3 Reparations Bills Miss Chance to Help All Californians

3 Reparations Bills Miss Chance to Help All Californians

State Sen. Steven Bradford speaks at the National Urban League California Legislative Advocacy Day event in Sacramento, Calif., on March 13, 2024. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for National Urban League)

John Seiler

John Seiler


Updated: 5/29/2024


On May 21, the California Senate passed three bills on reparations for black slavery. The bills were recommended by the state’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The Task Force was created by Assembly Bill 3121, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in 2020.
All three bills are by state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), the vice chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, who recently announced he’s running for lieutenant governor in 2026.
I’ve written extensively on reparations and have urged the actions to be constructive, not destructive—especially because the state of California never even had slavery. And it was on the Union side in the Civil War.
Senate Bill 1403 passed the Senate 30 to 7. In the bill’s language, it “would establish the California American Freedmen Affairs Agency ... to implement the recommendations of the Task Force.” The agency would “determine how an individual’s status as a descendant would be confirmed” and “require proof of an individual’s descendant status to be a qualifying criterion for benefits authorized by the state for descendants.” The agency would “be comprised of a Genealogy Office and an Office of Legal Affairs.”
If enacted, this would be an incredibly divisive action, not just between California’s black and non-black residents, but among black Californians. DNA tests can determine the percentage of African ancestry. But would those with a higher percentage get more benefits than those with a lower percentage?

Eminent Domain Reparations

Senate Bill 1050 passed 32–4. It concerns the Office of Legal Affairs, which would be established by SB 1403 in the California American Freedmen Affairs Agency. It would “review, investigate, and make certain determinations regarding applications from persons who claim they are the rightful owner, as defined, of property taken as a result of racially motivated eminent domain.”
This bill at least is grounded in a real harm, the abuse of eminent domain. But such abuse is not limited to black Californians, but property owners of all races and backgrounds. Indeed, it is a national problem, as described two decades ago in “Abuse Of Power: How The Government Misuses Eminent Domain,” by Steven Greenhut. He currently is resident senior fellow and Western region director of state affairs at R Street, a public policy think tank.
Eminent domain is supposed to be used only for a specific government purpose, such as building a school, road, or military base. It’s abused when used to benefit private groups. As an example of abuse, perfectly decent residential and business districts were declared “blighted,” eminent domain then was used to seize the property, which then was given to politically connected developers for large new developments. Often the compensation given the original owners was below market rates, forcing the victims into expensive lawsuits.
Such abuse of eminent domain unfortunately was allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2005 decision Kelo v. City of New London. In 2007, the nonprofit organization Institute for Justice produced a study, “Victimizing the Vulnerable,” about such abuse. It noted the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “traditionally had been limited to taking property for unambiguous public uses, such as schools or courthouses.
“In their dissents, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas not only pilloried the five justices in the majority for this expansion of so-called ‘public use,’ but also predicted dire consequences as a result of the decision: Poor, minority and other historically disenfranchised and comparably powerless communities would be disproportionately hurt through eminent domain abuse.”
In California, eminent domain’s main abuse came from redevelopment agencies until they were dissolved in 2012. These agencies excused their seizing of private property under the pretext the “redevelopment” would produce higher tax receipts for local governments.
The problem with SB 1050 is the taxpayers of the state would have to pay for recompensing only victims of “racially motivated eminent domain.” But what of other victims? And why should those who had no part in the abuse of eminent domain have to pay for the reparations?
A better idea would have been to strengthen the ban on redevelopment agencies, which keep coming back like the monster in a horror movie. Perhaps a constitutional amendment banning redevelopment should be considered.
As Mr. Greenhut wrote a year ago, “Although it recently died in committee, a new Assembly bill (AB 1476) would have brought back redevelopment agencies almost exactly as they previously existed – despite their history of eminent-domain abuse, the harm they caused the state budget, the way they distorted local land-use decisions and their excessive debt. After only a dozen years, some lawmakers apparently forgot all the relevant lessons.”
And he noted in 2021 Gov. Gavin Newsom “signed Senate Bill 796 to return land to the descendants of a Black Manhattan Beach couple whose resort property was seized in 1929 for transparently racist reasons. That obviously predated the state’s redevelopment agencies, but it reminds us of the abuses inherent in the eminent-domain process. Lawmakers need to remember the history of Bruce’s Beach before they give cities more land-grabbing powers.”

Reparations Fund

Senate Bill 1331 passed with a vote of 30–7. It “would establish the Fund for Reparations and Reparative Justice in the State Treasury for the purpose of funding policies approved by the Legislature and the Governor that address the harm that the State of California has caused to descendants of an African American chattel enslaved person or descendants of a free Black person living in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century.”
The bill assumes there actually will be money for the fund, even though that’s unlikely to happen. And it assumes SB 1403 somehow would fairly determine, based on DNA or plantation records, who is eligible for compensation, and how much would be paid.

Another Missed Opportunity

California’s many problems affect not just the state’s black people, 5.66 percent of the population, per the 2020 U.S. Census, but 100 percent of its 39 million residents. Indeed, black residents have been among those must harmed by the state’s failures to provide housing at a reasonable cost and decent schools for all the state’s children.
Calmatters reported in April, “For the first time in decades, California’s Black population decreased, from 2.2 million people in 2000 to 2.1 million now. Also Black Californians have moved away from urban centers to places like the Inland Empire and Sacramento.
“Why? Researchers cite the impacts of gentrification and high housing costs, which have stalled the economic progress of Black Californians.”
Instead of pursuing impossible “reparations” for wrongs done to black people in other states 150 years and more ago, the Legislature ought to be spending its efforts helping everybody.
John Seiler

John Seiler


John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. Mr. Seiler has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary for California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at JohnSeiler.Substack.com and his email is writejohnseiler@gmail.com

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