Stateline — State bills seem designed to ignite conversation about systemic racial injustices at a time when the nation is sharply divided over issues of race. Like the federal bill currently being considered in the U.S. House, the state measures would create commissions to study reparations and propose solutions.
For example, New York Democrats in January introduced bills in both the General Assembly and the state Senate that would create a commission to study reparations and racial and economic discrimination against African Americans. The bills would also acknowledge “the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the city of New York and the state of New York.” New York state Sen. James Sanders, Jr., the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, declined Stateline’s request for comment. State Assemblyman Charles Barron, who introduced that chamber’s bill, did not respond.
California Democrats introduced two measures this year. One, which both the state Assembly and Senate approved overwhelmingly, was a resolution acknowledging California’s role in chattel slavery and recognizing “the need to pursue avenues to implement proposed reparations for the descendants of African slaves in the United States.”
A second resolution, introduced in June, would formally apologize for California’s “past complicity in slavery” and encourage Congress to enact the federal reparations bill. That resolution is currently in committee.
California state Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican who voted against the pending resolution, said: “Certainly slavery is a grievous injustice in our country’s history that we absolutely as a country need to recognize and apologize for.”
But reparations are the wrong approach, he said. “It’s a typical Democratic solution. Let’s figure out how to allocate more taxpayer dollars and throw more money at something, but it doesn’t necessarily get at the root issues.”
State lawmakers’ efforts recognize the complexity of slavery’s history and repercussions, said Cornell Brooks, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and former president of the NAACP.
Brooks and a team of researchers at the Kennedy School have been asked by a New Jersey advocacy organization to craft a reparations bill for that state. If successful, the team hopes to replicate those efforts in other states, Brooks said.
“We need a morally ambitious strategy, but on a state and local-sized platform,” Brooks said. “To just relegate the responsibility to Congress ignores the role of state capitols and city halls in slavery.”
It makes sense for states, in addition to the federal government, to address reparations because even non-slave-states benefitted from the institution, said Vermont state Rep. Brian Cina, a member of the Progressive Party who sponsored the Vermont bill.
“It’s easy for people to say we didn’t have slaves in Vermont, but were you buying cotton from the South? Tobacco?” said Cina, who identifies as multiracial.
Vermont, which is now nearly 95% White, in 1777 became the first state to outlaw adult slavery. The partial ban applied to adults over 21.
Cina said he introduced the legislation at the prodding of a local racial justice group. As a Brown-skinned person of color, he says he’s not sure of his ancestry because his mother was adopted. He said he’d been harassed by police, so he felt a kinship with the struggles of African Americans. And Vermont’s tiny Black population still struggles under the legacy of slavery today, he said.
His bill, which is in committee, would create a task force to consider a state apology for slavery and develop a proposal for reparations.