You won’t believe how insane reparations math is in California. Here’s why your state could be next

Editor’s note: This column is adapted from an article that first appeared in City Journal’s special issue “Can California Be Golden Again?”

In December 2022, California’s nine-member Reparations Task Force, formed by Gov. Gavin Newsom two years earlier, estimated that, if a reparations program were ever adopted, each black person in the state descended from slaves could receive as much as $223,200 in compensation for past injustice. 

The projected total cost, to California taxpayers, could reach $569 billion—almost two and a half times the state’s current budget. The task force is due to give its final recommendations in June 2023, including the exact monetary amount of compensation. “We are looking at reparations on a scale that is the largest since Reconstruction,” said one task force member.

And yet: California was never a slave state. It entered the Union as a free state in 1850 after its acquisition from Mexico, which had banned slavery in 1837. So the task force, while dictating that only descendants of slaves can receive payouts, has focused on housing discrimination that took place between 1933 and 1977. But this is just a baseline. Other areas—mass incarceration, forced sterilization, unjust property seizures, and devaluation of businesses—might warrant “future deliberation.”

Lawmakers in Democratic-controlled states such as Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon have similarly introduced (or hoped to revive) proposals to study reparations; so far, only California has successfully advanced the cause. Its work could become a model not only for other states but also for a federal reparations plan. Meantime, San Francisco has introduced its own reparations initiative and has proposed a $5 million payment to each black resident.


The fundamental concept of reparations depends on the idea that the United States should recognize and admit the wrongs that it has committed against black Americans and that those who benefited from those wrongs must acknowledge the advantages they’ve gained as a result, offering compensatory damages to the descendants of those who suffered. But with California history lacking any specific link to slavery, the task force struggled to monetize a payout figure. Thus, it details historical accounts of racially discriminatory practices in 1933–77 to estimate the approximate amount of black wealth lost. The task force argued that black Californians lost $5,074 per year under previous housing policies, bringing the estimated financial reparations for slavery to $223,200 per person.

The task force’s recommendations are ahistorical, however, and single out blacks as victims when, in fact, many people faced housing discrimination during that period: Native Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Jews, and other minorities. Further, past housing discrimination does not fully explain present-day racial disparities in wealth or income. Asians have experienced far worse housing discrimination than blacks in California, yet Asians have much higher incomes and more assets. 

Someone from another country following the task force’s work might conclude that America is composed of only blacks and whites, with no other races or ethnicities. Yet California is a majority-minority state. According to the 2020 census, 39 percent of state residents are Latino, 35 percent are white, 15 percent are Asian-American or Pacific Islander, 5 percent are black, 4 percent are multiracial, and fewer than 1 percent are Native American or Alaska Natives. 

Another major flaw, from a Latino perspective, is the task force’s limited focus on redressing wrongs affecting only blacks—thus ignoring major events in California history with relevance to the grievances of Mexican-Americans, starting with conflict over lands annexed from Mexico after the U.S.–Mexican war and the many discriminatory situations that Mexican-Americans faced afterward, in the twentieth century. Mexican-Americans were widely scapegoated during the Great Depression for the nation’s poverty and unemployment. From 1929 to 1936, the Mexican Repatriation forcibly deported an estimated 2 million people of Mexican ancestry to Mexico; nearly 1.2 million were legal citizens, born in the United States.


One could argue, then, that if California were to make financial reparations to any one group, Latinos and Asians would likely have stronger historical claims. Herein lies the fundamental problem with reparations: the lineage of victimhood will never end. Why not go back, further, skipping over Latino and Asian claims, and pay reparations first to Native Americans? California’s plan to offer reparations only to black Americans seems likely to create more racial antagonism among minorities.

The reparations commission’s report not only tries to make the case for racism as a pervasive tool of white supremacy, affecting blacks in all aspects of modern life; it also aims eventually to expand the concept of reparations into areas such as education inequality, political disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, housing, and health outcomes. Recommendations include:

*Eliminate standardized testing (K–12 proficiency assessments, SAT, MCAT, and the state bar exam).

*Establish a state-subsidized mortgage system guaranteeing low-interest rates only for black mortgage applicants.

* Forgive past-due child-support payments owed to the government by “noncustodial parents,” with the government now responsible for the father’s children.


Such recommendations appear to ignore (or override) the California Civil Rights Initiative, which declares: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” 

And yet, for all its problems, the report is not without merit—it calls out the state’s failing public education system, especially for low-income minority children. 

The state’s latest test scores show that nonwhite children are performing dismally in reading and math. Seventy percent of black children and 64 percent of Hispanic children do not meet state reading standards. Math scores are even worse, with 84 percent of black students and 79 percent of Hispanics not meeting state standards. 

Access to quality education is foundational to achieving the American dream, yet California children are educationally redlined into their local zip-code-determined schools, even when state officials know that these schools are failing. 

Too many policymakers respond to the dismal school performance only by calling for greater funding. More money is not the answer: California spends $15,837 per K–12 pupil, ranking 19th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., but it ranks 44th out of 50 academically.


If Governor Newsom wanted to better the lives of nonwhite children, he could support educational choice. This would make the biggest impact for black kids—steps that could be taken immediately, with no reparations needed. Yet, his refusal to challenge underperforming schools in minority areas is suggestive of his unwillingness to challenge the California Teachers Association, the most potent force in California politics. The CTA’s overflowing campaign coffers helped Newsom defeat a 2021 recall effort.

Martin Luther King envisioned America as a land of equal opportunity for all, not one of government-enforced equal outcomes or perpetual victimhood of the “aggrieved” at the hands of the “oppressors.” But if reparations advocates get their way in California, every policy failure of the state will be blamed on slavery. Those who never engaged in slavery will carry the burden of making amends for it, and those who didn’t suffer from it directly will benefit. 

The Task Force’s recommendations would financially bankrupt California, now facing a $23 billion budget deficit. The timing of the final report will elevate reparations as a major issue for the 2024 election, one likely to bring out black voters in force and perpetuate their alliance with the Democratic Party.

The desire of Democrats to offer slavery-based financial reparations to blacks alone risks marginalizing and taking for granted other minorities, who are becoming more “unwoke.” It was Asian-Americans in San Francisco who ensured the recall of progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin. And nationally, Latinos have emerged as a significant voting bloc capable of flipping blue seats red, motivated by education and public-safety issues. 

With the nation facing an unstable economy, an open-border crisis, spiraling crime in major cities, and pervasive failure and instability in public education, Democrats have few domestic policy issues to run on in 2024. Perhaps they calculate that the promise of direct cash payments and financial incentives to the most loyal element of their voting base is a price worth paying—even one this high.

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