For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: Reparations Are Expensive — but Not Repairing the Harm Costs More.”
California is determined to lead the way in reparations for Black Americans.
Late last year, for example, the California Reparations Task Force, created by Gov. Gavin Newsom after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, suggested that California should pay descendants of former slaves and free Blacks “living in the U.S. prior to the end of the 19th century” $223,000 each, ostensibly for past housing discrimination.
Not to be outdone, San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission drafted a plan for the city’s African American Reparations Advisory Committee calling on the city to pay Black residents meeting specific very elastic eligibility requirements $5 million each. The plan also proposes that for the next 250 years, low-income Black households should receive an annual income of at least $97,000 (though it’s unclear how recipients of $5 million qualify as low-income).
Fortunately for California taxpayers — and for common sense — the state constitution prohibits such preferential treatment. But regarding virtue signaling, California and San Francisco are hard to top.
The reasoning behind reparations is that past discrimination, and continuing “systemic” racism, cause Blacks to underachieve compared to other Americans. Reparations would level the playing field by guaranteeing Blacks the same mean income and wealth as other Golden State residents.
Ibram Kendi, director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracism Research and author of “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” writes, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.” In his view, there is no other explanation for disparities in achievement, income, wealth, incarceration rates or any other human condition we commonly measure.
This is what economist Thomas Sowell, in his 2018 book, “Discrimination and Disparities,” calls the “invincible fallacy”: that “but for” discrimination, success or failure would be randomly distributed. This “presumption” defies both logic and facts, Sowell wrote, sending the “toxic message that disparities in outcomes imply some people being wronged by others” or by “society.”
For good measure, the San Francisco reparations advisory panel also recommended that Blacks who were never residents of San Francisco but served drug-related prison sentences elsewhere also qualify for reparations.
While I share the panel’s hostility to the “failed war on drugs,” do members want to reward those who caused so much harm in Black communities by making them millionaires for life? One of the basic laws of economics is that subsidizing something will produce more of it while taxing it will produce less. This holds true for work, drug dealing and virtually any other product or activity you can think of.
Like most reparations proposals, the San Francisco report twists history by conflating restitution with reparations.
There is ample precedent for individuals to receive restitution from those who directly wronged them. In 1783, a former slave successfully petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for compensation from her former owner, a British Loyalist who fled the country and left property behind. In 1988, the U.S. government offered restitution to Japanese-Americans interned in camps during World War II. In 1999, Black farmers received $1 billion after suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture for racial discrimination in the farm loan program.
Restitution identifies individuals wronged by others and requires the wrongdoers to pay up.
Reparations, on the other hand, make all of us responsible for past injustices, even when we had no part in them — and, in fact, even when they occurred long before our families arrived on these shores. Is that just?
The preposterous sums of money proposed by the San Francisco panel may doom the plan. One estimate places the cost at more than $110 billion, eight times the city’s annual budget.
Fortunately, in Richmond v. Croson (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against race-based “remedies that are ageless in their reach into the past.” In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209 amending the state constitution to prohibit the state and its cities from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment based on race. An attempt to repeal the non-discrimination amendment was defeated in 2020.
California elites may be “woke,” but the fundamental American belief in equal protection under the law remains strong. That, too, should help doom the reparations plan and its imitators.