California Reparations Will Go Nowhere

By Michael Y. Warder, Sr.

The June 2023 recommendation of the California reparations task force to make payments to descendants of slaves in the state will go nowhere.

The Golden State was never a slave state. In fact, it was admitted to the United States in 1850 on the condition that slavery be illegal in the state. By the time the U.S. declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, some African Americans were already free. The slave trade into the U.S. became illegal on January 1, 1808.  

This move toward freedom culminated in the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. It followed Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. It is often overlooked that at the outset of the bloody Civil War in 1861, the U.S. Census reported that 476,748 blacks were already free. This was likely an undercount, as many blacks had already moved West and were not counted by Census takers. 

Further, it is rarely mentioned that many blacks, whites, and Native Americans had intermarried—either formally or by common law—and produced children since the European migration to the colonies began in the 17th century. The status of these children varied by skin color, law, and region in the 13 colonies and later in the states. (New York State, for example, declared slavery illegal on July 5, 1827.) David Hackett Fischer documents this intermingled history in his book American Founders. The American Journal of Human Genetics reports that blacks in America today have, on average, 24 percent European DNA, and that about 4 percent of whites in America have African DNA.  

All this is a highly complex history, which does not lend itself to reparations calculations.

Additionally, there is politics. In California, the latest Census counts about 40 million souls. About 5.5 percent are black, 39 percent Latino, 36 percent white, and 16.5 percent Asian. Bearing in mind the ambiguous nature of these categories and the difficulty of documenting slave ancestry, how likely is it that 94.5 percent of the voters will confer a benefit on 5.5 percent of the population by raising taxes on themselves because of their race? It is unlikely that Latino and Asian voters, who make up 55.5 percent of the state’s population, will feel obligated to pay for the historic slavery practiced by some whites against blacks. In 2020, Californians voted by 57 percent to 43 percent against racial preferences, a clear signal that the majority of Californians reject racial ideology. 

Furthermore, the proposed payment formulas for reparations for the 2 million or so blacks who now live in California produce figures in the many billions of dollars—money the state does not have. Then there is the complexity of proposed payout formulas based on the years of residency in California, incarceration due to the “war on drugs,” the number of years of housing discrimination, and other such factors. Would the different types of welfare received by these individuals serve as an offset?

Who would be qualified to make such judgements? Who would appoint leaders of the proposed California American Freedman Agency, which would help to determine if residents are eligible for reparations?

Reparations are a practical impossibility, not to mention a moral offense against anyone who would be forced to pay them.

For these reasons, reparations in California are doomed. Thank goodness. 

Michael Y. Warder, Sr., was vice chancellor of Pepperdine University from 2005 to 2014 and is an advisor for Defend American Ideals. The views expressed here are his own.

The hearings for the California Reparations Task Force were characterized by strong emotions from residents.