By Starlett Quarles
What are your thoughts on reparations for slavery? Do you think it should be based on someone’s lineage or simply their race?
That is the debate at hand when it comes to the California State Legislature deciding on who should be eligible to receive reparations.
Authored by California Secretary of State Shirley Weber while she was serving in the Assembly, Assembly Bill 3121 was designed to ensure that compensation for reparations be limited to Black Californians who are descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States. That is, as the daughter and granddaughter of sharecroppers, Weber authored the bill with the intent that eligibility be based on lineage instead of race.
However, proponents for race being the main determinant for reparations believe that not only did the institution of slavery extend well beyond the U.S. borders, but California shouldn’t even be in the reparations conversation since it didn’t have slaves like many other states.
But reparations activists like Tiffany Quarles, co-founder of the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants, Los Angeles, strongly believe that Black Californians should have a voice in this ongoing debate.
Due to our overwhelming disparities in wealth, health and education, not only does Quarles believe we are owed our just due from slavery, but like Weber, reparations should also be reserved for Black people whose ancestors were kidnapped, stripped of their culture, forced into chattel slavery for more than 400 years and left with nothing — not even the promised “40 acres and a mule.”
SQ: Tell me about the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants, Los Angeles.
TQ: We are reparations activists. We strongly believe that Black Americans who descend from U.S. slavery are owed a debt — from slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination. We believe that the racial wealth gap that is currently present is a result of those policies that render most Black Americans wealthless.
And so, we believe that the only way the racial wealth gap can be closed is through reparations. We’ve been formed since 2019 and [are] a grassroots organization that has been advocating for reparation at the local, state and federal levels.
We believe that federal reparations is the best way to close the racial wealth gap, but also that [bills] like AB 3121, which is done at the state level, can [help] push the federal government in the direction of paying reparations to Black Americans.
SQ: Historically, most people associate reparations with “40 acres and a mule.” Elaborate.
TQ: At the end of the Civil War, General [William] Sherman, who was one of the leaders of the Union Army, sat down with 20 leaders in the Black community. And he asked them, “What does your community want?” And they said they wanted to have land so they can basically have autonomy over their lives.
And they were told each formerly enslaved person would get “40 acres and a mule” that was signed off on by Sherman’s [Special Field Order No. 15]. However, when President Lincoln was assassinated, President Andrew Johnson, who took his place, vetoed it. So it never happened.
And that meant that formerly enslaved people were let go with no land, no resources, nothing to start their lives out with. And most were forced back into a form of semi-slavery through sharecropping and convict leasing, ultimately leading to Jim Crow which was state sponsored.
Also, other forms of plunder took place [like] gangs of white people going around taking land. Also, redlining — once Black people left the South and went to places like Los Angeles, they were redlined.
So, we’ve just seen a continual pattern of just plunder. And the “40 acres and a mule” is the foundation of reparations in this country.
SQ: But if we fast forward to today, some people would argue that we have received reparations in the form of affirmative action and scholarships for minorities.
TQ: I don’t consider those to be reparations because, first of all, affirmative action was supposed to be for Black people only. As time went on, they watered it down to include minorities, Latinos, white women. And white women have been the main beneficiaries. So it really didn’t set out to do what it was supposed to do. So I would not consider that reparations.
And scholarships, once again, they’re not targeted specifically towards us. The policies that put us in a bad position were targeted specifically. So, the repair needs to be [addressed] as well. You cannot include other groups who don’t have the same history because it doesn’t work.
That’s what we’ve seen with affirmative action and minority programs. When you include other groups, Black folks do not get their fair share.
SQ: So, what’s your argument towards those who say reparations should be based on race and not lineage?
TQ: Secretary Weber was a member of the Assembly when she wrote it, and now she’s the secretary of state. And she testified at the AB 3121 hearing that the intent was always specifically for descendants of U.S. slavery.
And we had arranged for Erwin Chemerinsky, who’s the dean at UC Berkeley Law School, to also testify that lineage is the best way to go because there’s two barriers for race — Proposition 209 here in the state, and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution at the federal level.
And both of those renders any sort of race-based policy not effective. So, lineage is the best way to go in terms of just creating specific policies into the category along the lines of something like, “Descendent of U.S. Slavery.”
SQ: There’s a decision being rendered at the end of this month on eligibility for reparations.
TQ: There’s a nine-member task force that is deciding on the community of eligibility. So that’s going back to what I said about Secretary Weber. She came in to testify about her intent for the bill.
There is a debate regarding, you know, is there a way around Proposition 209? Can we find a way to include all Black folk in the state; versus those who believe it should be lineage-based? So, the task force was supposed to vote last month on that. But you know, one of the task force members, Cheryl Grills, wanted more information because she’s coming from more of a Pan Africanist perspective. And she wanted to hear more information.
So five task force members voted to delay it [until this month]. And they will be finally answering the question.
I personally don’t believe it’s going to be the final time they’re going to discuss eligibility. But the question is, will it be lineage-based or tiered-base where you have a lineage component? And the tiers [are] to include pretty much the whole Black population. So that’s what they’re deciding- lineage-based only versus a tiered model.
SQ: Based on that decision, what happens next?
TQ: So, once they decide, the community of eligibility probably needs to be fleshed out more in terms of like, residency requirements, meaning like how long has [someone] lived in state. And other questions about fine tuning the issue of lineage.
But what [this month’s decision] would do is help them to shape the proposals. Like right now they have an economic team, with economists such as William Sandy Dairy of Duke University, who are calculating potential payments.
And there’s also an outreach arm where seven organizations have been chosen to do outreach to the community. So, the decision will shape the calculations, the proposals that are being formed, and also the outreach.
SQ: Lastly, what is it that you want the Black people to know about this effort for us to receive reparations from slavery?
TQ: Well, first of all, this is the closest we’ve been in 150 years. This is something that our community has understood that they’re owed. We all know about “40 acres and a mule.” Spike Lee kept it alive through his production company. And we’ve been trying ever since.
From Queen Mother Moore to the Black Panther Party, they all discuss reparations. And you know, I believe the Millennials and younger Gen Xers are taking up the mantle to fight this fight. And I believe this is the closest we’ve been.
And I want Black people to know that what we’re doing here in California is leading the way for federal reparations, and even influencing what’s happening with global reparations. So, it’s super important that they follow what’s going on with AB 3121.
Like I said, people around the world are watching this. The federal government is watching it because there’s House Resolution 40, which is the federal reparations bill and sort of similar to AB 3121. So, it’s important because what we’re doing here will have national and global implications.
Starlett Quarles is a Gen X Advocate, public speaker and host of the internet TV Talk Show, “The Dialogue with Starlett Quarles.” For more, please visit www.TheDialogueLA.com.