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Who Gets Reparations?

It's not easy to rewrite history, even in California

An Essay by Ruben Navarrette

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There’s a storm coming, America.  

 It’s taking the form of what will likely be an unsettling national debate over whether Americans owe reparations to descendants of African slaves. The idea of paying Black Americans real money to atone for sins committed more than 150 years ago by racists south of Mason-Dixon who are long dead was once considered a joke.


For one thing, Americans know how to forget. The same people who implore that we should “always remember” the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941 develop historical amnesia about the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Now, in 2023, the issue of reparations is back on the national agenda. And no one is laughing. Folks are worried. You believe that Americans are divided and race relations are tense? Just wait. We ain’t seen nothing yet. 


What breathed new life into reparations? Two words, one name: George Floyd. Apparently, Americans are not done paying for the savagery of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Speaking of racists. 

After the country saw the video of Floyd being murdered by Chauvin, and after America’s cities burst into flames, corporations — and the politicians they own and operate — got squeamish and looked for pacifiers. Which bring us to the odd tale of how “dark blue” California  — where I was born and raised, and where I live today — became the national epicenter of the modern reparations movement. 


Just a few months after Floyd’s murder, Democratic state lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 3121. It created a task force to study reparations, listen to experts and suggest remedies through which the state could atone for decades of cruel and discriminatory policies aimed at Black Californians. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law in September 2020, creating the first in the nation reparations task force. Eventually, the task force limited reparations to descendants of Black people who were in the United States as of the 19th century; Black immigrants from Jamaica, Nigeria or Haiti need not apply. There was also a spirited argument within the task force over whether to further limit eligibility to Black Californians who had lived in the state for a certain number of years, or even limit it to only those who still live here. Today, only about 6% of California’s population is Black. 

The task force is addressing alleged harm in the form of property seized by the state, devaluation of Black businesses, housing discrimination, homelessness, health issues, mass incarceration and “over-policing.” There’s a July 1 deadline, when a report has to be filed to the state legislature, which will vote on the recommendations before sending the final proposal to Newsom’s desk for his signature. This is the same Gavin Newsom who — in the worst kept secret in politics — intends to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2024 if the current incumbent, who is also a Democrat, does not run. Newsom is tanned, rested and ready. So whatever happens with reparations in California, the result will follow him to South Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and elsewhere during the 2024 Democratic primary.  


Back in California, it is expected that the reparations task force will come forward with what one member described as “breathtaking” proposals with a dizzying price tag. About 1.8 million African Americans in California might quality for reparations, which could be as much as $360,000 per individual. The total cost could soar beyond $640 billion. Just because California is nicknamed the Golden State does not mean the streets are paved with it. Even in a state with an annual gross domestic product of $3.6 trillion, that’s a heavy lift. 


Meanwhile, individual cities in California aren’t waiting. They’re creating their own task forces and devising their own reparation plans. Everyone is trying to “out woke” one another. And even in a wacky state, San Francisco is the wackiest of all. The city has its own reparations committee which issued 111 recommendations. They include an eye-popping $5 million payment per eligible applicant. According to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, that would cost each non-Black family in the city at least $600,000. But there are also fantastical provisions to allow Black residents to buy homes in San Francisco for one dollar and provide an annual salary of $97,000 for 250 years.


As a California native, I’ve thought about what it means that my home state is leading the way in a revolution that may spread across the country. Those who oppose reparations point out that California wasn’t even a slave state. Because I was taught California history in the state’s public schools in the 1970’s, I sadly only know the fairy tale that makes California look good. I had to go back and do my own research. What I found was, well, not good.  


Yes, California wasn’t technically a slave state. But it wasn’t exactly a 100% free one either. 


California entered the union as a free state in 1850. But, as is usually the case with U.S. history, you have to read the fine print. It reveals that, when it comes to slavery, the hands of Californians are far from clean. In the mid-19th Century, the west was expanding rapidly and that required a ready supply of labor. Guess who provided it? At the time, there were many Californians who outright supported slavery, or at least passively supported the right of other Americans to own slaves. 


Southerners who went west to seek their fortune in the California gold rush brought slaves with them. Some of the transplants from the south found their way into the California legislature and state judiciary. In 1852, pro-slavery Californians petitioned the legislature to establish a permanent slave colony in the state. Others proposed that California be split in half; with the north remaining a free state, and the south being a slave state. The state legislature even passed its own version of one of the most shameful laws in U.S. History. The California Fugitive Slave Act of 1852 trampled the anti-slavery clause in the state constitution and required law enforcement to arrest runaway slaves and return them to their owners. 


There is no point in trying to make the Californians of the mid-19th Century appear to be in any way saintly. That’s crazy. And in California, we don’t need any more of that. We’re fully stocked up. 

Now for the big question: Just where do Latinos fall in all this? We represent 40% of California’s population — more than 6 times the number of African Americans. If reparations are paid, Latino taxpayers are going to foot much of the bill. But might Latinos themselves also have a claim?


Laura Gomez believes the answer is “yes.” As a professor at UCLA School of Law, she helped create the school’s critical race studies program and we have a friendship that goes back nearly four decades to our college years. A Mexican American graduate of Harvard College with a PhD in sociology and a law degree from Stanford, Gomez, she is the author of several books, including her latest, Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism, where she makes the case that Latinos are due reparations.                                      


“We teach our children that accepting responsibility and apologizing are the right things to do. They are at the heart of good character and being human, because, uh, to err is human,” she told me. “Shouldn’t we do that at the collective level too? Part of why we are hesitant to talk about it ourselves, as Latinos, and as a nation is that Latinx people remain somewhat invisible or at least, under the radar. We are here and not here.”


Gomez insists this lack of visibility contributes to many Latinos — if not most — not knowing our own story. “We ourselves are woefully ignorant of our history because we have been made invisible,” she said. “What I call the White-Over-Black Paradigm of American history and culture, though shifting, exerts a powerful hold.”

Those are such valuable insights. The nation’s 62 million Latinos are invisible. We are ignorant of our history. And we are being erased by the Black-and-White paradigm. It’s no wonder that so many Black and White Americans can’t wrap their heads around the concept of Latino reparations. And which Latinos should be compensated? It’s a safe bet that every subset — from Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Salvadorans to Bolivians, Venezuelans and Colombians — has been mistreated at one time or another. 


Mexican Americans have a strong claim. For 175 years, my tribe has lived in “occupied” territory. We were never enslaved, or sold as property. But we have been subjected — like our Native American distant cousins — to the special indignity of being treated as second-class citizens in our ancestral homeland. Not Mexico. But the Southwest, which the United States seized from Mexico in 1848 and turned into eight U.S. states. 


Mexican Americans were largely excluded from the California Gold Rush. The legislature passed the Foreign Miners’ Tax Act of 1850 to keep out Chinese miners, but the law was applied to Mexicans as well. “Foreigners” had to pay $20 per month — about $775 today — to hunt for gold. Many were discouraged from the undertaking, which was the objective all along. In 1855, the California legislature enacted the so-called “Greaser Act” which allowed for the arrest of anyone thought to be a vagrant. The law used the word “Greaser” to refer to those with “Spanish and Indian blood.”


In the 1940’s, signs in California restaurants blared: “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” Mexican Americans had to sit in the balconies of theaters, couldn’t get haircuts in some barber shops, and could use public swimming pools only on the day before they were scheduled to be cleaned. And in the early 1950’s, the city of Los Angeles forcefully removed about 300 families living in Chavez Ravine and sold the land to Brooklyn Dodgers baseball owner Walter O’Malley, who used the site to build Dodger Stadium.

Gomez knows these all these stories, and she has the receipts. But if there were reparations for Latinos — a big “if” I admit — what form should they take? “I think about the roots of the word,” she said. “What does it mean to repair? Let’s start with acknowledgement and apology for wrongs at the governmental/state or corporate level.”


Beyond that, Gomez has a three-point remedy in mind. 

First, education and public accountability. “A politics or recognition can itself be a form of repair,” she said. “This step could involve an education program to correct our historical amnesia about the long history of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in the U.S.”

Second, targeted reparations for specific historical wrongs, ranging from massacres of Mexican Americans by the Texas Rangers to the mistreatment of the Mexican braceros who worked in the fields from 1942 to 1964. “This would include a reckoning and public memorialization,” she said. “And that should include financial compensation where direct victims or their close descendants can be identified.” 

Third, U.S. immigration and naturalization policy. “We've done that with respect to amnesty in the 1986 immigration law and on a country-by-country basis,” she noted. “Why not a policy that accepts Central American migrants? Or widespread amnesty for 6-8 million undocumented persons who have lived here for ten or more years paying federal and state taxes — including but not limited to the Dreamers.”


One other remedy is direct compensation for stolen land. In those cases where California seized private property from Mexican Americans just because it could, officials should apologize and send a check. In 2022, Bruce’s Beach — a beachfront parcel in Southern California  — was returned to descendants of the Black residents who owned it until it was taken by the state through eminent domain in the 1920’s. The family plans to sell the land to Los Angeles County for $20 million. 


What’s the price for the entire Southwest? Negotiations start at $1 trillion.


Gomez noted that the root of reparations is “to repair.” In 2023, there is a lot going on with Latino-Americans that needs repairing. We work hard, play by the rules, and remain optimistic about a better tomorrow. Often, we succeed despite the obstacles in our way. Even so, being Latino isn’t all churros and chocolate. We face prejudice, racism, nativism and discrimination. As time goes on, and our population swells, the Latino condition should get better. But because Whites are fragile and fearful of being displaced, it gets worse. 


Yet, Whites can rest easy about one thing. Latinos won’t be demanding reparations. It’s not who we are. We don’t believe in welfare, food banks, begging for money on street corners. We trust hard work, not victimhood. It’s a twist on what Whites expect from people of color, and it has them confused. Since there is no demand for compensation, they tell themselves, Latinos must not have been wronged.  


Get this straight. Just because we’re not out there demanding payment doesn’t mean there is no debt. 

Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, columnist for The Daily Beast, author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano, a contributor of video commentary to Straight Arrow News, host of the podcast, “Ruben In The Center,” and CEO/founder of The Navarrette Sonic Podcast Network (NSPN).

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