Earlier today, Chad Brown from the National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants (NAASD [pronouncedˈnæsti]) tweeted this.
In it, Chad tries to justify the California Reparations Task Force’s (approved) recommendation that ‘Black American’ be replaced with ‘African American’ in the committee’s report. This decision by the Task Force was met with zero censure or rebuke from activists like Chad, someone who has previously (on many, many, many, many, many, many, many occasions!) explicitly denounced the latter term.
And it was deserved denunciation.
After all, ‘African American’ denotes only that, as a Black person in America, either you or one of your ancestors drew their first breath of life somewhere on the world’s second-largest continent. That’s it. Doesn’t matter how you or your ancestors got here in America; doesn’t matter what happened to you or your ancestors while you were all here; nah, just check the one available box on the form please and thank you.
The implications of that catch-all identity for a group whose very survival depends on a politics that insists on the singularity and dissolubility of what their and their ancestors’ experience has in fact been in this country should be obvious. For too long now whenever that word appears in U.S. public policy it has been an open invitation to vulturize what is owed only to the descendants of American chattel slavery. And so the cry and the cause of specificity, which originated and is now carried by the #ADOS movement, became at once inviolable.
When within a small faction of that movement vanity and egotism were prioritized over a coordinated, lockstep approach to reparations advocacy, those who defected appeared to uphold that commitment to specificity (upholding it while, of course, deliberately marginalizing those who had developed its entire lexical and theoretical framework). But now, all the sudden, the inclusion of ‘African American’—a word that was once verboten—in a government-issued report purporting to make recommendations for reparations is, apparently, completely unproblematic. It comes as quite a surprise, particularly since—just a year and a half ago—Chad Brown was exhorting his 4.5k followers to “[t]hrow ‘African American’ in the trash, fam.”
To hear Chad tell it, though, despite the use of ‘African American’ throughout the Task Force’s report, the proper recipient group for reparations in the state of California is guaranteed. And that’s because, as he argues, AB 3121 “contains the language ‘AA who are descendants of persons enslaved in the US (sic).'”
In other words, according to Chad, when all is said and done, Californian lawmakers will be able to look at the category of African American in a more nuanced (that is to say, lineage-based) way and specifically (and legally!) sort out those who descend from the specific harm/institution in question. To support that claim, he references the bill whose passage a functional AB 3121 actually depends on: AB 1604.
AB 1604, as I’ve written about before, is merely this year’s re-issue of last year’s AB 105: the Upward Mobility Act of 2021. That bill—whose chief purpose was to ensure diversity among employees of California’s civil services system—included a small section that would charge state agencies with collecting data on the state’s African American population in such a way that mandated identifying discreet groups within that broad category (i.e. African Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S. as opposed to, say, African Blacks or Caribbean Blacks). That particular section was drafted by NAASD and Coalition for a Just and Equitable California (CJEC), and a chief aim of it was meant to equip the state with a legal standard for actually doing lineage-based reparations. Chris Lodgson, founding member and lead organizer for CJEC—one of the Task Force’s “anchor organizations”—put it very straight-forwardly: “The outcome of [AB 1604] is two parts. One, that when we design policy for our people, it actually has a chance to get to our people—benefits of policies actually have a chance to actually get to our people. And two, it’s gonna help us figure out who will be eligible for reparations here in Caliornia.”
And so there seems to be an assumption that AB 1604 will do the requisite legwork when it comes to establishing legal principle in the state for disaggregating African American-ness. And that peppering the race-specific term ‘African American’ throughout the Task Force’s report is ultimately nothing to fuss about. But this attitude ignores the fact that the likelihood of AB 1604 actually becoming law is virtually nonexistent. The bill’s predecessor, despite making it out of the California State Senate, was summarily vetoed by Gov. Newsom on the grounds that other sections of the bill threatened to violate existing constitutional requirements. (You can read Lodgson decry the governor’s decision to veto the bill here). There was also Newsom’s mention of the apparently exorbitant price tag carried by AB 105 , a figure in the tens of millions, which, well, if he thinks that dollar amount is prohibitive, then I absolutely want to be in the room to see him go catatonic when he sees the cost of reparations.
In sum, whatever promise AB 1604 may contain, it remains part of a compromised piece of larger legislation that is essentially concerned with providing symbolic representation in positions of civic leadership rather than the actual material uplift of the state’s poorest citizens. And without that established mandate to precisely identify those particular residents of the state, the question is, then, simply, what becomes of AB 3121? Does it become a report laden with the phrase “African American”? If that’s the case, then when it comes to who can make a claim for reparations, do you potentially have a scenario where groups other than the “descendants of chattel enslaved people living in the U.S. before the end of the 19th century” can have access to compensation? Does it not even get that far and it just remains a report on the anti-Black harms suffered by all African Americans in California?
These are questions to which I certainly don’t have answers. But there’s reason to suspect the outcome might be grim. It’s hard to see how, if state agencies cannot collect specific, lineage-based data, the initiative proceeds in a way that is both functional and true to the original legislative intent. Or who knows, maybe I’m wrong. And in a certain way—in a very real sense—I kind of fucking hope I am. Because imagining a moment wherein some of the victims of such an enduring atrocity finally receive a measure of justice is, well, it’s incredibly satisfying. I don’t think this is that moment though. And I think what happened was that people who have absolutely zero understanding of power decided to go chase a bright, shiny object instead of keeping their eye on the ball and now actual power is just having a bit of fun with them, letting them play at some kind of elaborate history report. Pride, after all, goeth before destruction; and in reparations advocacy, I think we’ll see that vanity geoth before a veto.