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California, Never a Slave State, Considers Reparations

Approx 10% of the US white population owned slaves. Given the US has grown through immigration since then, the number of white Americans who have ancestors that owned slaves is less than 5%*. (*Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities)


California, Never a Slave State, Considers Reparations

The commission is a sham, meant to divert attention from the failures of today’s state government.

By Will Swaim, WSJ

Dec. 23, 2022 5:17 pm ET


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 held regional public hearings and 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.


The best known may be the story of Biddy Mason, one of several slaves brought to California by a Utah farmer in 1851. When Los Angeles County Sheriff David W. Alexander learned of their presence in San Bernardino, he rode 60 miles with a mixed-race posse to free Mason and the others. Los Angeles County Judge Benjamin Hayes formally emancipated them in a subsequent trial. Mason went on to become one of Los Angeles’s wealthiest landowners, a merchant, midwife and philanthropist.


Nor does the commission explain that millions of black Americans voluntarily migrated to California. However bad it may have been, California was better for blacks than almost everywhere else. Consider the black Oklahoman who in 1923 drove to Weed, one of Northern California’s flourishing lumber towns. “Boy, I oughta been here for years back,” he told historian James Langford. “You could just almost pick your jobs when I came here. And it was a lotta, lotta black folks here.”


Political scientist Ralph Bunche (1904-71) made a good case for California and against this commission. 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.


That’s hard to square with the task force’s conclusion that “American government at all levels, including in California, has historically criminalized African Americans for the purposes of social control and to maintain an economy based on exploited Black labor.”


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 these failures: Only 10% meet math standards and about 30% achieve English competency. Yet as test scores fall, high school graduations rise. 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. Student performance has fallen with the rise of union power since the late 1970s. Spending more than $300 million on politics annually, union leaders use their political leverage to expand union power no matter the cost to poor kids. 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.


The same applies to California’s climate laws, which are broadly supported by the political establishment but financed by poor Californians who pay the price in higher transportation, energy and housing costs. Similarly, every time the state gives unions the right to manage labor, low-income Californians lose jobs and opportunity. The task force blasts overincarceration of black men but remains silent on the support of California’s police and corrections unions for the very Democrats who created the task force.


Raising the banner of social justice, California’s political establishment addresses each of these and other policy failures with new claims of racism—and new policies that further immiserate the poor. 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.


Mr. Swaim is president of the California Policy Center and a co-host of National Review’s “Radio Free California” podcast.

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