Aug 10, 2022 - Politics & Policy

California sets precedent by breaking down Black employee data by lineage

Photo of a California state flag flying on a pole next to the American flag

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

California has become the first in the nation to require state agencies to include a separate category for descendants of enslaved people in its collection of employee data.

Why it matters: Advocates say the data disaggregation will help identify and address long-held inequities within Black communities. Many descendants see it as a model for other states — and the federal government — to follow.

How it happened: Descendants of enslaved people have said for years that disaggregating data to specify a category for descendants would benefit the community and enable more targeted services.

  • Organizers took a page out of Asian American advocates' book after seeing their successful effort to push the state to break down different ethnic groups in health data collection.
  • The bill was initially introduced by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D) but was ultimately folded into the state budget and signed into law this year. The language in the budget directs state agencies to implement the mandate by 2024.

No one is denying that Black people at large are marginalized in America, said Chris Lodgson, lead organizer of the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California. But the kind of historical oppression he faces as a descendant has different consequences than the inequities more recent immigrants face, he added.

  • A 2016 study found that in Los Angeles, the median net worth for a Black descendant of enslaved people is $4,000 compared to $72,000 for a recent immigrant from the African continent.
  • The new disaggregation mandate would help identify disparities in income, health outcomes, career growth and state agencies' leadership, among other things. It'd also allow the state to set aside specific benefits or programs as redress, Lodgson said.
  • "You can't fix a problem until you see it, until you acknowledge it," Lodgson told Axios.

What they're saying: "My people have been here for 400 years," said Lodgson, adding that it's a "shame that we don't have a name."

  • "One of the things that is core to any group's existence is their identity," Lodgson noted. "When we use these big broad categories called Black or African American, not only do we hide the differences between the different groups ... [it also] prevents us from even being able to do anything about any of those differences."
  • California's move, which recognizes descendants as a distinct group with distinct needs, "is a first step" toward being able to pursue any redress, he added.

The big picture: The mandate is especially important in light of the work spearheaded by the state's first-in-the-nation task force on reparations, which is finalizing its second report after releasing an interim report on the state's systematic abuse of Black people.

  • Though the matter is contested among Black communities — some say it's an issue of lineage and not race, while others say white supremacy does not differentiate between different "kinds" of Black people — the task force ultimately decided to limit eligibility for state compensation to Black Americans whose ancestors were free or enslaved Black people in the U.S. in the 1800s.
  • "We can talk about giving reparations to the descendants of slaves, but you have to first find out who they are — have a sensible, objective way of identifying who they are," task force chair Kamilah Moore told Axios. "That's where data disaggregation comes in."

What to watch: "We are looking ... to expand this here in the state of California. Also, this is a model for states and hopefully for the federal government," Lodgson said, emphasizing that descendants should have their own category in the U.S. census.

  • "The next two censuses, there definitely will be disaggregated data for the Black African racial group, not just a write-in," Moore predicted. "That's why the California law is significant. It's setting precedent."
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