Our neighbors to the west are about to embark on a giant political and socio-economic experiment to put money behind the movement that launched the 2020 summer of protest.
California is one of a dozen states that now aim to address historic wrongs against African Americans through a massive transfer of wealth to Black communities.
Momentum for reparations drew strength from the gale-force winds created by the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd. That outrage has led to progressive Democrats across America pushing reparations in cities, states and in Congress.
Reparations has always been a hard sell, but the Black Lives Matter movement has given it new impetus, and Democrats committed to social justice say the time is now.
They are walking on precarious ground.
Reparations could cost California billions
The political fight they are courting in one of our bluest states may not bring the outcome they’re anticipating. In fact, it’s hard to see how it can at the levels of compensation they are now envisioning.
A defeat for reparations in the nation’s most populous and diverse state could deliver a serious blow to the movement nationally and strike a death knell to the identity politics Democrats have practiced for decades.
In the Golden State, the push for reparations began anew in 2020 when its progressive governor, Gavin Newsom, created the Reparation Task Force.
That nine-member panel has been crisscrossing the state gathering data, and will present its report with a proposed call for action to the California Legislature next year.
PR or atonement?Catholic Jesuits confess their participation in slavery
This past week, the task force released its estimates for compensation owed Black Californians for housing discrimination practices from 1933 to 1977. That potential price tag is $569 billion or $223,200 per person, The New York Times reports.
Expensive. And on first impressions, a massive overreach.
But housing discrimination is only one price tag. The task force is considering four other areas of cash compensation: mass incarceration, unjust property seizures, devaluation of Black businesses and health care, The New York Times reports.
Before we even know these additional price tags, The Times is calling California’s reparations project “the nation’s most ambitious effort so far to compensate for the economic legacy of slavery and racism.”
Its diversity could be a major roadblock
California would seem the ideal political climate to test such a proposal. Democrats have dominated the state for decades, and the Republican Party there is a spent force.
Further, California is the most diverse state in the country, with no race or ethnic group constituting a majority, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. California’s population is 40.2% Latino, 35.2% white, 16.4% Asian American or Pacific Islander, 6.5% Black and 1.7% Native American or Alaska Natives, the U.S. Census reports.
Asians, not Latinos, are now the fastest-growing ethnic group in the state, according to the U.S. Census.
But the numbers suggest California could become a serious roadblock to the concept of government paying marginalized groups for historic wrongs.
Reparations are deeply unpopular in America, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey. Sixty-eight percent of all Americans oppose them, while only 30% have expressed support.
African Americans favor reparations by 77% to 17%, according to the Pew survey. But other groups, including white (18% to 80%), Hispanic (39% to 58%) and Asian Americans (33% to 65%), are strongly opposed.
State lacks cash to fight today’s problems
With such opposition from other larger ethnic groups and with Blacks underrepresented in the state (6.5% of the California population vs. 13.6% nationally), blue state California may become a bulwark against reparations and the identity politics that inform it.
In fact, only two years ago, Californians overwhelmingly defeated ballot Proposition 16 that would have allowed the state and local governments to use race and gender as factors in public college admissions, government jobs and contracting.
The outcome wasn’t close. The so-called affirmative action proposition went down by a margin of 57% to 43% despite proponents outspending opponents by 14 to 1. Golden State voters did this in the same year they were voting for Joe Biden for president, 64% to 34%.
The problem isn’t that Americans don’t recognize the historic evils of slavery and Jim Crow. Those are undeniable facts and represent some of the most important history we need to pass on to our children. Mankind should never forget its capacity for cruelty and repression, especially on a large scale.
The problem is that we live in an age of limited resources when we can’t afford to address all the problems of the present, let alone the past.
California currently faces a $25 billion budget deficit. “Tax revenues have fallen short of projections every month this fiscal year, and layoffs at marquee tech companies like Lyft, Meta and Twitter have heightened economic pessimism throughout the state,” Politico reports.
Many economists are predicting 2023 will bring recession. That coupled with today’s inflation could greatly challenge government treasuries.
What happens when identity politics collide
When the summer protests of 2020 grew larger and at times descended into violence in the nation’s biggest cities, many Americans wanted to understand the political philosophy driving them. That movement can be hard to understand. It is multi-pronged and amorphous. There is no central leadership.
It goes by different names, “wokeness,” “social justice,” “Black Lives Matter,” and its critics call it “the successor ideology.” It existed before George Floyd’s death and has begun to develop the more distinct outlines of a cause with aspirations and demands.
It is built upon liberal identity politics and is informed by “intersectionality,” an analytical framework that looks at how identity based on discrimination or oppression can overlap, so that a gay Black woman faces more obstacles in society than a straight white man.
In a recent podcast titled “The Woke Reformation”, Niall Ferguson, a Stanford and Harvard economist and historian, said he believes woke-ism seems destined to fall.
“I sense that part of the problem with the woke project is that it is inherently divisive,” Ferguson said. “Intersectionality ultimately pits different minority groups against one another, because there is a kind of hierarchy of victimhood.”
Ferguson’s observation is more than theoretical. You can see it in the reader reaction to The New York Times story on California reparations. The competing interests of the Democratic Party and its identity politics are colliding in The Times story chat.
You can see it in readers’ reactions
Understand that New York Times readership is 91% “Democrat or leaning Democrat,” according to a 2019 survey from the Pew Research Center, but most of the comments on California reparations were negative, arguing they would either go too far or not far enough. Few spoke favorably of the effort.
Here are some of the comments:
“You forget to mention the … Latinos, whose country used to own Cali before the US of A appropriated it, do they have to pay?”
“What about reparations for Native Americans, who lost so much land and were subjected to genocide?”
“I wish California would also compensate the many hundreds of thousands of Asians and their American-born descendants – primarily Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos – who came to California to work and make a better life but were cheated out of property, good schooling, jobs, and in some cases their lives.”
“Let’s have reparations for women of all colors, religions, and ages who have been paid less for the same work of a man.”
“Me and my brothers and sisters are 3rd generation Americans born here long after the Civil War. Our great grandparents came here from Europe and Czarist Russia in the late 1800s. They came here penniless not owning slaves. Now you’re telling us our children and grandchildren must pay for wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow laws of the South. That is as wrong as slavery. It is egregious.”
Why California could end identity politics
“This kind of woke nonsense makes me sick, and just FYI, I am not a Republican.”
“It is pursuing policies like this that help the Democrats lose elections. We need for Congressional Democrats (outside of California) to be bold enough to speak out against this effort for reparations. With sensitivity to the Black community, of course.”
“And now the GOP, Fox News and the right-wing Internet ecosystem has its latest, greatest culture-war wedge issue. The GOP will successfully use this to distract millions of poor, working class, and middle-class voters from focusing on the superiority of Democratic economic policies.”
For Democrats, the takeaway is this:
Pursue this massive transfer of wealth, use it to redress evils of the past at the expense of today’s inadequately funded schools and roads and health care, and you may soon find that California is not the promised land for reparations and identity politics.
It is where they go to die.