Our Forefathers’ “Sins”

On May 6, 2023, the California Reparations Task Force met at Northeastern University Oakland for a final discussion and vote on its full reparations report. Consisting of 40 chapters and a 104-page executive summary, the report offers sweeping policy recommendations on restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, and other forms of reparations. According to the taskforce, California, which entered the Union in 1850 as a free state, owes African Americans for its complicity in slavery and its subsequent culpability in post-Civil-War discrimination that has embedded white supremacy in American institutions to this day.

This discrimination includes policies and attitudes that perpetuated racial terror, political disenfranchisement, residential segregation, unequal education, environmental racism, control over cultural/intellectual life, hiring bias, criminal injustice, and health disparities.

In financial terms, atoning for the sins of white supremacy would mean direct cash payments of up to $1.38 million per eligible person and an aggregate total of about $800 billion, more than double the total state budget for 2023. The proposed cash payments encompass: $953,330 for health harms, $115,248 for mass incarceration and over-policing, $235,620 for housing discrimination, and $77,000 for devaluation of businesses.

After doing some simple math, California Governor Gavin Newsom promptly rescinded his support for these outlandish cash reparations. Arguing that “[d]ealing with that legacy of slavery is about much more than cash payments,” he now urges for more work toward:

breaking down barriers to vote, bolstering resources to address hate, enacting sweeping law enforcement and justice reforms to build trust and safety, strengthening economic mobility — all while investing billions to root out disparities and improve equity in housing, education, healthcare, and beyond …

Newsom’s “no-cash-payout” statements have drawn criticism from both the state’s Republican minority and its Democratic majority. However, it is important to understand that much of the Task Force report is dedicated to paving the way for policies and programs beyond jaw-dropping cash payments. As Task Force member and California State Senator Steven Bradford noted, “reparations payments are more likely to come in the form of education, housing, land, and access to other resources.” This is a high-stakes plan that will have more drastic and long-lasting effects than cash payments ever could.

[More from Wenyuan Wu: “The Juice is Worth the Squeeze”]

One area particularly worthy of discussion is the Task Force’s proposal to address “separate and unequal education” (Chapter 23), which offers policy recommendations on school funding, school discipline, curriculums, college tuition, and standardized tests. Operating on the demeaning falsehood that black students in California face insurmountable racism and bias in accessing higher education, the Task Force wants the state to fund free tuition for all undergraduate programs in the University of California and California State University systems and to eliminate standardized testing for graduate schools. In K–12 education, the proposal calls for increasing funding for schools serving African American students, implementing “racially equitable” disciplinary practices, mandating “culturally responsive” teacher training, recruiting more African American teachers, creating more antiracism curriculums, and advancing the state timeline for ethnic studies.

As usual, race-baiting ideologues, like many on the California Reparations Task Force, believe that their moralizing ideas are above the law. In addition to suggesting that the state require ethnic studies for high school graduation before 2030, the Task Force also proposes repealing California’s constitutional guarantee of equal treatment as a form of “reparative apologies.” First codified into the state constitution via the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, California’s statewide ban on racial preferences was resoundingly defended in November 2020, when a more progressive and diverse California electorate voted 57.2% to 42.8% to defeat Proposition 16.

Regardless of this broad-based support for race-blind equality, reparations proponents make a bizarre case that prohibiting racial preferences has exacerbated racism against African Americans. Prop. 209, we are told, “substantially limits the state from remedying the systemic racism in California.” This, allegedly, has caused an annual loss of over $1 billion for minority- and women-owned businesses and has reduced African American enrollment at California public colleges and universities. In other words, in order to fight racial disparities, more discrimination by way of “preferential treatment” needs to be legalized.

These arguments have been debunked with empirical evidence. For example, between 1997 and 2022, African American undergraduate admissions have steadily increased from 1,687 (4%) to 6,399 (5%). The four-year graduate rate for African American students nearly doubled from 35.4% in 1999 to 61.2% in 2017.

Furthermore, a peer-reviewed economics study on the California Department of Transportation found that Prop. 209 had saved the state $64 million (over $1 billion in 2020 dollars) from 1998 to 1999 due to increasing productivity and decreasing waste. The study calculated that “[a]fter Proposition 209, the prices on state funded contracts fell by 5.6% relative to federally funded projects, for which preferences still applied.” By this line of reasoning, the $1 billion annual loss is not a loss at all, but rather taxpayer money saved from unproductive waste.

[More from Wenyuan Wu: “Graduate Student Strikes: Reasonable Demands or Cosmic Justice?”]

Throughout the 40-chapter manuscript, the California Reparations Task Force has based its policy recommendations on bad scholarship. Not only are the findings unsupported by simple statistics, but they are also derived from contested studies that treat progressive hypotheses as foregone conclusions. For instance, the report cites a Stanford study on the San Francisco Unified School District to justify accelerating California’s high school ethnic studies timeline on the grounds that ethnic studies is beneficial for underprivileged students academically and emotionally. Many, including me, have questioned the validity, sample limitations, and causal strength of the study.

Similarly, the literature on standardized testing, as I have pointed out in several essays and discussions, is fraught with invalidating studies and arguments, so much so that the progressive New York Times recently published an opinion piece in defense of the SAT. One reader responded in the ensuing letters-to-the-editor discussion:

I came from an immigrant working-class Italian family, so no exposure to the kinds of books, discussions, etc. of my upper-class competitors. I was class valedictorian at a public high school in a suburban Boston town that was very working class. Had I not done well on the SATs, I doubt that I would have gotten accepted to Barnard, Jackson (Tufts), Wellesley or Brandeis.

Besides the esoteric intellectual critiques we may level against the reparations report, a substantive moral puzzle remains: Should Californians (and Americans, by logical extension), whose natural diversity in an increasingly multi-racial society defies cookie-cutter assumptions on race, ancestral origins, and disadvantages, be held responsible for our forefathers’ “sins” committed two centuries ago?

For the zealots, it is easy and advantageous to blame the system and everyone else while demanding that racial favors continue in perpetuity. For example, Lisa Holder, a member of the California Reparations Task Force, did not hesitate to accuse me and my colleagues who worked on the “No”-on-Proposition-16 campaign of being white supremacist, first-generation immigrants during a Zoom debate. Supporters of indoctrination in schools also denounced a mixed-race father as a “white male” for questioning the local school’s racial equity programs, while the father actually descended from an escaped slave who fought in the Civil War.

For the rest of us, the answer is also easy: The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father.

Image: Adobe Stock


2 thoughts on “Our Forefathers’ “Sins”

  1. Slavery lasted 89 years in America, while my ancestors we’re enslaved across Europe for Centuries and never received a dime in reparations. Listening to African Americans you would think that only their ancestors have been enslaved historically. Almost everyone has an ancestor or more that were enslaved at one time or another. If we’re giving out reparations for past slavery, let’s start 2000 years ago and work our way to present time. Obviously this would need never happen, since other countries already realize reparations are idiotic, imagine making people pay for their ancestors sins to a person who was never a victim of said sins, just madness.

  2. Two of my great-great-grandfathers went down to free the slaves. One came back without his leg, the other didn’t come back at all.
    I deserve subrogation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *