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Black Californians discuss the possibility of reparations in their state

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

AB-3121 is a bit of an unassuming title for an incredibly complex effort in California. It's the bill that created a task force to study reparations for slavery in the state. Right now, the task force is preparing the first in a series of reports. It will look at the impact of racism on Black Americans. Lisa Holder is a task force member and civil rights attorney.

LISA HOLDER: So it's a report that looks at inequity in employment, in health care, in housing, in wealth accumulation starting from the inception of the slave economy all the way up to the present.

SHAPIRO: The report's release in June will be the next milestone for the task force. The most recent milestone has come with a lot of contention.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All Black people in California should receive reparations 'cause they were judged by...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let's not strip away the humanity of freedmen by making their history and culture a prop for every one, quote-unquote, "African person."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: How are we confused on who should receive this repair?

SHAPIRO: After a series of public hearings, the task force voted in March 5-4 to exclude some Black residents. Only those who can trace their lineage to enslaved or freed Black people in the U.S. before the end of the 19th century will be eligible for reparations. We wanted to hear how some Black Californians are feeling about the plan now.

TAIWO KUJICHAGULIA-SEITU: My name is Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu, and under the current plan, I would be eligible.

DERIKA DENELL GIBSON: My name is Derika Denell Gibson, and I am eligible under the current AB-3121 eligibility motion.

KAELYN SABAL-WILSON: My name is Kaelyn Sabal-Wilson, and under the current plan, I would be ineligible.

SHAPIRO: My co-host Ailsa Chang sat down with this group to talk about California's reparations plan as it stands, starting with how the history of slavery impacts each of their lives today.

KUJICHAGULIA-SEITU: I can get a DNA test and trace my ancestry back on these shores, but I can't necessarily say where in Nigeria or Benin or Mali my ancestors are from. Our families were literally torn apart. And I'm doing the piecework now of trying to put that puzzle back together. But were it not for enslavement or colonization, I wouldn't have to do all that footwork.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Yeah. What about you, Derika? And I do realize I'm asking an enormous question, but how do you still feel, in your everyday life, the legacy of enslavement?

GIBSON: I know that I can draw a line starting from today all the way back to Reconstruction and slavery given the inhumane treatment that we've sustained that's been allowed and, in some cases, amplified. We can look at the current homeownership or the lack of Black homeownership and businesses and so forth.

CHANG: What about you, Kaelyn? - because, you know, your family has roots in Trinidad and Belize, but you were born here in the U.S. And I'm curious, and this may be the key question in this debate about who is entitled to reparations in the state of California. Do you think that you as an individual - that you are impacted differently by the legacy of racism and slavery in this country compared to someone whose ancestors were enslaved or freed in the U.S.?

SABAL-WILSON: Yes. I think that I have a very different reference point and experience. Much like Taiwo was mentioning, being able to sort of trace your lineage - I can trace my family in Trinidad. I can trace my family in Belize. I can sort of get back to some of those connections that have been severed and lost by bondage and by slavery.

CHANG: I want to talk specifically about the criteria that the task force in California laid out. They decided that only Black Californians who are descendants of enslaved Black people or descendants of freed Black people living in the U.S. prior to the end of the 19th century - that only those Black Californians will be eligible for reparations. How does that set of criteria sit with each of you?

GIBSON: I believe that reparations is only owed to African Americans who descend from persons enslaved in the United States.

CHANG: So what do you say to the argument that all Black people in this country are suffering at some level from the layers of impacts that flowed out of slavery regardless of whether their descendants were enslaved or freed during the 19th century?

GIBSON: I do believe that all people who were considered Black peoples in the United States have been subjugated to some type of inhumane treatment. However, in terms of reparations, as defined, it is a very distinctive repair for a specific group that has a unique and specific history here in this country.

CHANG: Well, let me turn to Kaelyn. I mean, listening to Derika lay out her argument, do you believe that, when it comes to specifically reparations from the state of California - that there should be a distinction among Black Californians?

SABAL-WILSON: I agree with Derika. I think that makes sense. And looking at the specific parameters of reparations as a whole, like, considering this experience, absolutely I agree.

CHANG: So you feel fine, as a Black Californian, not being entitled to reparations from the state of California at this moment. You're OK with that.

SABAL-WILSON: I feel that I am not owed anything in this particular context. I am OK with some of us getting something in what we are owed than for none of us to get anything.

CHANG: Yeah. What about you, Taiwo? Do you think that this distinction the task force is drawing is a fair one?

KUJICHAGULIA-SEITU: I'm going to say that, within this context, it is an understandable one. If it's about trying to pinpoint who is owed what and make it a process that is formulaic, I think the primary concern with some people is that this decision should not be prohibitive for people who cannot trace their family history due to lack of resources or due to lack of information.

CHANG: I want to ask each of you, what would it ultimately mean to you and to your families if you were to receive reparations?

KUJICHAGULIA-SEITU: This is Taiwo. For me, it would mean an opportunity to build wealth, to leave a positive net worth for my children. My oldest daughter is a senior in high school this year - to be able to actually pay for her to go to college so she doesn't have to, you know, have student loan debt like I do because my parents couldn't afford for me to go to college, right? So it would mean a lot in terms of setting us up economically, financially, some financial stability.

CHANG: Kaelyn.

SABAL-WILSON: I think for me personally, it would be about the ability and the sustainability to thrive rather than to just survive. I think that ultimately, because of the ways in which Black people have been left out of the wealth ladder and have been left out of the economic sector and even have been left out of the health care system, to just be able to exist freely would be what it would mean for me.

CHANG: What about you, Derika?

GIBSON: Reparations would be - it means everything to me. Reparations would mean that I would be able to not only receive and collect what my great-great-grams and those before them - what they were denied and to also be able to have an inheritance and have something to pass down to my children thereafter in addition to being made fully American because, you know, given the gravity of wealth extraction and inhumane subjugation, reparations means living a full American life and living the life that my ancestors were not able to live and not just freely but purely.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURNA'S "DUCKY")

SHAPIRO: That was Derika Denell Gibson, Kaelyn Sabal-Wilson and Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu in conversation with Ailsa Chang.

(SOUNDBITE OF TURNA'S "DUCKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.