September 21, 2023

Reparations Won’t Repair Much

By Stephen Tuttle | May 27, 2023

Reparations for Black Americans is an idea as old as the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery in 1865. General William Sherman wanted to appropriate 400,000 acres of former slave owners’ land and, with Field Order 15, provide former slave families with 40 acres of “tillable” land.

(There was no mention of a mule in Sherman’s order, but when many former slaves were given an army mule, the order came to be known as “40 acres and a mule.”)

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, new President Andrew Johnson rescinded Field Order 15, and former slaves received nothing. Reparations have been discussed ever since.

California is the first state to seriously address the issue and the first to include some version of a price tag. Their Reparations Task Force has made a series of preliminary recommendations, including a one-time payment of slightly more than $1 million to any person who can establish they’ve lived in California for at least six months and can prove they are a direct descendant of slaves or free Black people. They also recommend a new government agency to validate and then process and administer claims, new anti-racist government programs, several policy changes, and a long list of necessary apologies.

The Task Force estimates the total cost will be about $800 billion, which is quite a stretch for a state already wrestling with a $32 billion deficit.

That’s not quite enough for folks in San Francisco discussing their own reparations program. They’re recommending $5 million per local Black resident—plus a guaranteed annual income, plus a house for $1, plus no tax obligations—a plan some estimate would cost the cash-strapped city $100 billion, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Why is California leading the reparations discussions? After all, they were admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850. Unfortunately, they didn’t much act like a free state. They enacted no laws protecting Black citizens and enforced the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to grab any of their “property” that had managed to escape. Their first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, was a white supremacist who had grown up in a slave-owning family in Missouri and brought the same attitude with him to California.

But reparations are a slippery slope for California. According to the 2020 census, only five percent of their population is Black, while 39 percent are Latino, 35 percent are white, and 15 percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders.

We’ve already paid some reparations to Japanese Americans and their descendants for the outrageous and wholly unconstitutional World War II internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. But California has not addressed their treatment of Chinese laborers. The U.S. gladly employed them in the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the mines and in building railroad lines but then discarded them almost entirely.

Laws prevented them from becoming citizens, from owning land or property, and, in 1858, the California legislature passed laws making it illegal for anyone of Chinese or Mongolian ancestry to immigrate to or live in the state. The practical result was it became illegal to even be a Chinese person. California’s state supreme court struck down those laws in 1862, but it was a little late by then.

There are also indigenous tribes whose land was taken and then Spanish-speaking people, mostly from Mexico, who were given large land grants only to have them usurped by English-speaking gold rushers and others. Black Americans aren’t the only group in California intentionally disadvantaged over time.

California’s recommendations are peanuts compared to federal reparations suggested by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo) and others. They’d like the feds to compensate Black Americans not just for slavery but also for Jim Crow laws that led to discrimination in housing, voting rights, unfair policing, and racially-based laws, and sentencing disparities. Bush and her congressional allies figure something around $14 trillion should do the trick.

Reparations, if we could afford them, will financially help some who have been intentionally marginalized since our country was born, but they won’t repair or end racism.

The latest example of how far we have to go comes to us from Florida, where the first African slaves were brought to North America in 1526. Florida still celebrates Confederate History Month, and, according to ABC 7 Southwest Florida, a pro-Confederacy teacher at Manatee Middle School in Collier County created and narrated his own video extolling the “...countless sacrifices by our men and women during that known as the Civil War but may be more correctly titled the War to Prevent Southern Independence...” He also taught about “slavery and property rights,” and bemoaned a “variety of violations of state’s rights and sovereignty...”

The school district said the video violated no policies. And the beat goes on.


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