Excerpted From: Jessica Robertson, California Assembly Bill 3121's Claim for Black Redress: the Case for a State Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Housing Vouchers, 60 San Diego Law Review 513 (August-September, 2023) (130 Footnotes) (Full Document)

JessicaRobertson.jpegOn September 30, 2020, Assembly Bill 3121 (AB 3121) established the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans (Task Force). AB 3121 charges the Task Force with three duties: (1) identify and synthesize evidentiary documentation of “[t]he institution of slavery ... that existed within the United States and the colonies that became the United States from 1619 to 1865, inclusive”; (2) recommend ways to educate the public of its findings; and (3) recommend “appropriate remedies in consideration of the task force's findings on the matters described in this section.” Per these duties, the Task Force published an Interim Report of its findings on June 1, 2022. In its own words, the report provided a “general survey” of the harms wrought by the “badges and incidents” of slavery in the United States. At nearly 500 pages in length, the survey described many ways in which Black Americans were harmed and continue to be harmed as a result of the institution of slavery in the United States.

The Interim Report chronicled the “preliminary findings and recommendations of the Reparations Task Force,” and therefore, its contents do not constitute the Task Force's final recommendations. Nevertheless, the report failed to squarely address which model of redress it will ultimately recommend. The Task Force's failure to identify a remedial framework was surprising because AB 3121 will be repealed on July 1, 2023. With less than nine months left to formulate its final recommendations, the Task Force must begin exploring remedial models.

In this Article, I argue that the Task Force should frame its remedial recommendations within a slightly modified version of Professor Roy Brooks's “atonement model.” Using this framework, I suggest the Task Force propose reparations that take the form of (1) the establishment of a state-sanctioned truth and reconciliation commission (TRC); and (2) monetary compensation for rent, mortgage, or utility payments, i.e., housing vouchers. Specifically, one function of the TRC would be to monitor the effectiveness of the compensatory reparations and to modify them as necessary. I contend that the coupling of a TRC and housing vouchers would best achieve the goal of racial reconciliation in California.

Seeing as AB 3121 is the first bill of its kind in the United States, it is imperative that the Task Force draft its final recommendations with surgical precision. If AB 3121's reparative program is successful in California, it could potentially transform race relations across the United States.

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Under the framework of the atonement model less the forgiveness requirement, the Task Force should ultimately recommend that the legislature (1) make a formal apology for the State of California's culpability in the institution of slavery in the United States; (2) establish a state-wide truth and reconciliation commission; and (3) institute the ten recommendations under the “Housing Segregation” chapter of the Interim Report in addition to issuing housing vouchers. These measures will have a bigger and more immediate impact in achieving racial reconciliation than any other remedial program.

Instituting these recommendations will not end racial inequality in California. Even so, the Task Force should not be discouraged from acting. As Paul Gready once wrote, “The ideal makes way for the possible, although it never stops asking the possible for more.”

Jessica Robertson. J.D. 2023, University of San Diego School of Law.