Assemblywoman Shirley Weber speaks at Voice of San Diego’s 15th Anniversary event. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber speaks at Voice of San Diego’s 15th Anniversary event. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

The California Constitution banned slavery in 1850 but did not prohibit slaveowners from other parts of the country from bringing their human property into the Golden State. Lawmakers, in fact, passed the Fugitive Slave Act two years after statehood, creating a legal mechanism for the return of slaves to their owners.

By upholding slavery as an institution elsewhere, one could argue — and indeed many are arguing in Sacramento right now — that state and local authorities in the mid-19th century were complicit in evil.

“California was a free state in name only,” said Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, in favor of AB 3121 at a Thursday hearing.

Written by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the bill would establish an eight-member committee to study the lingering effects of slavery on Black Californians and make reparation recommendations for its descendants. AB 3121 is one of several bills that the Legislative Black Caucus is championing after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the civil demonstrations locally.

At a press conference in June, Weber said the country was experiencing a “pandemic of hate.” One day earlier, Gov. Gavin Newsom had told a Black church that the responsibility for the unrest fell on public institutions.

Supporters of Weber’s bill argue that the abolition of slavery in the United States did not lead to the freedom of Black Americans, as it’s generally understood in schools. An analysis prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee offers today’s lawmakers a primer on the violent history of Jim Crow, forced labor and the sharecropper system as well as segregation and policing.

“Where African Americans were able to accumulate land, white Americans often stole that land with impunity, using methods ranging from abuse of the legal system to … outright terrorism,” it reads.

The analysis also makes the case that government intervention in the 20th century was skewed toward the White middle class. By excluding agricultural and domestic workers, the New Deal excluded many Blacks. The GI Bill should have helped, but banks refused to lend and colleges refused to accept. Forcing communities of color to pay higher interest rates on mortgage loans meant many Blacks were unable to amass generational wealth.

Speaking on Weber’s behalf, Bradford made these points and others Thursday and found a receptive audience at the Senate Judiciary Committee, which voted 7-1 to advance the measure. The bill has already passed the Assembly and goes next to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The no vote came from Sen. Melissa Melendez, a Republican from southwest Riverside County, who made no comments during the nearly two-hour hearing.

Sen. Andreas Borgeas, a Republican from Fresno, sat out the vote but signaled support for the bill during the hearing. He said he’s in favor of efforts to examine the lingering effects of the Greek-Armenian genocide by the Turkish people in the early 20th Century.

But he recommended that the eight members of the commission— who will be appointed by the governor and the leaders of the Assembly and Senate, all Democrats — include an array of political perspectives.

“I’m scared that if the composition isn’t altered, it won’t be as good as it should be,” Borgeas said. “It’ll also ignite partisan passions.”

As written, though, Weber’s bill requires that “each appointing authority shall appoint not more than two members from the same political party.”

Bradford, who’s a co-author, said the commission should be made up of people with historical and legal knowledge of reparations across the world, so that the government-sanctioned wrongs of the past and present in California are given the opportunity for redress.

“What you’ve all agreed to is a history lesson,” he said. “It’s badly needed.”

The Latest AB 5 Fight

Not more than a few days go by without a new AB 5 scuffle, and this week it emerged from the frenzied discussion over how parents and schools will operate without in-person schooling.

San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate published a plan this week outlining a number of ideas ranging from outdoor schooling to families for homeschooling.

Because the City Council doesn’t have a direct role in education policy or state law, many of his ideas would require the Legislature, governor or school board to make them happen.

That includes his proposal for “a temporary moratorium on the mandates of CA AB 5 for contract work related to childcare and education.”

Cate clarified that he’s not seeking to suspend AB 5 as a whole, but would hope to exempt education and childcare workers, which would require an act of legislation. He said he’s just in the beginning stages of having conversations with legislators about whether such a move is possible. Because the deadline to introduce new bills has already passed, it would require taking an existing bill, removing its language, and replacing it with new language to exempt certain workers from AB 5 – a process known as “gut and amend.”

“I know the cards are stacked against us,” Cate said. “I understand the law is out of the city’s control and we get that, but we are going to do our due diligence on our end.”

But Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who wrote AB 5, said such a move isn’t even necessary – and wouldn’t be prudent even if such workers were subject to the law.

“AB 5 does not prevent a family, or a group of families, from contracting directly with a teacher or tutor. However, employment requirements for workers coming into your home are in the state and federal tax codes that pre-date AB 5 by decades,” she said in an email. “Councilman Cate should familiarize himself with the laws that govern household employees. Suspending AB 5 with regard to the countless educators currently being hired by businesses and non-profits to work through this pandemic, leaving such workers without workers compensation, paid sick leave and future unemployment benefits, would be highly irresponsible.”

Different versions of this same dilemma have emerged throughout the pandemic: Businesses and Republican lawmakers argue AB 5 is too burdensome in a period in which thousands of workers need work; Democrats argue that the pandemic underscores the need for paid sick leave and other worker protections.

Though she’s not likely to introduce the type of AB 5 exemptions Cate is seeking, Gonzalez has a bill to add further exemptions and clarifications to the law currently moving through the Legislature.

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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