Progressive activists are focusing on past injustice at the expense of present inequality
by Joel Kotkin
From a California Remedies Task Force meeting in September. Credit: Getty
You can always count on California’s progressive contingent to mix lunacy with hypocrisy. The state’s nine-member Reparations Task Force last month recommended large state payments to the descendants of slaves now living in California.
The task force estimates compensation at around $569 billion, with $223,200 per person: Estimates of a national reparations total could exceed $14 trillion. California, never a slave state, although there were a few cases during the gold rush, is a strange place to start. Since few Californians were enslaved, the expansive policy is justified by the legacy of discrimination that followed Emancipation.
This approach ignores the reality of California’s racial history. Instead of focusing on blacks, who were never so numerous, the state’s racist passion focused primarily on Native Americans, Mexicans, and Asians. The early Spanish Franciscans compared native Californians to “sort of a monkey” and stripped them of their culture and traditions, forcing them to go to the Missions.
This was followed by expropriations and discrimination against Mexicans that led to open rebellion in the 1870s and then expulsions in the 1920s. Asian immigrants brought to work in the area were particularly mistreated, subject to discrimination. racial violence and bloody pogroms in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. By contrast, many black Americans considered California, with all its residual racism, a kind of promised land, certainly much better than the South. As Ralph Bunche noted, African Americans in California lived, comparatively, “to partake of the freedom and greatness of the Southland.”
Given this racial history, reparations for a group, based on events that began elsewhere, seems like an ideal way to further racial discord, of which we’ve had enough. As recent revelations from conversations between members of the Los Angeles City Council demonstrate, the racial harmony between Latinos, the dominant group in the state, and black citizens is less than harmonious.
Former Los Angeles City Council Latino Speaker Nury Martinez was recorded disparaging African-Americans, Jews and Armenians in a leaked audio recording that led to her resignation. The scandal that followed centered on racism: Martinez described the adopted black son of a white colleague as a “looks like a little monkeyor ‘like a monkey’. The recording, which was anonymously leaked online shortly before the election, captured a private conversation between Martinez and other powerful Latino Democrats in Los Angeles that took place at the headquarters of a powerful labor group and focused on how to bolster their power. .
Asian Americans, already more than twice the number of black Americans, and whose connection to southern slavery seems obscure at best, are upset with affirmative action policies targeting their children. They have turned more and more to the right on this issue. In heavily Asian Orange County, affirmative action measures still lost two to one, and the community seems likely to support a US Supreme Court decision outlawing racial preferences.
Most notable of all, California’s guilt trip comes even as state policies — what lawyer Jennifer Hernandez calls “the green Jim Crow” — have failed to improve the lives of most African-Americans. In a recent study of minority success by metropolitan area, we found that black Californians had some of the lowest incomes in the country, slightly below Mississippi, on a cost-adjusted basis. Their home ownership rates are well below national norms, and many have moved to more advantageous climes.
Perhaps California’s progressives should focus less on the past and more on how to improve present outcomes for the state’s diverse population. After all, it is questionable whether this policy, even if adopted, can survive legal challenges. But perhaps the biggest hurdle lies in a looming budget deficit that could hit $25 billion next year. Will other Californians be willing to tax more or watch services decline to address injustices that occurred long before most of their families came to the country, let alone the state?