A Bill Comes Due: Will California Pony Up for Reparations?

Below is my column in The Hill on the recommendations for reparations by two appointed bodies in California. After years of declaring this a moral imperative, the bill has come due for leaders like Gov.  Gavin Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed. The collective demand is for trillions in California alone with additional trillions demanded from Congress in a national reparations program. California Democrats will now have to render a decision on committing real money on reparations to show that this was not mere virtue signaling. That decision could be coming soon.

Here is the column:

A long-awaited meeting of San Francisco’s board of supervisors was set this week to discuss the recommendation of its African American Reparations Advisory Committee to give $5 million to each eligible Black resident as reparations. The meeting was postponed, but the city and the state soon must make a decision on a bill that has come due for Democratic politicians.

The city council voted unanimously to create the reparations committee in 2020. Even though California was a free state without slavery before the Civil War, the committee’s “particular focus has been the era of urban renewal, perhaps the most significant example of how the City and County of San Francisco as an institution played a role in undermining Black wealth and actively displacing the city’s Black population.” That could be viewed as only a partial payment for race-related injuries.

In the meantime, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) created his own Reparations Task Force, which just reached its own recommendations for $223,000 per person. Others have insisted the figure should be $350,000 for individuals and another $250,000 for Black-owned businesses. One California politician insisted the figure needs to be $800,000 per person, reflecting the average cost of a home in the state.

As these numbers rise, so do the calls for payments in both politics and the media. Even Disney has gotten into the act with a controversial children’s episode in which cartoon children demand reparations.

Notably, California’s law expressly states that this money should not be treated as compensation for federal reparations. That raises the question of whether a resident could receive $5 million from San Francisco, $223,000 from the state, and additional payments from the federal government.

Some congressional Democrats have pushed for similar federal reparations and passed a bill out of the House Judiciary Committee in 2021 that failed to receive a floor vote. BET founder Robert Johnson has called for $14 trillion in federal reparations.

These reparations measures have a remarkable range of focus, from slavery to housing discrimination to wealth inequities. In California, there was a sharp disagreement on the purpose, with many advocates arguing that it was wrong to limit the money to descendants of slaves. Task force member Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D–Los Angeles) insisted that, “at the end of the day, people who are prejudiced against us are prejudiced against all of us.”

Ultimately, advocates like Jones-Sawyer lost a close vote on extending state reparations to all Black Americans. The state task force voted to limit it to descendants of slaves; there are almost 3 million potentially eligible Californians.

The two reparation bodies were tasked with calculating reparation awards — and both the city and the state will now be pressed to make good on their commitments.

The costs of such policies — condemned by critics as virtue-signaling — are being faced by some other jurisdictions as well. For example, New York and numerous other cities have declared themselves to be “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants yet, in recent months, have protested increasing transfers of such immigrants to their jurisdiction.

The cost of California’s statewide reparations is estimated to be $569 billion. The state’s annual budget is roughly half that amount, at $268 billion. Making things even more difficult, the state faces a $22.5 billion deficit and is seeking spending cuts to cover the shortfall.

This may not be a bill that can be politically postponed, given past statements by the governor and other Democratic politicians.

That leads to the question of such programs’ constitutionality. Even after the political approval of payments, it is not clear that this money will ever be paid.

Under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, race-based classifications trigger strict scrutiny requiring a showing of both a “compelling state interest” and “narrowly tailored” means. In City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469 (1989), the Supreme Court struck down a set-aside for minority businesses due to a lack of evidence of specific injuries. The court ruled that general past discrimination was not enough and added that “the dream of a Nation of equal citizens in a society where race is irrelevant to personal opportunity and achievement would be lost in a mosaic of shifting preferences based on inherently unmeasurable claims of past wrongs.”

Then-Justice John Paul Stevens added his liberal voice against such programs, noting that Richmond’s law “encompasses persons who have never been in business in Richmond as well as minority contractors who may have been guilty of discriminating against members of other minority groups.”

The reparations given in 1988 to Japanese Americans who survived World War II internment camps posed an easier issue, since the recipients were directly injured by the government and the money was meant to compensate them for their injuries.

The decision to narrow programs like focusing on the descendants of slaves or on housing deprivations will certainly be better for constitutional review than a general reparations measure. However, even liberal scholars like Erwin Chemerinsky seem to concede that these reparation measures would face series legal headwinds in the courts. The likely legal challenges are not often considered in discussions of reparations — but they could create a highly combustible situation, if large reparations guarantees were suddenly negated.

That legal fight, however, must await a moment of truth for California legislators.

Democratic politicians have insisted for years that reparations are essential to address systemic racism. But politicians like Gov. Newsom now face demands to put their money where their mouths have been. The years of calls for reparations have created a greater expectation, even an urgency. One well-known California activist declared: “It’s a debt that’s owed, we worked for free. We’re not asking; we’re telling you.”

