system would reproduce itself within a generation without more significant actions.

“Unless we actually figure out a way to make the structure of America function very differently, if we’re just giving people money — even if it’s $14 trillion — that might change some things,” powell said. “But I don’t think it would change everything.”