A push for reparations in Sonoma County

In the nationwide reckoning with racism and race relations that followed the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, cities, counties and states across the country moved to explore whether and how to make reparations to Black Americans for slavery and subsequent generations of wrongs. Local activists are advocating for such considerations in Sonoma County.|

In the convulsive nationwide reckoning with racism and race relations that followed the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, cities, counties and states across the U.S. moved to explore whether and how to make reparations to Black Americans for slavery and subsequent generations of wrongs.

Those efforts have taken a variety of shapes from Boston to Washtenaw County, Michigan, to California, where, in 2020, a nine-member Reparations Task Force was charged with exploring how the state might make amends for harms inflicted on Black people in the Golden State.

Last June, it published a report detailing ways in which Black people, from slavery on, have been harmed nationally and in the state.

The task force’s 492-page interim report focuses on 12 areas of damage committed against Black Americans that include political power, housing segregation, environmental policies, law enforcement and economic opportunity.

Kirstyne Lange and D’mitra Smith of the Santa Rosa-Sonoma County NAACP chapter have been working to highlight for the state group how those same forces have for generations impacted Black residents of Sonoma County.

“If you look at the way (the task force) is parsing this out into different areas such as education, housing, health care, etc., if we look at the ways in which Black people have been denied generational wealth ... we find that throughout all the systems in Sonoma County,” said Smith, second vice president of the NAACP chapter and a former chairperson of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights.

The task force’s official role ― its final report is due this summer ― is to advise state legislators about what types of reparations they could adopt, said its chairperson, Kamilah Moore, an attorney and reparations expert.

That foretells a political ballet of will, headwinds and calculation with an uncertain outcome.

But task force members hope the report will set the stage for widespread further action, Moore said.

“It's so important that the task force gets this right because we hope that it sets a precedent, not only for other states to atone for the particular state-sanctioned atrocities in their individual states, but we hope it sets a precedent for the federal level ... and pushes the federal government to act sooner rather than later,” Moore said.

A small community

To be Black in Sonoma County is to belong to a small community: Approximately 13,500 people in 2021, including those who are biracial or multiracial and both U.S.-born and foreign-born people, according to the U.S. Census, or just under 3% of the county’s population.

For that reason, it has at times been overlooked.

“One thing that (the task force) realized this far into the process was that as a part of the advocacy for some of the more marginalized Black communities across the state, unfortunately, Sonoma County fell off the radar,” said Lange, president of the local NAACP chapter.

Since then, Lange said, she and Smith have tried “to bring forward to the task force ... how might we continue to have this conversation to honor the legacy of (enslaved people) who were brought (to Sonoma County) by those who founded the community in the county and to understand the larger systemic impacts.”

Their hope ― and intention ― is that, as other jurisdictions have done, Sonoma County will undertake its own official effort to atone for and repair the wrongs committed against Black people here.

“We're talking about the generational effects of the harms of slavery and the legacy of discrimination and oppression and Jim Crow and all of these things and our versions of that stuff in the North,” Smith said.

She added: “And we now have the evidence of that generational harm.”

Smith was referring to data ― contained in “A Portrait of Sonoma County 2021,” a report commissioned by the county and published in January 2022 ― that show Black Sonoma County residents have life spans three years shorter on average than their counterparts statewide and 10 years shorter than white county residents, along with other disparities in areas ranging from housing to education.

The state task force’s interim report does not address local reparation efforts, but it does pack in six pages of preliminary recommendations ― including zero-interest business loans, housing grants, free tuition to state universities and free health care programs.

Lange and Smith said Sonoma County should pursue similar initiatives of its own accord.

Waiting on the task force

But whether the county can or would undertake its own reparations program is something that, for him, would perhaps hinge on what comes of the state task force’s work, said Chris Coursey, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

"My bottom line,” Coursey said, “is to let the process play out at the state level to see what they come up with, then decide how or whether we need to build upon that work at the local level.”

He said: “I’m generally supportive of the concept of reparations, and I recognize the systemic racism that deprived certain people of significant generational economic opportunity in this country for the last 400 years. How we fix that is a question that will take a long time to answer.”

Damion Square, of Santa Rosa, founder of event promotion group Decolonized Mindz, has suspended his faith in the prospect of reparations coming to pass on a state or national level. “The chances are the same as they were 100 years ago, 200 years ago,” he said. “It’s nothing African Americans should hold their breath for.”

And yet his experience being supported locally as a Black recording artist, who sings about “social ills, and racism and poverty,“ leaves Square with the belief that Sonoma County might be fertile ground for a substantive effort to undertake a reparations program of some sort.

“I've always said that Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, is a very special place,” he said.

”I feel like in my heart of hearts that the white folks here are very well meaning, meaning that a lot of them, for the most part, want the best, whether that’s for Black Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans. They want the best. They might just not know the history or the means to get there. But they're willing to have the conversation.

“So I feel like Sonoma County is a perfect place for Black folks and particularly Black Americans to come together and begin that conversation and maybe present something to the white community, to see what can be done,” he said.

‘A moral obligation’

The Sonoma County Office of Equity was established in 2020 shortly after George Floyd’s murder.

Its director, Alegria De La Cruz, said this month that her experience over the past 2½ years gives her hope about how a discussion about reparations in Sonoma County might develop.

As people with whom her office interacts learn more about how racism ― from slavery on ― has shaped the lives of Black Americans in Sonoma County, “their first question is, what can I do? What can we do,” De La Cruz said. She added that the smaller size of the county’s Black population could be advantageous to efforts to remedy wrongs.

“It makes it possible for us to do something meaningful,” De La Cruz said.

“We know who they are and we can choose to exist in that space in a really different way than we can in a much larger jurisdiction, for example. These are our friends, our neighbors, our students, our employees. And I think once we sit in community in that way in Sonoma County, so much more becomes possible.”

It’s necessary, Lange said.

“Aside from what this task force ultimately recommends,” she said, “the county and the municipal governments within it, the cities and the county structure, they have a moral obligation, in my opinion, to reckon with this data and to work with us to come up with some of those solutions or get behind some of the initiatives we've proposed.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 707-387-2960 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay.

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