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California, never a slave state, considers reparations

Poor people—including poor black people—have it hard in California. An honest assessment of the causes would require the Golden State’s political establishment to admit that its attempts to address enduring poverty have been catastrophic for low-income Californians.

Instead, Californians got a state reparations commission that time-traveled to the 19th century and discovered that slavery is the real reason for enduring black poverty. To settle accounts, the commission has determined that California taxpayers owe each of their black neighbors $223,000. The state Legislature, which created the task force, will take up that proposal in a few weeks.

Established in 2020, the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans has been busy. It has produced a sprawling report: a collection of actual outrages against black people, specious theories about racism, and purposeful confusions of state and U.S. history. Reading its 500 pages is like listening to Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” played on a kazoo.

Detailing the report’s shortcomings would take another 500 pages. Begin with this: Slavery in what’s now California was banned under Mexican authority in 1837. California joined the union in 1850 as a free state. The panel briefly acknowledges this only to dismiss it, lingering instead on the 1852 passage of the California Fugitive Slave Act, under which 13 people were deported from the state. The commission briefly mentions that the reviled law lapsed three years after being passed but doesn’t mention the numerous cases of white California officials—sheriffs, judges, attorneys and others—who discovered and liberated enslaved people.

Nor does the commission explain that millions of black Americans voluntarily migrated to California. 

Political scientist Ralph Bunche (1904-71) made a good case for California. A black man raised in South Central Los Angeles, Bunche held degrees from the University of California, Los Angeles, Harvard and the London School of Economics. In 1950, he became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner of African descent for his work as a United Nations mediator in the Middle East.

In a speech at UCLA in the late 1920s, Bunche told the story of a black Texan “who had been in a virtual state of slavery to his Southern boss. By careful saving he was able to take a short trip to Los Angeles and partake of the freedom and the grandeur of the Southland, and more particularly the pure liberty of our own Central Avenue.” That man would never be the same, Bunche said. He might return to the South, but he had seen the promised land.

The real challenge to black and other poor Californians is bad government. Take the state’s execrable public education system. California ranks dead last in the nation in literacy. Black children are the most brutalized by these failures: Only 10% meet math standards and about 30% achieve English competency. Denied a real education, many of these children will qualify only for low-level jobs and government assistance.

The commission calls this a “school-to-prison pipeline” and blames slavery. Yet California’s public schools are run by the commission’s ideological allies, chiefly the teachers unions. They oppose as racist any program that might free children to pursue a good education—vouchers, home schooling, public charter schools, even transfers between districts.

Confronted with their failures, the establishment has now come to the bottom of the barrel of excuses: Blame slavery, punish those who didn’t engage in it and reward those who didn’t suffer from it directly.

In California, the answer to the failures of progressivism is always more progressivism.

This article was released by the California Policy Center.