That expectation is reflected in recent polling, showing a massive shift in the Black community on the question: 77 percent of Black Americans now support reparations — but, overall, nearly seven-in-ten (68 percent) of all respondents oppose such payments.

Thus, after defining reparations as a moral obligation, politicians may find it difficult to say this is an inopportune moment.

For Newsom and for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, the bill is now due.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

251 thoughts on “A Bill Comes Due: Will California Pony Up for Reparations?”

  1. canada being the last stop on the underground railroad, we want 2 trillion from black folk. Dresden Ontario.
    that’s fair right?

    1. Many of us Buddhists have clear memories of being slaves in our previous lives and wonder what job and skin color these California black people had back then. Why are they getting this money and not us?

  2. Jonathan: Reparations are not only about payments to the descendants of slavery. It also involves returning property stolen from African-Americans. On this subject I have some personal knowledge.

    I grew up near the beaches of Southern California. As a kid I swam and played with my cousin at Hermosa and Manhattan Beaches. On the “strand” where we rode our bikes there are two prime properties that stretch up the hill to Highland Ave. The property is a park with a Life Guard training facility right on the strand. Next to Highland there is a monument that reads “Bruce’s Beach”. I didn’t learn the history of that property until about 10 years ago.

    In about 1920, Charles and Willa Bruce, a Black couple, purchased the two parcels for $1,225. Due to racial segregation at the time in LA Black people could not enjoy most of the beaches in Southern California .So the Bruce’s bought the property–built a lodge, cafe and dance hall so Black people would have a safe place to enjoy the beach. But the predominantly white neighbors objected to the presence of so many Black people swimming and playing on the beach. They engaged in vandalism and even called the local chapter of the KKK that tried unsuccessfully to burn down the facility. Finally, after a lot of protest from the white residents the city commenced eminent domain proceedings against the Bruce’s in 2024. The city told the Bruce’s the city needed the property for a park. That was a ruse. The Bruce’s fought the city but finally agreed to sell for $14,500. The property remained empty for decades.

    Nearly 100 years later, after the Bruce’s were stripped of their oceanfront resort, the state and city of LA have given it back to the descendants of the Bruce’s. In a ceremony Janice Hahn, a member of the LA Board of Supervisors said: “Today, we are returning stolen land for the first time, but it will not be the last”. The Bruce family just sold their land to the county for $20 million.

    Two years ago I went to LA to visit family and friends. I took my 11 yr old granddaughter to visit “Bruce’s Beach”. We walked around the park and stood in front of the monument. After I told my granddaughter the history of the property she looked up at me and said: “Grandpa, how could something like that happen in America?” The Bruce case is not an isolated incident. It happened all over the country. Black families lost generational wealth because of racist policies. Too bad you don’t want to talk about this aspect of reparations.

    1. “Nearly 100 years later, after the Bruce’s were stripped of their oceanfront resort, the state and city of LA have given it back to the descendants of the Bruce’s. In a ceremony Janice Hahn, a member of the LA Board of Supervisors said: “Today, we are returning stolen land for the first time, but it will not be the last”. The Bruce family just sold their land to the county for $20 million”. …………………………..“Grandpa, how could something like that happen in America?”

    2. White folks who wring hands and whine about what happened generations before any of us were born, and make plans to take the money of the people for disgusting shakedown schemes like this, are the enemy of the people.

      1. Black folks, who wring hands and whine about what happened generations before any of us were born, and make plans to take the money of people who did nothing wrong, and who have already paid $billions for housing, education, public welfare, and cleanup/repair of looted, burned, destroyed property. What a disgusting shakedown scheme.

    3. Dennis: You make the mistake of proclaiming, “Reparations are not only about payments to the descendants of slavery. It also involves returning property stolen from African-Americans.”
      You’ve backed yourself into a corner on that one. It would be very, very easy to come up with 1000-fold of “$20 million” —in reparations due and owing to innocent, faultless Whites, for “returning property stolen BY African-Americans.”
      This includes $millions, -indeed, $billions– in stolen vehicles, emptied cash tills, smash-and-grab bounty, expensive jewelry, especially gold, Nike and Jordan-brand shoes and clothes, big-boomboxes, athletic gear, massive-sized televisions, guns and knives, illegal drugs, fraudulent welfare checks, and each other’s girlfriends (along with their Welfare-valuable out-of wedlock babies), still on public welfare despite available jobs. It’s not like bread for survival/sustenance was the objective…..
      I’d say we’re even, =call it a draw at this point, and move on, Toward peace and quiet, please……

