Reparations Commission Fails To Get State Senate Support

Assemblywoman Michelle Solages, D-Valley Stream, discusses her legislation to create a state committee to discuss reparations.

Legislation that would establish a state committee on slavery reparations will wait another year after failing to make it out of committee in the state Senate.

The legislation (A.9435/S.7215) was passed on the final day of the state legislative session in the state Assembly by a 104-45 vote. Assemblymen Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, both voted against the legislation. The bill didn’t make it out of committee in the state Senate.

Goodell said Solages’ bill was flawed, but didn’t shut the door on future discussions on the issue of reparations.

“These are difficult issues and sensitive issues and I really appreciate my colleague, Ms. Solages, for meeting with me and working on it,” Goodell said. “I’d be happy to work on this language in the future. I would recommend we fine-tune this before moving forward. That’s why I would recommend we vote against this language but we continue an open, bipartisan dialogue to see how we can wrestle with these tough issues.”

Similar committees are being established in some other states while California earlier this spring released a 500-page document that was the result of two years of study on the issue of reparations. The document details the harms suffered by descendants of enslaved people and how federal, state and local laws, public officials and the courts were active in sustaining systemic racism in all facets of life for African Americans, despite the abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, speaks about his issues with legislation creating a state committee on reparations.

The Assembly passage came the third time the bill was introduced in the Assembly; the bill was originally proposed in the 2017-18 session by former Assembly member Charles Barron. The sponsor this session was Assemblywoman Michelle Solages, D-Valley Stream, with co-sponsorship from 37 fellow Democrats and no Republicans. The California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans recommended a long list of actions the state can take to address the racial wealth gap, including housing reforms, reducing mass incarceration, creating a state-subsidized mortgage program for qualifying African American applicants and by offering free tuition to California colleges and universities and expanding scholarship opportunities.

Goodell was the only Republican to speak on the bill on the Assembly floor. The Jamestown Republican didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand, but did raise several issues that led him to vote against A.9435. Goodell said the legislation cedes too much power to private organizations to appoint members of the commission to study the issue, with advocacy groups outnumbering political appointees. One member would be appointed by the governor and legislative majority and minority leaders, with two members then appointed by each of the following: the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, the December 12th Movement and the Institute of the Black World.

The commission should also study the idea of reparations to other groups, including the Seneca Nation of Indians, Goodell said. California is also currently studying its relationship with Native Americans. A report by the Truth and Healing Council, due in 2025, could include recommendations for reparations to Native Americans. According to the Associated Press, many tribes across the country have sought to acquire their ancestral land and co-manage public land. Goodell also said any New York study of reparations should include some accounting of the state’s Civil War history and work in the abolition movement. Goodell said on the Assembly floor that Chautauqua County sent 4,000 men to fight in the Civil War, a number that represented a substantial portion of the county’s population and of whom 25% were killed. Goodell suggested caution when it comes to asking the families of those whose family members died in the Civil War to pay compensation.

Perhaps the biggest problem, Goodell said, is that the commission’s mind has been made up before it has been approved.

“I would note that this commission starts out with a goal already set by law because it says the commission shall determine the form of compensation, the amount of compensation and who should be eligible for such compensation,” Goodell said. “The first question, I think, we need to address is whether compensation should be issued or granted or paid 150 years later and who, if anyone, should pay. If you emigrate to the United States later should you be expected to pay for the sins of the forefathers of the country?”

Solages largely dismissed that point, admitting the state did much during the Civil War before saying the state has also not done enough in its history to help its Black residents.

“New York was really on the forefront, but please, let us not forget that many a time in New York history, after slavery and during slavery, New York has been a co conspirator when we talk about it,” Solages said. “Whether it’s fugitives when fugitives came to New York they were sent back by the court’s special session in New York City, slave ships were allowed to sit in the ports of New York and they were welcome, although they couldn’t come on the land, they were welcome. Out-of-state allowed slavery, temporary visiting laws were basically enacted here. Talk about Jim Crow. I’m not going to belabor the point, because the time is long and we have a lot to do, but really this is an important piece of legislation. We need to acknowledge the harm that has been done to the black community. We need to ensure we’re coming up with information, creating a report so that the experts can come together. This is just a study. We are just studying reparations. To me, that’s the bare minimum.”

Federal legislation has been introduced every year since 1989 to create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals. That legislation has never passed. California, a state that didn’t sanction slavery, was the first state to create a task force on reparations while the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., became the first city to make reparations available to Black residents in 2021 through a $10 million housing project. Other cities have since unveiled their own reparation programs.

While California has released a study, it has run into its own set of issues. California is home to the fifth-largest Black population in the U.S., after Texas, Florida, Georgia and New York, the report said. An estimated 2.8 million Black people live in California. African Americans make up less than 6% of California’s population, although it is unclear how many are eligible for direct compensation, according to the Associated Press.

The African American reparations task force, which began meeting in June 2021, will release a comprehensive reparations plan in 2023. The California committee already voted in March to limit reparations to the descendants of African Americans living in the U.S. in the 19th century, overruling advocates who wanted to expand compensation to all Black people in the United States.


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