If California‘s Legislative Black Caucus has its way, the nation’s most populous state could soon pass reparations policies. Members of the Caucus have launched a statewide campaign to elicit support for 14 reparations bills the group has proposed, covering everything from prison labor to affirmative action.

Ending forced prison labor, restoring affirmative action and more

Several members of the Black Caucus appeared Saturday at an event in San Diego, the first of several planned visits to major cities in the state. The legislators are promoting 14 bills the group has proposed to fight the lingering impact of racism and continuing racial disparities in the state. The proposals include two California Constitution amendments that the Black lawmakers hope to include on November’s ballot. One amendment would ban forced prison labor, the last vestige of slavery, which is still allowed due to clauses in the California Constitution and the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment would ban prisons from punishing inmates who refused to work while allowing incarcerated individuals to work voluntarily and receive pay or benefits for their labor.

A second constitutional amendment would legalize affirmative action policies, which were banned in California by an amendment that passed in 1996. The other 12 proposals from the Black Caucus seek to implement policies to lessen the racial gaps in education, food security and violence. The bills also seek to return property that was taken by the state using eminent domain, particularly in cases where racial bias factored into such dispossessions. The legislators have also proposed that California formally apologize for slavery. While the proposals have been met with opposition from Republicans and even some Democrats in the legislature, members of the Black Caucus are optimistic about their chances to get some or all of their bills passed.

Reparations movement grows in California and nationwide

The proposals are meant to enact policies proposed by the state’s reparations task force, which was created in 2020 to explore potential remedies for the legacy of slavery as well as continuing racial inequities in the state. The task force issued its final report on June 29, 2023, and legislators, including members of the Black Caucus, have worked to transform those recommendations into law.

If successful, the California reparations program could be the largest in the nation and add to a growing number of state and local-level reparations efforts across the country. Beginning with Evanston, Illinois, cities such as San Francisco and Chicago have proposed or explored reparations, as have states such as New York. Some private institutions, such as churches and universities that benefited from slavery, have also proposed or implemented reparations programs, and the national push for federal reparations legislation continues even as it faces opposition in Congress.

The movement for reparations has been long and difficult. While Congress may still be far from implementing a comprehensive program to address the impact of slavery and racism, several governments and entities throughout the country have made significant progress, and California’s proposed legislation could be a huge step forward for the movement.