State's slavery reparations task force must be realistic — plan won't sell if it lacks credibility
A hint of greed may be seeping into the public perception of California's first-and-only-in-thenation slavery Reparations Task Force.
Plenty of ideas the commission has floated might win easy acceptance among this state's mostly liberal voters. The group was created in 2020 through a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
There is general understanding that centuries of slavery, with literacy punishable by death, families frequently sold apart and slave quarters often more like doghouses than even primitive shanties, still handicaps Black Americans 160 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. However, little or none of that occurred in California, which entered the union as a free state in 1850.
Legacies of slavery do remain in this state, though, where 6.5% of the populace, or more than 2.5 million people, identify as Black. The Reparations Task Force lists five types of harm inflicted on former slaves and their descendants: unjust taking of properties, devaluation of Black businesses, housing discrimination, mass incarceration and negative health effects. One concrete example of harm is that 20% of foster children in California are Black, triple the Black share of the state's population.
Four economic consultants to the task force suggested payments of $223,000 to each Black Californian descended from slaves. That would aim to compensate for what they called “generational wealth” long denied to most Black Americans. A current qualifying family of four could net almost $900,000 if the state OKs that sum, for a total cost in the billions of dollars.
Any such reparation would need approval, though, from a Legislature elected by voters who never owned slaves. So a word of caution to the task force: Ask too much and you might get nothing.
At commission meetings, there has been no shortage of demands. Example: “How should reparations be paid?” shouted the activist Rev. Tony Pierce during a December session in San Diego. “Immediately!” came the answer.
Another speaker pronounced that the recommended $223,000 per person is insufficient, while another demanded $350,000.
Yet another wanted “direct cash payments, tax-exempt status, free college education, grants for homeownership, business grants (and) access to low- to no-interest business funding.”
Demands like those for people who never themselves experienced slavery stand a good chance of alienating other Californians by projecting an aura of materialism and entitlement.
Other types of reparations, however, would likely get a sympathetic reception from lawmakers and voters. Because Blacks on average disproportionately live near facilities known to create health risks, including freeways and oil fields, one form of reparation might be free health insurance for a substantial time span.
Because slaves were denied literacy and education, perhaps their descendants should get preference in public university and college admissions or at least reduced tuition and fees. There could also be a free tutoring program for eligible Black students, in order to close the state's longstanding racial academic achievement gap.
Some task force members acknowledge that forms of reparations other than money might find much more legislative support than cash payments and yield as much long-term benefit.
Aware that monetary recommendations from the task force could provoke opposition, Democratic Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, of Los Angeles, a task force member, observed that policy change and not cash “is the meat of what we're really trying to do … ultimately, 99% of (our) recommendations will be the ones that we'll be able to enact or to budget for a lot easier than (financial) compensation. (The aim) is to stop the ongoing harms of chattel slavery.”
Guessing how the mass of voters might react to any proposed reparations is pure speculation too, since California was never a slave state. Then there's the question of whether descendants of Holocaust survivors and indigenous Mexicans and Central Americans dispossessed and often enslaved by Spanish colonists, among others, ought to get similar state reparations, even though most wrongs done to their forebears occurred outside California, just like slavery.
Voters with non-Black ethnic backgrounds might also wonder why California should provide reparations while no former slave state is even considering them. All of which means that if there's the slightest hint of greed or punishment of modern Californians for misdeeds by other people in other places, rather than merely seeking to right a huge historic wrong, very little that this task force recommends will go anywhere.