Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature will soon receive a sweeping set of recommended reparations for African Americans whose ancestors suffered economically from slavery and racial discrimination. Then what?
Then the governor and lawmakers will need to emerge from cover, face the public and devise a better response than we’ve been hearing: “I’m waiting for the final report of recommendations.”
The report will be sent to the state Capitol by July 1. That’s the deadline for the California Reparations Task Force — created by Newsom and legislators — to finish its two years of often-acrimonious work.
This will be a tough one for every politician and policymaker who tries to create a balance between providing some realistic semblance of justice without breaking the state bank. And there’ll be some who just flat-out think that major reparations are unreasonable but hesitate to say it publicly.
“I’m a hard ‘no,’” one influential Sacramento Democrat told me. When asked whether I could quote him, he responded: “Oh, sure, and then I’ll be called a big racist and get all kinds of crap.”
It wasn’t so much the cash reparations that bothered this person but a long wish list of other preliminary recommendations, such as enactment of a single-payer healthcare system that has been rejected twice by the Legislature.
One person willing to speak on the record was Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio, a veteran Capitol operative.
“Democrats need to tread carefully on this one,” he told me. “There needs to be an aggressive educational component about the recommendations to overcome voter skepticism that has been reflected in polling so far.”
There hasn’t been a public opinion poll on what California voters think about reparations that I know about.
But the Pew Research Center conducted a nationwide poll in November, and the response was mostly negative — 68% of adults were opposed to paying descendants of slaves in some way. Just 30% supported it.
Within racial and ethnic groups, 77% of Black people favored the idea. But only 18% of white people did, along with 39% of Latinos and 33% of Asian Americans.
For those who did favor reparations, cash was the least popular option. The most popular idea — by 82% of those surveyed — was educational scholarships.
One task force recommendation is that all state residents eligible for cash reparations be entitled to free tuition at California universities.
That certainly has merit. It could be a first step toward providing free tuition for all Californians — regardless of income — at the University of California and state university system.
Don’t dismiss that concept so quickly. Free tuition was the state’s policy for generations until the 1970s when Sacramento got cheap and the universities became greedy. Free tuition had long been a California attraction and helped provide the state with an educated workforce that built the economy.
California voters are more liberal than Americans as a whole, so they may be more receptive to reparations than most of the nation. But I suspect it will be a hard sell.
It will require strong backing from the governor, and so far he hasn’t said much. What he did say recently got him in trouble. He seemed to dismiss the idea of cash payments, an impression his office later tried to erase.
“We should continue to work as a nation to reconcile our original sin of slavery and understand how that history has shaped our country,” he said in a statement.
“Dealing with the legacy of slavery is about much more than cash payments,” Newsom said. “Many of the recommendations put forward by the task force are critical action items we’ve already been hard at work addressing … while investing billions to root out disparities and improve equity in housing, education, healthcare and beyond.”
But wait! Was he saying that reparations should be a national endeavor — spearheaded by Congress and the president — not the lone project of a state, particularly one that was not part of the Confederacy?
A lot of Californians probably would agree with that.
After all, the federal government under President Reagan in 1988 apologized for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and gave survivors $20,000 in reparations. California was probably the loudest advocate of that shameful detainment.
The task force suggested cash payments of a lot more than $20,000 for descendants of slaves. It hasn’t recommended a specific amount but has placed harm from slavery and racial discrimination from $150,000 to more than $1 million a person. So, we could be looking at tens of billions of dollars in payouts. Or more.
Good luck with that. The governor just projected a $31.5-billion budget deficit for the next fiscal year.
“I’d like to see something in this year’s budget,” says state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), a task force member and vice chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “The budget reflects our values. If it’s not in the budget, it doesn’t really exist.
“I’m totally committed to making sure this is real, not aspirational,” he says. “We’ve got to put meat on the bones.”
But he also says, “reparations shouldn’t solely be a check.”
He’d like something similar to the post-World War II GI Bill, which helped veterans buy homes. “Zero down payments for first-time homebuyers and low-interest rates. Generational wealth is passed on through property,” Bradford says.
Until the late 1960s, Black Californians — and often Latino and Asian Americans — were denied access to housing in many white neighborhoods because of racial restrictions.
When I mentioned that California was admitted to the union as a free state — not a slave state — Bradford responded: “That dog does not hunt. We were a free state in name only.”
Southerners brought their slaves to California and kept them until slavery was abolished during the Civil War. The state had no laws that made it a crime to keep someone enslaved.
Nothing brings out the worst in politicians and people like a fight over race.
The upcoming tussle at the state Capitol over reparations can have a happy ending for everyone, but only if there’s realistic compromise.