The Democratic Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, a potential Presidential candidate next year, set up a reparations task force in his state in 2020 to consider the case for compensation for the historical wrongs and discrimination experienced by California’s black community. Now the task force has reported and suggested that individuals should be given up to $1.2 million each in recompense. The cost of this, estimated in hundreds of billions of dollars, has met with a cool response from the Governor and the hard-pressed taxpayers of California, where public services and quality of life have been in free-fall in recent years.
Among those qualifying for compensation are the descendants of black slaves. This is curious because California itself was a ‘free state’. It was part of that great swathe of territory – the American South West – taken by the United States in the war with Mexico between 1846-48, and it entered the American Union in 1850 with a constitution that outlawed slavery in the state. It remained part of the Union – ‘the North’, so called – during the Civil War. The only people held as slaves in California up to that time were the slaves of native American tribes in what became the north of the state. So today’s tax-payers in California are being asked to pay for the historic wrongs committed by the slave-holding Southern states – Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and suchlike – even though their ancestors in California never held slaves. No wonder so few of them welcomed this report with glee.
After the Civil War and the emancipation of 4 million slaves in the South, a relatively small number of them went west. It is another curious fact of American history that perhaps as many as a third of cowboys, in their heyday between about 1875 and 1910, were black men who’d left the South. But California was never one of the major destinations of the ‘Great Migration’ of African Americans from the South during and after the First World War. The vast majority of these went to the north-east and mid-west, to cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago. Today, blacks make up only 6.5% of the Californian population, which is about half their proportion in America as a whole. Throughout black history, whether in slavery or freedom, African Americans have made up approximately 12% of the population of the US.
Meanwhile, the historic wrongs that really could have been laid at the door of Californians were not part of the task force’s remit. The internment in California of tens of thousands of Japanese during the Second World War, the majority of them citizens of the US, is relatively well-known. They were sent to camps for the duration, losing their livelihoods, and in many cases, their homes. They fought for this wrong to be recognised for decades after the war, eventually receiving apologies and relatively small sums in reparation.
Less well-known is the case of the Chinese. As many as 200,000 Chinese came to California, first in the 1849 Gold Rush and then to build the railroads across the West. They were subject to vicious local discrimination and racial violence. Debates after the Civil War over whether to grant the suffrage to freed black slaves were influenced by California’s concern that it should not thereby be forced to grant the vote and other civil rights to the mostly male Chinese workers it had absorbed. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1869 and designed to secure black voting rights, was a weaker measure because of Californian opposition to a more generous grant of fundamental rights to all citizens, the Chinese included. Indeed, it was so weak that it was easily evaded by Southern states intent on disenfranchising their black citizens in the decades that followed.
Leaders among the Californian black community are themselves stretching back to the aftermath of the Civil War to demand the equivalent in today’s money of ’40 acres and a mule’. This was the cry that went up among the freed slaves when the war ended in 1865. Despite what some black Californians may believe and say now, it was never ‘a pledge’ made by the federal government in Washington DC. Today’s advocates of black reparations misunderstand the demand for land and the historic situation, in any case. The freed people were not calling for compensation for slavery: they wanted their forty acres so they could be independent and free of the influence of former slaveholders who still owned the land across the South. They wanted to work in family units on family farms, not in the gang labour of slavery. In the event, they were turned into sharecroppers, sharing the proceeds of their labour with the white land owners.
With the exception of a few of the most radical members of the Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, hardly anyone outside the community of former slaves supported the break-up of the great estates of the South: to have expropriated the owners of the land would have started the Civil War all over again. And this has been the pattern ever since in American History: Americans have been willing to grant ever-increasing rights to ever-increasing communities in their midst, whether those communities are national, ethnic, religious, or gender-based. But they have been far less amenable to the idea of giving them property, payments, or compensation. Martin Luther King held together a great national coalition of all communities while he led the cause of civil rights in the mid-1960s in America. When, after their achievement, he turned his fire on social inequality and ‘levelling up’ he lost his hold on many whites who had supported him hitherto.
American History can be characterised as the pursuit of political, civil and social equality. But America has also been dedicated to economic individualism, opportunity, self-help, and low taxes. California itself grew into the wealthiest and most creative state of the Union on the basis of those values. For that reason, and with many precedents from the American past in mind, it is most unlikely that the reparations calculated and advocated in this report will ever be paid.
Professor Lawrence Goldman is the Executive Editor of History Reclaimed. He taught American History in Oxford and is an Emeritus Fellow of St. Peter’s College.