Francis Wilkinson: Reparations alone won't achieve racial justice

Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

California is attempting to reckon with its history of racial oppression and violence and produce justice, in the form of reparations, from the bitter fruit. If the state succeeds in its reckoning it will be an enormous public service. If it should actually succeed in dispensing justice it might be something more like a miracle.

The Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans was created by an act of the California legislature in 2020. Though a final report to the legislature isn’t due until July, the task force, which functions with assistance from the state Department of Justice, has produced more than 100 preliminary recommendations for “future deliberation.” The suggestions range from making official apologies to implementing a “detailed program of reparations for African Americans.”

The details are pending, but Bloomberg News reported recently that one model under consideration “suggests the state would owe a total of almost $640 billion to 1.8 million Black Californians with an ancestor enslaved in the US, which works out to roughly $360,000 per person.” Where the state would get $640 billion, almost three times its general fund this year, is uncertain, but without wildly creative financing, it would almost certainly come from the state’s wealthiest residents, who are also disproportionately White.

It's of course notable that California, which had perhaps 1,500 slaves in 1852, is leading the way toward reparations; it’s one mark of how fraught the project will be. While California digs up the past and searches for paths to justice, the former slaveocracy — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and others — appears more concerned with whitewashing American history, which has proved to have too much blood in it for contemporary conservative political tastes.

Like the former slave states, however, California was also an industrial-scale destroyer of native populations. In addition, the state punished early Asian immigrants for their existence. California passed Alien Land Laws in the early 20th century, for example, to prevent Asians from owning land, and many California Whites were as vigorous in discriminating against Asians as they were at subjugating Blacks.

The U.S. government paid more than $1.6 billion in reparations to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II. But other victims of intolerance and oppression have received nothing. The equity of reparations to one targeted group in a state that brutalized others will no doubt be a subject of public debate after the final report is delivered.

Claudio Saunt, a historian at the University of Georgia, noted that contemporary American Indians are too few in number — around 5 million — to generate great political pressure for reparations. In addition, Saunt said in an email, “each of the 574 federally recognized ‘Tribal entities’ (as the Bureau of Indian Affairs calls them) has a formal nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government, and each one of those nations has its own history with the United States.” Thus negotiations would have to be conducted separately with each recognized tribe.

Even among Black Americans, the path to equity and justice is anything but a straight line. Bruce’s Beach was a Black-owned beachfront in Manhattan Beach, south of Los Angeles, that was taken a century ago through eminent domain in order to remove Blacks from the area. Los Angeles County last year returned the property to heirs of the Black family that had owned it, then agreed earlier this year to buy back the property for $20 million. It’s an isolated case of reparations, having no direct connection to slavery. But there are many descendants, of many other Bruces, in California and elsewhere, who will never be similarly compensated.

About 34 miles south of Bruce’s Beach was the Pacific Beach Club, another short-lived, Black-owned California resort, constructed on a seven-acre stretch of Pacific coast in Huntington Beach. “Weeks before the grand opening, slated for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1926, a blaze tore through the unfinished structures and left the resort in ruins,” writes Andrew Kahrl in “The Land Was Ours,” his history of Black beach resorts during the long reign of racial terrorism.


The arson attack succeeded in scuttling the project; local Whites soon took over the beach. How much future wealth was forfeited when Black investors were burned out of seven acres of Orange County beachfront? How would such a debt — the byproduct of racial terrorism — ever be repaid? In a reparations plan directed to descendants of slaves, it wouldn’t be.

Any accounting of reparations owed will necessarily be inexact. Any effort to summon the political will to deliver real money to people will produce misgivings about fiscal realities and social equities along with a vicious backlash among the legion of White Americans for whom racial resentment is a mainstay of political and social life.

In a Pew Research Center poll last fall, only 18% of whites supported reparations for descendants of enslaved people, while 77% of Blacks did. Those numbers explain why reparations remain such a piecemeal project. In one novel effort, the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, has offered Black residents money for property costs, including repairs. But slavery wasn’t a local institution. It was endorsed, and enforced, by the national government and financed in New York and Boston, places where it was banned.

Reparations is an issue that benefits a minority at the expense of the majority — a classic tough political sell even in California. To alter its prospects nationally would likely require an enormous effort to educate more Americans about the realities not just of slavery but of the century of brutal apartheid that succeeded it. That’s precisely the type of education that conservative governors such as Ron DeSantis of Florida are fighting to keep under wraps. Hyperventilating about “woke” schools makes for more palatable politics than acknowledging that ignorance is a policy objective.



Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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