California’s ‘Reparations’ Efforts, To Give Money to Black People, Are ‘Spreading Like Wildfire’: Will State Soon Start Cutting Checks?

Reparations are ‘essentially just affirmative action with a different label,’ one attorney tells the Sun, and the Supreme Court’s precedent is providing an ‘immense amount of momentum’ to future legal challenges.

AP/Jeff Chiu
Morris Griffin holds up a sign during a meeting of the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans at Oakland, California. AP/Jeff Chiu

The backers of California’s reparations efforts said last summer they want their recommendations to “serve as a blueprint for other states, and eventually, the federal government when they perform the critical task of atoning for this nation’s victimization of African Americans.”

So far, they’re making progress toward the goal of funding programs to benefit Black Americans as recompense for the country’s use of slavery between the late 17th and the mid-19th centuries and what supporters of reparations say were subsequent decades of discrimination.

Efforts to fund reparations are under way in a slew of cities, counties, and states led by liberals — including Boston, Detroit, St. Louis, Fulton County at Atlanta, and New Jersey, among others. 

“We are tracking efforts all across the country,” an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, Andrew Quinio, tells the Sun, adding that many of the efforts cite California’s progress. “It’s definitely spreading like wildfire.” 

Mr. Quinio works in the equality and opportunity practice group of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a free-market public interest law firm that has won 17 of the 19 cases it brought to the Supreme Court. 

Despite California entering the Union as a free state in 1850 and deploying 17,000 soldiers to fight for the North — the highest per-capita total for any state in the Union — the state has been leading the nation in reparations efforts. Backers of reparations cite California’s “hidden history” of slavery, as Black American slaves were forced to work the gold mines, and the state passed its own fugitive slave law that legally protected slaveholders who had brought slaves to California before it was a state. 

The state’s legislative Black Caucus last week introduced a package of bills, as the Sun reported, based on the lengthy report by the state’s “reparations task force,” which the legislature established in 2020. Among the bills, which are still being fleshed out, one aims to restore “property taken during race-based uses of eminent domain to its original owners” or provide another remedy, such as compensation. Another bill would eliminate “barriers to licensure for people with criminal records,” and prioritize African-American applicants — and especially descendants of slaves — seeking occupational licenses. 

Other proposals include expanded access to STEM fields to “increase enrollment of descendants” for career technical education at high school and college levels, as well as formal recognitions and apologies for slavery and its effects on descendants to this day. 

Although California’s Proposition 209 — passed by voters in 1996 — prohibits the state from using affirmative action in public employment, education, and contracting, proponents of reparations see a pathway to working around the law.  A failed ballot measure in 2020 sought to repeal Prop 209 altogether. Now, the Black Caucus is signaling support for ACA 7, which aims to amend the state’s constitution to allow loopholes in Prop 209, calling it an “unjust law” and a “barrier” to helping vulnerable populations. 

It would amend the state’s constitution to allow California to fund race-based programs if they aim to increase life expectancy, improve educational outcomes, or lift specific groups out of poverty.

These exceptions “will essentially swallow the rule that prohibits preferential treatment or discrimination based on race under Prop 209,” Mr. Quinio says. 

In addition to state-level Prop 209 concerns, the Supreme Court ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard would “stand in the way” of not only the education-related bills, but any proposal that “seeks to advantage or disadvantage individuals based on race and ancestry,” he adds. 

Reparations are “essentially just affirmative action with a different label,” he says. “The Supreme Court was very clear about the fact that eliminating discrimination means eliminating all of it,” and the 14th Amendment isn’t restricted to education, he says. 

Any bill that aims to provide benefits or advantages based on ancestry “would be subject to strict scrutiny, and I think as currently proposed, these bills would not survive strict scrutiny,” he notes. 

The Supreme Court ruling has provided “an immense amount of momentum,” Mr. Quinio says, for those looking to end race-based initiatives, government discrimination, or the favoring of certain groups. Yet, there’s a lot to be done in what’s somewhat “uncharted territory” legally, he says, as many industries, including the government, have been seeking ways to inject race and circumvent the Supreme Court’s ruling banning affirmative action. 

Another effort under way in California that was not specifically listed in the Black Caucus’s statement on the reparations package is SB 1007, which would establish the “Homeowners Assistance for Descendants of Enslaved Persons Program,” making grants available to descendants of slaves for down payments or mortgage payments. 

“I think that’s going to be a big one,” Mr. Quinio says, because of California’s housing crisis. “The big push for these things is the homeownership focus, so I think that’s going to be the one that they’re going to cling on to as this reparations fight goes on.”

The New York Sun

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