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California: Reparations for What?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

California has been part of the United States of America for 170 years. And if there is one thing that the Golden State hasn’t been noted for during all this time, it’s slavery. That hasn’t stopped its legislature from passing, or Governor Gavin Newsom from signing, a bill to explore ways of compensating descendants of black slaves. Predictably, supporters see the law as a model for other states and the nation.

On September 30, Governor Newsom signed AB 3121, which will create a nine-member task force to explore ways in which Californians – certain Californians anyway – could be forced or otherwise “encouraged” to provide reparations to black residents. The State Senate had approved the bill in August by a 33-3 margin after the General Assembly had passed it by a likewise lopsided 60-14 in June. Displaying a gift for sophistry, Newsom defended the measure as “a paradigm that we hope will be resonant all across the United States.” In other words, whites need to pay up – as if they don’t already have enough reasons to leave the state. 

The law is the first of its kind in the U.S. But given how black activists have been pressuring presidential candidates, Congress and the legislatures to go this route, it may not be the last. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, for one, is a believer. “There is a study being suggested by a former presidential candidate and a guy who’s a friend of mine from New Jersey (Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.), saying we should study reparations and make a judgment (as to) what they should be and what they should do,” Biden said on February 28, 2020, during a campaign stop in Spartanburg, S.C. “I support that study. Let’s see where that takes us.”

We already know where this would take us. Slavery reparations -- as I explained at length in a monograph published this June by National Legal and Policy Center, “Slavery Reparations: Revival of a Bad Idea,” and in an editorial later that month for Town Hall -- would amount to extortion rationalized by social justice rhetoric. Any settlement would run into the trillions. Robert L. Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and former majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, for one, recently called for $14 trillion in reparations.

Aside from mandating outlandish sums of money, any reparations plan would be blatantly unconstitutional, singling out a classification of persons for liability solely on the basis of their race. In other words, if a given white individual hasn’t committed any injustice against blacks, he is assumed to be a material beneficiary of generations of white-on-black injustice anyway and thus liable for damages. This claptrap, known in academic parlance as “white skin privilege,” enjoys widespread cache, and not just in faculty lounges. Virtually every major corporation in the country has incorporated it into their “diversity” training and metrics.

A growing number of state governments, from Pennsylvania to Vermont, have considered reparations. California has gone furthest. 

The driving force behind the reparations campaign in California is Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who also chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus. Brimming with self-righteousness, she declared, “California has come to terms with many of its issues, but it has yet to come to terms with its role in slavery.” But how big of a role? California was admitted to the Union as a free state, part of the Compromise of 1850. The state outlawed slavery from the start, though with an exception for slaveholders bringing in slaves from somewhere else. Yet even taking that exception into account, there doesn’t seem to be much to go on. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the state’s Census population was 380,000, or a little over one percent of the nation.

More damning is the law’s root assumption that white wealth, however earned, is inherently tainted. It’s as if achieving wealth has nothing to do with skill, character, intelligence, risk-taking, foresight and luck. The notion that our country was built on the back of slaves is absurd. If anything, as respected economic historians such as Robert Higgs and Jeffrey Hummel have shown, slavery actually held back economic growth, especially in the South. It was no coincidence that America’s economic takeoff period occurred after the Civil War and passage of the 13th Amendment.  

Such considerations are now moot in California. AB 3121 is now law. Governor Newsom, whose greasy elegance recalls Michael Douglas’ “Gordon Gekko” character in the movie Wall Street, poured on the clichés: “As a nation, we can only truly thrive when every one of us has the opportunity to thrive. Our painful history of slavery has evolved into structural racism and bias built into and permeating throughout our democratic and economic institutions.”

The reparations commission, whose membership must reflect the interests of “communities of color,” is guaranteed to go beyond studying. Though its members haven’t been named, each is almost guaranteed to be a political hack with an ax to grind. A call for reparations isn’t a question of “if” but “how much.”

Congress, led by the late Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., continuously has put similar “study commission” legislation (H.R. 40) on its plate since 1989. If Joe Biden is elected president, and Democrats form a majority in the House and the Senate, our nation is likely to follow California’s example. These are troubled times indeed.

Carl F. Horowitz is senior fellow at the National Legal and Policy Center, a Falls Church, Va.-based nonprofit group dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in American public life.

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