Surprising amount of liberals agree
The idea of payments to Black Americans whose ancestors suffered the injustices of slavery and segregation remains broadly unpopular in California, a new poll finds.
Those findings are a setback for reparations advocates in the liberal state, which is trying to determine whether such payouts are feasible. Because of California’s size, population and cultural significance, the process is being closely watched across the country.
Conducted by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, the poll found that “60% of California voters feel that the legacy of slavery is affecting the position of the state’s Black residents today.”
Slavery was never explicitly legal in California, but Southerners brought slaves with them during the Gold Rush. During the 20th century, Black Californians suffered employment and housing discrimination, racist police practices and institution divestment.
At the same time, Californians are reluctant to atone for past wrongs with cash payments, according to the Berkeley IGS findings:
“The poll finds that reparations for Black Americans faces strong headwinds as most California voters (59% to 28%) oppose the state Reparations Task Force’s recommendation to make cash payments to the descendants of enslaved Blacks currently living here. In addition, most of those opposed (44%) say they are strongly opposed to the idea.”
So far, the wealthy and liberal Chicago suburb of Evanston is the first jurisdiction in the nation to actually implement a reparations plan. But whereas only about 12,000 residents of Evanston are Black, California has 2.5 million Black residents, meaning a reparations program there would be vastly bigger in scope.
California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom created the nation’s first statewide reparations task force in September 2020, after a summer of racial justice protests.
“We won’t turn away from this moment to make right the discrimination and disadvantages that Black Californians and people of color still face,” he said at the time.
Earlier this summer, the task force issued a thousand-page report that made the case for reparations and included several recommendations, including a call for a formal apology.
Far more controversial was the recommendation of a $1.2 million payout to each eligible resident, which could cost the state a total of $800 billion. The state’s annual budget is $310 billion, making such payments unrealistic, at least in the near term.
“Dealing with that legacy is about much more than cash payments,” Newsom recently said.
The governor is widely expected to seek the presidency in 2028. A careful political operator, he can’t anger progressives who believe reparations are needed for the country to move forward. At the same time, he can’t embrace an expensive and unpopular proposal.
“The fact that even liberals are divided indicates that campaigns for racial redress will face a steep uphill climb,” Berkeley IGS co-director Cristina Mora said in a press release that accompanied the findings.
That does not mean reparations proponents are going to give up. Arguably, the fact that California empaneled an official task force that produced an authoritative report on the issue is a sign of how much traction the issue has gained.
State Sen. Steven Bradford (35th District) and member of the task force, has introduced legislation that would create a reparations-focused state agency. “Before you can even talk about what reparations look like, you need to have the infrastructure there,” he said.
Other Black legislators are planning a public relations push to sway skeptical Californians. “We always expected we would have an education challenge,” Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (59th District) who is also on the task force, told NPR.
He and others know this will be a long battle: The late Rep. John Conyers first introduced a bill to create a congressional reparations panel in 1989.
Some believe that until reparations are paid, the American experiment will remain inherently flawed.
“We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative, and the narratives are generally resentment narratives,” conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote several years ago, describing how he had come around to the idea.
“The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.”