California’s reparations task force was supposed to be a no-lose political stunt to burnish Governor Gavin Newsom’s credentials as he angles toward higher office. Instead, it’s exposing the inherent absurdity of the entire concept of reparations and turning into a major political liability for Newsom.
The idea was simple: the task force would deliberate, generating regular headlines, and then eventually propose something. Either the proposal would be feasible, in which case Black Californians would get some nominal amount of money and Newsom could claim a "win," or it would be outlandish, in which case legislators would balk and Newsom would claim that he had done everything in his power to correct historic injustices.
Either way, whenever Newsom decided to throw his hat into the ring for a Democrat presidential nomination, he would use the reparations task force to campaign hard for the Black vote, which is particularly influential in Democratic presidential primaries, as Joe Biden can attest.
But now, it appears there was a third possibility that Newsom had not foreseen. The reparations task force started making proposals that featured mind-bogglingly large numbers – most recently, the task force proposed cash reparations of up to $1.2 million per person.
The total price tag for the plan is estimated at about $800 billion, which is on par with what the entire country spends on national defense. California is already facing a $22.5 billion budget deficit, with little leeway to raise taxes on a populace that is already fleeing in droves to low-tax states such as Texas and Florida. Even under the best of circumstances $800 billion is orders of magnitude more than the state could possibly afford.
Newsom was stuck. He couldn’t let people think he was actually backing such an outrageous scheme, because it would have destroyed whatever credibility he has left as a serious leader. But at the same time, the reparations task force is his baby, so he can’t exactly be honest. He had to make noncommittal noises and suggest that perhaps the task force could come up with another idea that wasn’t quite so … flamboyant.
Then the task force let him down again, this time with a proposal to give the state the power to micromanage municipal real estate ordinances. In a nutshell, the state would be able to wield veto power over local zoning ordinances based on what bureaucrats believe would best promote diversity.
It’s a colossally bad idea that would create far more problems than it solves. Instead of letting local citizens and their elected officials make decisions that will directly impact their lives, it gives power over to unelected bureaucrats in Sacramento who would make those decisions based not on what might be best for the local residents, but on what they believe is necessary to correct historical injustices that are neither well-defined nor inherently quantifiable.
How do you put a price on your grandfather having to live in a less-desirable area because of redlining? How, 40 or 50 years after the fact, can you quantify the economic impact of someone going to prison for a crime that they might not have been charged with had their skin been a different color? Newsom’s task force tried to do just that, and they came up with a figure that nobody in their right mind could take seriously.
But even if it were possible to come up with the money, would reparations actually be a force for good? Can a one-time infusion of cash or artificial advantages in access to higher education or housing actually vault families one or more rungs up the economic ladder?
The truth is reparations are built on a fallacy – the mistaken belief that a household’s economic standing is based solely on questions of finances. There’s so much more to it than mere money, and simply splashing some cash around can’t magically solve all the problems that arose over the course of generations.
Yes, slavery was bad. Yes, systemic racism has held back generations of Black Americans from achieving their full potential. Yes, we should be looking for ways to offer economic empowerment to the Black community. But no, reparations are not the answer.
It wasn’t money that was taken away from our fathers and grandfathers, but opportunity. You can’t rectify that injustice by giving their descendants money, which is all too easily squandered. What’s really needed is opportunity – to break the cycle of poverty, to accumulate savings and build wealth, and in general to do all of the things that bring people closer to achieving their American Dream.
Gavin Newsom’s political experiment with reparations has blown up in his face. But that might turn out to be the best outcome for Black Americans, because it will force us all to take a step back and reassess what’s really needed to right the wrongs of our history and build a society that is just and equitable for all Americans.