Navigating Equity: Lessons from California and New York on Reparations and Diversity Initiatives

This session focused on issues ripped from the headlines, including what is going on with Black businesses and why Black legislators should be involved, as well as how states are organizing around reparations.

NBCSL panelist Arian Simone, Co-Founder and CEO of Fearless Fund, the nation’s first venture capitalist fund built by women of color for women of color, kicked off the discussion describing the tumultuous time her company has had since August 2, 2023.

“We became an inaugural defendant in one of the most dividing lawsuits of our time,” said Simone. “We are currently being sued by the conservative legal strategists who won a Supreme Court ruling in June 2023 to cancel and overrule Affirmative Action at the collegiate level. The very next lawsuit after that victory was against my company.”

Nearly four months later and Simone still doesn’t understand how Fearless Fund ended up in this position, but she did have some thoughts around it.

“This case is about representation and everyone in this room knows representation matters,” she said. “I want everyone to be fully aware, this is the moment to sound the alarm. Any program that benefits a community of color is at stake. Any minority mandate is at stake. This is the biggest case that could cause the most destruction to the economy. This is a precedence case; in the event we were to lose then everyone loses, and if we win then everyone wins.”

“Access to capital is a true need,” added NBCSL panelist Ron Busby, Sr., President and CEO of the U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. “If you ask any small business owner what their number-one concern is, it’s access to capital. Black business owners are concerned about affordability, availability and access.”

During the early part of the pandemic, research shows 41% of all Black-owned businesses went out of business for the February to April 2020 time period. Of those that folded, 70% said the reason was because lacked information and lacked access to capital—and that’s for small amounts less than $20,000.

Sticking with numbers, Busby shared of the White House’s total $960 Billion trajectory spend, only 10–15% is projected to go to minority-owned businesses. But, the definition of minority paints a different picture. For example, Busby explained how minority communities get less than 6% of the $960 billion spend with Asian-owned businesses receiving 1.8%, Hispanic-owned businesses getting 1.71% and Black-owned businesses receiving 1.5% of that money. So where is the rest of the money going? The answer: white women business owners, who are considered part of the minority.

Busby said communication around this issue has to be intentional, transparent and accountable.

“We cannot allow other people from outside of our communities to determine who we are and what we’re advocating for,” demanded Busby. “We’ve been advocating for minority issues, and that’s why we’ve been left out. Black people were in the Black bucket, including ladies. We have been paying taxes, we vote, and hell, we pay tithes, and we still get less. So, I say we are no longer fighting for minority issues. At the U.S. Black Chamber, the only issues we fight for are Black issues.”

On August 3, the day after Fearless Fund was sued, the 8(a) Business Development Program was halted. This program was designed to help socially and economically disadvantaged business owners succeed, often opening access to bid on contracts around $20,000 or lower and others as high as $4 million. New York State Senator James Sanders, Jr., who had been moderating the panel discussion, wondered if this was all a coincidence, but Busby responded on the contrary, that it is all very strategic.

“They are instilling so much fear just by filing lawsuits. We need to go on the offensive,” implored Simone, who can count on just two hands how many people and organizations have come out in support of the Fearless Fund.

As Simone appealed to NBCSL members in the audience to create policies to defend diversity, equity and inclusion, California State Senator Steven Bradford joined the NBCSL panel discussion and said he sees inequities in contracting and business opportunities his state. A big difference, however, is that California passed proposition 209, which states that state governmental institutions are prohibited from considering race, sex, or ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education. But Bradford continues to put forth legislation to address the inequities and include African Americans.

“I’m unapologetic about it, and work to make sure African Americans have a seat at the table,” said Bradford, after explaining how Black business owners are getting less access than other minority constituents.

Bradford’s unapologetic work on behalf of Black Americans earned him a seat on the nation’s first taskforce in California created to address reparations. The nine-member taskforce released its report in stages, first in June 2022 with 500 pages that spelled out the impact of slavery. The final report was 100 pages and provided 115 recommendations on what reparations could possibly look like. In total, there are 1,600 pages with a 75-page executive summary.

“The real challenge is putting it into action and legislation,” explained Bradford. “The taskforce is going to spend the next year trying to boil it down and turn it into policies to improve people’s lives. In order to stand it up, we’ll need to create infrastructure around it so there’s a governmental agency that can implement it. But we are already hearing excuses from people saying they won’t be able to vote for reparations, which is why it’s even more critical to be very intentional about legislation moving forward. Symbology is not enough; it has to do something.

Senator Sanders of New York applauded California’s efforts. “You certainly electrified the nation and moved the conversation light years ahead from where it was,” he said. Encouraged by California, New York also began the process to create a taskforce, which sits on the governor’s desk awaiting signing.

With East and West Coast states blazing the trail, Sanders hopes to get other states into queue to start the process. He and Bradford offered some lessons to fellow NBCSL members:

  1. Before you start this journey, pray to whoever you pray to and do a lot of it.
  2. Unify and get your house in order. The topic of reparations can instill infighting among the African American community, but Sanders says “we need to reach a place of political maturity” to maintain focus on what’s at stake.
  3. Have quiet conversations. “Blacks do not live in the world by themselves, nor do we govern by ourselves,” said Sanders. Instead, he described the great need to bring in all key stakeholders and help control the narrative. Think of it as a battle and the collaboration with allies and preparation that it requires. “Build allies that don’t look like us,” agreed Bradford. “Regardless of what you may think, most people don’t want to vote for reparations. They don’t want us to have them and so we have to educate.”
  4. Study the problem. Read the work for the states and organizations that have already done the work, then propose solutions. Utilize professors and other subject matter experts.
  5. Keep the commission alive. Don’t just submit and move on because someone is going to need to be prepared to defend the work that was done. This is also where key stakeholders and allies can play a role.

Bradford reiterated the need to control the narrative. “This is not a handout or charity or something that is meant to be given to us,” he said. “It was promised to descendants of childhood slavery and it’s 160 years delayed. We have to educate people, especially those who want to turn a blind eye. We don’t tell our Jewish friends to get over the Holocaust, so stop telling Black people to get over slavery because it still impacts us every day. Business loans, freeways and urban development going through Black communities.”

He continued to encourage legislators to research their states. “I was blown away by what we found in California,” said Bradford. “We weren’t a slave state, but that was in name only. The first governor of California owned slaves.” Born to a slave in California? That child was a slave. The state also had fugitive slave laws that pertained to runaways.

Sanders reminded everyone that when the Germans were discussing reparations, only 11% of German people supported it, but now it’s 95%. In the U.S., the latest poll showed only 26% of white Americans support reparations. “Where we are now isn’t necessarily where we’ll end,” Sanders said optimistically.

Massachusetts State Senator Liz Miranda, who comes from a state with a large diaspora representation and filed a reparations bill, wanted to know how to navigate the language that describes Black people. “No doubt Blacks who come to America since then are suffering from all discriminatory policies that exist,” said Bradford, who explained that his California taskforce participated in a two-day debate around this very subject and ultimately settled on descendants of childhood slavery, since they were the original intendants of the reparations.

To tackle this urgency of equity, NBCSL member and New York State Assemblyperson Stefani Zinerman said there were so many ways fellow members can get involved. “While I was sitting here, I donated money to the Fearless Fund,” she said. “I sent a letter to the legislative corrective of the NAACP of New York that we need to have this on our legislative agenda for the upcoming session. I sent an email to the executive board members to ensure our membership is current with the Albany Black Chamber of Commerce. Look at your phone at the last 10 people you spoke to, now you should tell them about what you just heard here today. These are things we can do right now as we move forward with the large issues. We must spring into action. We are here now, and we need to act now.”