Opinion: Reparations — resurrection volatile historic issues
One year after California created America’s first official task force on reparations for Black slavery, every question remains open: Will there be reparations and if so, what shape should they take and who should pay them?
Of course, Blacks were never the only victims of racial or religious discrimination in California, so the question of whether they are the only ones who merit reparations also remains open as the task force gets set to hold hearings around the state.
Almost no one doubts that the descendants of slaves suffered much more than mere discrimination, even during the nearly 160 years since slavery was all but abolished by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and despite the fact California was never a slave state, even before the Civil War.
Covenants in real estate deeds for many decades prohibited home sales to Blacks, there were state laws forbidding Blacks from testifying against whites in court and “redlining” was common, as banks refused to write mortgages for Black homeowners except in specific, ghettoized areas. Major highways were deliberately routed across Black neighborhoods, while avoiding entire districts populated by wealthy whites.
One example of the last: In Los Angeles County, land for today’s Interstate 105 freeway, once called the Century Freeway, was taken by eminent domain principally from Black homeowners and then left fallow for many years before that road was finally built. At the very same time, while Ronald Reagan was governor in the late 1960s, the planned Beverly Hills Freeway, designed to cut across pricey areas like Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, quietly disappeared from the state freeway blueprint, leaving commutes across that area halting and slow to this day.
So there is little to challenge in the often-voiced Black complaint that society’s very structure denied most descendants of slaves an equal chance to amass wealth in the usual multi-generational ways often used by other American families.
Still, California has also seen plenty of discrimination against other ethnic groups. One example: the same kinds of racial covenants that prevented Blacks from buying homes in the most sylvan parts of the state also were applied against Armenians, Jews and Chinese-Americans. Chinese immigrants who built much of the first Transcontinental Railway were also exploited mercilessly in the latter part of the 19th Century. Latino farm workers are still exploited in many places.
So if Blacks get reparations, what about others? So far, the task force has not taken up that question. But there is American precedent for reparations to any groups that suffered official discrimination and persecution and sometimes their descendants.
The largest example came during Reagan’s presidency, when the federal government in 1988 paid $20,000 to each Japanese-American person sent to internment camps just after Pearl Harbor in 1941. If actual prisoners in those camps were no longer alive, their heirs got the money.
And just this month, California was scheduled to start a $7.5 million process to commemorate and compensate surviving victims of a state-sponsored involuntary sterilization program that ran from 1909 to 1979, rendering permanently childless thousands who lived in state hospitals and prisons.
Yet, there is no doubt persecution of Blacks has lasted longer and been more pervasive than other forms of official discrimination in California and other parts of America.
Academic achievement gaps between Blacks and both whites and Asians are well documented. Is this the consequence of laws that for hundreds of years made Black literacy illegal in much of the United States?
Slave owners also tried to prevent development of strong family ties among their chattel, frequently selling children away from their parents and splitting up married couples.
If Germany could be forced by American occupation officials to pay reparations for its sins against Jews and others during the Holocaust — and it is still paying — it’s fair to ask why the USA has never apologized for frequently violating its own founding principles.
For sure, California’s practices were part of a national system. That makes it fair to wonder why Californians alone should pay for atonement.
The reparations task force must take up all these questions and more if its conclusions are to be taken seriously. But at the very least, California now is starting to craft a body of evidence for (or against) new and large-scale reparations.
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Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.