California’s New Reparations Report Defies Gravity
On June 1, 2022, the California Reparations Task Force, established by the passage of AB 3121 in 2020, released an interim report detailing generational harms of slavery and post-slavery government policies and practices on black Americans. The 492-page report makes sweeping policy recommendations such as zero-interest home loans, free college tuition, free healthcare, tree-planting for environmental equity, voting rights for the incarcerated, and monetary compensation at both the state and federal levels.
The jaw-dropping findings from this “first-in-the-nation effort by a state government to study slavery, its effects throughout American history, and the compounding harms” rest upon the sole premise that systemic racism is a permanent feature of America. Slavery and its legacy institutions, including white supremacy, housing segregation, employment discrimination, and a lack of education funding, are the chief culprit behind contemporary racial disparities in wealth, health, and learning. The report’s grim outlook on American society, a nihilist stance that discounts any socioeconomic progress in advancing racial equality, makes a mockery of our multi-racial democracy.
Conveniently, the report does not make a distinction between descendants of African slaves and black Americans, a diverse group encompassing 46.8 million people with ancestral roots across the globe, 10% of whom are foreign-born. In a similarly cartoonish fashion, the extensive endeavor uses whites as the baseline for crude, dichotomous comparisons to justify alleged institutionalized harms, although many observed disparities exist between non-white groups as well.
In higher education, the Task Force zeroes in on the limitations of affirmative action, systemic disparities in standardized testing, California’s ban on racial preferences, and inequitable funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
According to the Reparations Task Force—a nine-member team of Democratic politicians, activists, and scholars—systemic racism in government has been so pervasive that not even legal reforms, including the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, could sufficiently redress this discrimination. They argue, “For hundreds of years, governments at all levels in America have inflicted compounding educational harm upon Black children, and they have never made sufficient amends.”
The authors argue that during American slavery and even after the Civil War, white supremacy created insurmountable obstacles for black children to obtain quality education, the effects of which are still felt today. This dark reality is said to be true even in California, where white-led state legislatures allegedly passed a series of laws to racially segregate public schools and severely underfund black schools, although the state joined the Union in 1850 as a free state and the state constitution at the time contained an anti-enslavement clause. Specifically, the report authors note:
A California law passed in 1855 withheld state funds from schools that taught Black and Chinese children. So although California taxed African Americans to pay for the state’s public schools, a Black Californian’s taxes only paid for the education of white children, and they had no right to education for their own children.
The addition of Chinese students to the equation is one of the few exceptions to the black-vs-white contrast throughout the report. Ironically, if pre-Civil War racist laws still have long-lasting effects in the present day, how can one explain the fact that the biggest academic achievement gap today by every measurable metric is not the one between white and black students, but that between Asian and black students? In 2021, UC Berkeley admitted 10,147 Asian Californians, 5,488 white Californians, and 1,080 black Californians. And California is not unique: researchers have documented a national trend of Asian American students performing better academically and attending colleges at higher rates than any other racial group, regardless of socioeconomic status. At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, four-year high school graduation rates were 94.1% for Asians, 88.2% for whites, and 72.5% for black students. The outlier, in defiance of proportional representation by race, clearly invalidates the white supremacy thesis, upon which the entire report is based. Blaming all modern-day disparities on the white supremacy boogeyman is an ideological strawman.
The California Reparations Task Force has also committed severe factual errors in its intentional mischaracterizations of affirmative action. Concealing the origin of federal affirmative action programs rooted in the spirit of non-discrimination, the report defines the concept as “programs … intended to compensate Black students … solely on account of their race.” It further argues that Supreme Court rulings on race consciousness “rejected affirmative action” by outlawing racial quotas (e.g., UC Regents v. Bakke in 1976). As a result of “deficiencies of affirmative action” and “a focus on standardized testing as an admissions requirement,” the authors find discrimination against black students in college admissions despite initial gains:
The percentage of Black college students has risen in the past 50 years, but it has fallen recently. The percentage of American college students who are Black increased from 10 percent in 1976 to 14 percent in 2017, but has dropped since from its high of 15 percent in 2011. College enrollment rates for Black 18- to 24- year- old Americans still lag behind those for Asian and white Americans of the same age.
The monocausal reasoning that attributes all discrepancies to systemic inequities ignores other more consequential factors, including varying changes in median age by race and college preparedness, thereby clouding public policy judgement. After all, standardized testing as an important metric for academic ability was first introduced in 1845, and historical oppression certainly didn’t make a comeback in the 21st century when the Task Force notes a dip in college enrollment for black students.
In California, the report singles out Proposition 209, the state’s constitutional ban on racial preferences, as a disaster for “Black and other students of color in California.” The authors support this opinion with a 2020 UC Berkeley report that has been thoroughly debunked. Authored by a graduate student without peer review, the Berkeley report relies on outdated data between 1994 and 2002 to accuse Prop. 209 of decimating the enrollment of underrepresented racial minorities (URMs) into the UC system. UCLA law professor and economist Richard Sander calls out the categorical errors of the Berkley report by showing more recent, well-documented data on improvements in URM enrollment, graduation, and STEM performance. For example, 1,427 black students (3.01%) were admitted to UC in 1998, compared with 3,059 (4.02%) in 2011 and 6,839 in 2021 (5.19%). It turns out that the Berkeley report was produced and marketed as a quasi-political campaign piece to drum up support for an electoral measure to repeal Prop. 209 in 2020. The measure failed miserably when over 9.65 million California voters (57.2% of the electorate) struck it down.
Bad data leads to bad policy suggestions. To cure the “intergenerational denials of equal educational opportunity,” the report makes the following recommendations:
• Identify and eliminate racial bias and discriminatory policies in standardized testing
• Provide funding for free tuition to California colleges and universities
• Adopt a mandatory curriculum for teacher credentialing that includes culturally responsive pedagogy, anti-bias training, and restorative practices
• Provide scholarships for black high school graduates to cover four years of undergraduate education
• Advance the ideology of black liberation
None of these proposals is based on empirical evidence or even sound logic. Removing standardized tests hurts both the so-called overrepresented student groups with unjustifiable penalties and the policy’s intended beneficiaries with low expectations and academic mismatch. Handing out free tuition and scholarships breeds dependency and encourages fraud in the long run. Ramming down race-based ideologies creates further societal division. And at whose expense? While the report doesn’t specify a price tag for proposed reparations, an earlier panel hosted by Stanford University in March 2021 estimates a federal budget of $10 to $12 trillion dedicated to direct descendants of African slaves. Robert Johnson, America’s first black billionaire, argues that the U.S. government should pay $14 trillion in reparations.
At the end of the day, reparations for African Americans will not help close academic and wealth gaps, improve health outcomes, or solve other family- and community-level problems. Indeed, they won’t help at all, but will only serve to deepen the racial division gnawing at the very roots of our nation.