Column: Cash payments for slavery reparations may not fly

The idea of reparations for Black Americans to make up for the nation’s history of discrimination and slavery has always been controversial.

Perhaps never more so than now in California.

The state’s reparations task force has all but wrapped up its two years of work. As expected, the panel’s recommendations could lead to large payments to some individuals.

Advertisement

Predictably, that prospect has been met with opposition from people who are concerned about the size of the potential payments — as much as $1.2 million under some calculations — but also question whether any sum is warranted.

This story is for subscribers

We offer subscribers exclusive access to our best journalism.
Thank you for your support.

But the notion of direct cash payments has run into trouble in unexpected quarters: officials who support the idea of reparations and created the task force.

This includes Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic legislators and even some members of the panel, who have spent the last week attempting to lower expectations of individual payouts, or at least large ones.

That actually shouldn’t be too surprising. In general, it’s not unusual for the steam behind ideals to run out when the concept runs into a difficult reality.

California’s finances and politics are different than when Newsom signed a bill carried by then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, that established the task force, the first of its kind in the nation.

The state was looking at a budget surplus that would quickly grow to around $100 billion. California currently is facing a $31.5 billion shortfall.

The bill by Weber, now California’s secretary of state, was approved in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

That incident and other deaths of Black people during encounters with police triggered protests, calls for reforms in law enforcement and renewed efforts to right the wrongs of systematic discrimination.

But support for the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged at the time faded, according to polls, and demands on the left to “defund police” faced a backlash.

Regardless of those dynamics, the quest for reparations related to slavery has long been a tough one. Proposals in Congress have stalled for decades.

None of this is to say that the California task force recommendations issued last weekend will be shelved by the Legislature and governor, who can adopt, alter or jettison them. But some players clearly are uneasy about the key proposal.

“Dealing with that legacy is about much more than cash payments,” Newsom said Tuesday. “Many of the recommendations put forward by the task force are critical action items we’ve already been hard at work addressing.”

That made national news and was widely interpreted that the Democratic governor was cool to cash reparations and possibly outright opposed.

His office scrambled the next day to say Newsom had not ruled out individual payments and would reserve judgment until he reviews the task force’s full report. The panel has a July 1 deadline to deliver its recommendations.

Earlier, many legislators warily followed the task force’s progress, especially after initial estimates that reparations could cost the state hundreds of billions of dollars. There is no specific price tag on the recommendations released last weekend because the payments would depend on various factors.

Only a dozen Assembly members voted against the Weber task force bill, while 58 voted in favor of it.

Last month, Wendy Fry of CalMatters conducted an informal poll of the 80 Assembly members about whether they supported the task force’s work. Three said they did and the rest did not respond.

Task force member Steven Bradford, a Democratic state senator from Los Angeles County, is doubtful direct payments will survive in the Legislature.

“I’ve tried to temper people’s expectations that it might not be a check,” he told reporters Wednesday. “I’m realistic enough to know that we might not have colleagues who are willing to do that.”

Politico recently noted that when presenting the task force legislation in 2020, Weber said, “This bill does not take a position on the form that reparations should take.”

Beyond financial and political concerns, there may be other impediments. Legal experts told SFGate that, depending on how reparations are structured, a court could determine the state is giving preferential treatment to one race over another — which would violate the Equal Protection Clause.

Critics of reparations have pointed out that California entered the union in 1850 as a “free state,” where slavery was banned by the state constitution.

However, the state passed the Fugitive Slave Law that allowed runaway enslaved people to be detained and sent back to their “owners” in Southern states. In determining proposed reparations, the task force delved into decades of eye-opening and sometimes buried history of discriminatory practices in California.

There has been some grousing on the task force that too much focus has been placed on individual payments, particularly in the media. The recommendations call for “cash or its equivalent.”

Reparations supporters suggest that could mean long-term investments in housing, jobs, education and health care targeted to improve the lives of Black residents. The task force recommendations also call for the creation of a reparations agency, Black studies courses in K-12 schools, a public apology from the state acknowledging responsibility for past wrongs and other measures.

But the task force itself put a lot of emphasis on individual payments. The panel established detailed calculations about how much residents could receive, based on whether a person’s ancestors were enslaved, what racial harm they may have experienced and how long they have lived in California.

For example, the payment for having faced overpolicing of Black communities would be $2,300 per person per year. There are also cost breakdowns for housing discrimination, devaluation of businesses and more.

That’s how certain lifelong Black residents could be owed some $1.2 million if the task force recommendations are adopted as is.

But the way the wind is blowing, that seems unlikely.

Tweet of the Week

Goes to Jesse O’Sullivan (@OSullivanJesse), referring to his comments at a San Diego Planning Commission meeting.

“I did the math. The mortgage on an ordinary single family home in University City costs more than my entire salary. We need more homes.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *