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Fri, Jun

Our Racist Past: No Going Back

VOICES

ACCORDING TO LIZ - There can be no going back to remove the consequences of racism. No time machine exists to fix America’s tarnished past. 

While an apology and admission of wrongdoing by itself will clearly not be satisfactory, monetary compensation to individuals will do more harm than good to other Californians, very few of whom are to blame for the institution of slavery or systemic racism. 

The Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, with a Special Consideration for African Americans Who are Descendants of Persons Enslaved in the United States aka California’s Reparations Task Force, established by the State Assembly in September 2030 voted on its key findings on May 6th including supporting cash payouts. 

While as Rep. Barbara Lee has said: “Reparations are not only morally justifiable, but they have the potential to address longstanding racial disparities and inequalities," at issue is of what such reparations should consist. 

If action is taken by the State, the projected cost of reparation to Blacks for being of color and the descendants of slaves, and for the economic harm of systemic racism, would almost certainly be in the billions. Although it would be very unlikely for the total to reach the $800 billion mark some have suggested, a sum of over two and a half times California’s current annual budget. 

In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary reparations is defined as the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury. My dog-eared Pocket Oxford simply states: making of amends, compensation. 

California has previously apologized for interning people of Japanese origin during World War II, a more recent collective abuse, and for mistreating Native Americans, but many claim apologies aren’t worth the paper on which they are written. 

The Reparations Task Force extensively researched how much to pay out to individuals suffering from a variety of disparities but even their expert economic advisors acknowledged the variables from which they worked were so broad and inconclusive as to make it impossible to come up with any aggregate amount of compensation. Why bother even trying? 

Individual payouts may be a way to assuage guilt but, historically, giving individuals money has been less than empowering, attracting any number of scammers to separate the newly wealthy from their winnings. 

Lottery winners and the recipients of settlements typically blow through their new funds within a few years, often leaving them less well off than before. 

If reparations have to be made to every descendant of an enslaved African, should the cost be borne in part by those who sold them off the continent of their birth? By the descendants of the plantation owners who profited from their labor? Or by present day residents who moved to California in the past couple of decades? 

What California is primarily responsible for are twentieth-century practices that entrenched its Black community in a secondary economic situation. 

Redlining “protected” white homeowners from racially diluting their neighborhoods and potentially reducing the value of their properties. It also prevented people of color from tapping into the single most efficacious way to improve personal wealth – home value appreciation. 

In a slightly different way, Black Californians fell less into a discrete racially isolated group and more into one defined by poverty and disadvantage through lack of access to quality healthcare and good education. Socio-economic issues which are shared by many whites, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and keep all poor people from improving their lot. 

On the other hand, color definitely sets Blacks visually apart to a greater degree (also shared by most Native Americans and darker skinned Hispanics) and leads to more stops, more arrests, harsher treatment, penalties and more incarceration leading them to mistrust the system and develop skills as career criminals. 

However, all but the initial stops by cops are exacerbated by the poverty which is the underlying factor magnifying discrimination. 

The diversity of California’s many cultures, beliefs, and religious values working together enriches our society. But playing the race card to leverage individual financial payouts goes against democracy and is disrespectful of all other Californians. 

The Reparations Task Force reports that “Without a remedy specifically targeted to dismantle our country’s racist foundations and heal the injuries inflicted by colonial and American governments, the ‘badges and incidents of slavery’ will continue to harm African Americans in almost all aspects of American life.” 

Remedies for change, not guilt, gelt. 

You just don’t empower people by giving them something for nothing. And why should such payments be shouldered in part by those who immigrated to this State long after the original sins? Who have also worked hard for change? 

That many may not have had the same advantages as others who grew up in white communities is distressing, but the solution is not to throw money at them to make them go away, it is to revamp California’s existing systems to ensure that future generations never have to face the same challenges but, instead, have the same advantages as their white neighbors. 

This many taxpayers could get behind. 

These recommendations range from removing legal slavery and all patently discriminatory language from State documents, through an apology by the State for past transgressions and the creation of a Freedmen Affairs Agency to handle the logistics of “reparations for African Americans,” in addition to policy reforms to level the playing field for all Californians from conception to death. 

The Task Force report also called for addressing racial disparities by police officers and in incarceration, and “a detailed program of and for the federal government to also create a reparations commission.  

For the State, it identifies three specific areas for reparations. Harm from environmental injustices and generational lack of health care, reducing quality of life and life expectancies, and overt discrimination in jobs, in schools, in loans and in housing. 

But the third, mass incarceration and over-policing, is the most immediate and the most complex. And overwhelmingly applies to Black men. 

They are more likely to be stopped, arrested and therefore convicted than white men. 

The statistics countrywide are appalling. Black men make up about 13 percent of the nation’s population today but about 35 percent of those incarcerated. 

Twenty-five percent of Black men born since the late 1970s have been jailed by their mid-30s; seven out of ten of them had dropped out of high school. 

The “war on drugs” was disproportionately enforced against this cohort, one without the means to pay for bail, leading to financial damages even without conviction. And without the means to hire skilled lawyers, excessive numbers ended up doing hard time for the same crimes for which their white peers received a slap on the wrist. 

Felons can’t get well-paying jobs. That combined with the numbers in jail, and that increasing numbers of Black women are moving into better-paying jobs, skews the statistics conceal the fact that male Black income is decreasing. 

So the one area where recompense should be considered is in the judicial system, but based on equity across all factors. However, due to the grossly unfair prosecution and incarceration rates of Blacks, such an egalitarian approach will be a start on righting that racial wrong. 

And the wrongs against Native Americans and Hispanics in Southern California who have faced similar biases. 

The Task Force’s vote was simply a recommendation to the State legislature and governor who will, after transmission of the final report, have to agree to all or some of the suggestions and then develop procedures for their implementation.  

One important item that was not reported is whether the report and its recommendations addressed the startling disparities between Black men and women, Black boys and girls. 

As a white woman, I cannot imagine the heartache Black parents face fearing for their Black sons. The soul-wrenching impact of having to teach them subservience to the police – Black ones as well as Caucasian. 

Equality is always easier if a person has money and fame to grease their way into the citadel of the affluent: how many Oprahs and Kanye Wests and Michael Jordans are there for every ghetto resident, for every single-mom family? 

Programs that support and empower Black women are woefully not in evidence for their husbands and sons. 

Other than the golden ring of a basketball or football contract, few poor Black men and boys can live up to the expectations placed on them by our culture. When they can’t, too often it leads to despair, suicides, shootings, gang life and crime. 

For those who faced discriminatory housing policies between 1933 and 1977, when redlining mostly occurred means median wealth today is much lower that it would have been otherwise. But resources should be used to reveal and remedy redlining that continues today, perhaps more covertly, throughout the State and nation. 

That discriminatory local zoning exposes too many Black (and Hispanic) neighborhoods to toxic industries. That too many of those same neighborhoods are considered food desserts with limited access to nutritious food at reasonable prices. 

Where storeowners justify outrageous prices by claiming insurance premiums for area higher for businesses in these areas (while overlooking the saving they rake in on reduced rental rates, property taxes and a captive clientele). 

But this calls for change, not hand-outs. 

These are crucial disparities that the report should have focused on. A one-time payout will not reverse the fact that Black families own just one-tenth the wealth of white families, that Black Americans today have a homeownership rate a little over 45% compared to more than 75% of whites. 

Health outcome disparities are a shameful display of the United States being the ONLY developed country NOT to have proper health care for all its residents. Where for-profit pharmaceutical, medical conglomerates and insurance companies hold sway over all levels of government. 

Americans spend far more on health than any other country in the world, yet the life expectancy of the American population is shorter than in other rich countries that spend far less. 

Across the board – Black and white. And the contributing factors are the power of a for-profit healthcare industry and poverty. Child mortality, shootings, suicides, poverty, education. 

These are factors reparations need to target. For all Californians. 

The State should take up these challenges on its own – after all, its economy is larger than many countries who do treat good health as a right – and, while lip service has been paid, such plans always manage to get mired in committees where members have been bought off by the insurance industry or left to languish on someone’s desk. 

Blacks have faced too many challenges already: environmental pollution, blatant discrimination by health care workers, denial of the disproportionate impact of Covid on their community by trying to shift the cause onto pre-existing conditions. 

Pre-existing conditions? Absolutely. But conditions – diabetes, heart issues, obesity and more driven by their being Black. 

By not having lifestyle choices on diet and exercise that white folks have, by being raised in communities where regular health checkups were not a priority or even an option. 

Black Californians now have an average lifespan of 71 years, four years less than prior to the pandemic. If the lottery of birth is to change, it won’t be by giving some people money, but by changing the rules of the game. 

But the same issues apply to most poor Americans. Life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Native American reservation in South Dakota is lower than that in Sudan. And in South Central. 

Women have also suffered systematic abuse and economic oppression for centuries.  

What about Native Americans, disabled Americans, non-binary Americans? Victims of sexual abuse where the State didn’t step in? Those who didn’t receive proper education? Are we to pay them all? With whose money? 

Wouldn’t it be better to address the underlying causes of these disparities, fully finance and implement solutions, and then move forward to where the results will be equal opportunity for all? Not pay blood money for the sins of previous individuals and governments. 

Redistribution of wealth sounds restorative but will giving people born with Black blood help them? Or generate more anger against people of color? 

Taxpayers who might be appalled with the handing out of tax dollars to individuals based solely on race might be eager to help level the playing fields of the future so that all Californians can benefit in a more truly egalitarian society. 

Relying on handouts will reduce the pool of money available to fund real change. 

We need to search out present day solutions to stop recurrence of abuse and disparities but that is best served by channeling resources to types of programs that will empower robust social change. 

For once the government opens the Pandora’s Box of something-for-nothing, there is no going back, no accountability, no responsibility. Just more gimme demands by the next wave of self-identified disenfranchised Californians.

 

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)