    4. An exercise of the eminent domain power is not theft. They were paid. Then, the family got the property back when it was worth vastly more that it was worth at the time of its condemnation (condemnation is a forced sale; what it is not is theft). The family, there for, is vastly more well off than then the property was condemned of the facts as you recite them are true. Whether the use put forward as the purpose of the condemnation was genuine or a pretext is unknowable unless you can time travel and read minds. Many a condemnation in this country of property owned by both whites and blacks ended up not being used for the purpose for which it was condemned. See, for example,Kelo v. New London in which the City condemned the homes of long term, even multigenerational, residents so Pfizer Pharmaceutical could build a plant. It never happened. To give the family you write about would literally give the family a triple recovery. First, it was paid for the property in the condemnation. Second, it was gifted the property back, third it later sold the property at a very, very great profit. And I greatly resent the whole notion that the sins of the fathers should be visited onto the sons generations later or at the start. I am especially resentful when I consider that roughly 600,000 people died or were casualties in a war fought by the vast majority of the people of this country, in the North and the south who never owned slaves (only a minuscule portion of Southerners owned slaves),more Americans and British died to end slavery as an institution (which nobody else, including slaves, tried to do, they merely objected being slaves themselves and many ex-slaves owned slaves themselves). Finally slavery was practiced everywhere at all times in history before the British and Americans decided to put an end to it. It is a certainty that person alive has ancesters that were slaves and that owned slaves so I don’t want to hear anymore whining about reparations until all of us get reparations for our ancestor who were slaves. Who is going to pay that?

    1. Given that thought, though slavery as is occurred was despicable, descendants should be pleased with the opportunities subsequently offered, not always accepted, as opposed to the prospect of today living in the African bush.

  3. This is vote buying on a major scale. To compensate someone for something that happened to their ancestors? Slavery was and still is an evil thing. But the decedents of those people who were brought here from Africa would not exist today if it had not been done. Their parents and grandparents would not have existed because the line of people who met and had children would not have occurred. The enslaved from Africa were enslaved by African kings and sold to the Europeans. Maybe those seeking reparations should start in Africa.

  4. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more than 300,000 white people were shipped to America as slaves. Urchins were swept up from London’s streets to labor in the tobacco fields, where life expectancy was no more than two years. Brothels were raided to provide “breeders” for Virginia. Hopeful migrants were duped into signing as indentured servants, unaware they would become personal property who could be bought, sold, and even gambled away. Transported convicts were paraded for sale like livestock.


  5. Off topic but why no attention to the Murdaugh murders? I’m still curious about bumpy bear hand in 2007. When a straight couple went missing from Hilton head…And their lawyer was found dead stabbed in the leg. Bled to death. And there was a mysterious note….that said “keep looking’! You need to get with Nancy Grace and pursue these unsolved mysteries…..because it’s connection is likely a lot or of not ! Missing you in a “translator” is murdoughs Mexican who worked for translating gangs…ms 13? ?!? .sold maggies stuff too soon. It could be the whole system of South Carolina laws is owned by ms 13 already! Already since 2008. Our country ought to get to know if so. Because our borders are open….but if their gangs have already taken over whole hierarchy of states…..we are screwed! So it’s war! And we deserve to know it!

  6. The closest we ever came to a color blind society was the mid 80’s. Then came Rap and then came anger and then came hate. I watched it all. We are further apart today than we ever were since prior to the 40′,50’s and 60’s. Sad. This will only lead to more polarization in conjunction with the fact it will never happen because America is not willing to pay for it nor should she be.

  7. I can’t read. I can’t right.(write) but I’ve been taught to have a chip on my shoulder. So much for forgiveness and getting melting. Slavery is bad….but I want everyone else to slave away to pay me back……I want to enslave ppl who had nothing to do with it….then and only then is slavery bad!…Slavery is good for reparations to those ppl had no slavery! What racists….most them now didn’t even desend from slaves! Slaves got a lot….more than indentured servants! But if you want reparations so specific….go after the slave holder clans….don’t make me pay because I’m white? Ya racist. My Irish men didn’t enslave you! Get your reparations from the proper party …. Don’t be racist and come after my ancestors and me….we didn’t enslave you….even though we are white. … Oh but you say we voted for white supremecy? In what elections? You all are being racist now. In skin color….figures.

  8. 100% of AMericans (and any other culture) support free money. What an absurdity. How about reparations to people whose lives have been affected by criminals? That might be fair. But my Jewish, Catholic, Austrian, Italian, French, German, British family had nothing to do with slavery and have no obligation to any one of any color, race, ethnicity, or genetics, except to be kind and neighborly to them. And we always have done that.

    1. Apparently you haven’t been educated highly enough at one of America’s (formerly) prestigious universities. You’re not gettin’ on The Guilt Train? It’s rollin’ through your town. You can do it…

  9. This reparations issue is a farce, a multi generation disconnect. The country and culture has moved on and has made many “corrections/improvements”.
    Where/when would/will this nonsense ever stop? What about the point where women (& Blacks) get to vote? What about when our high school girls couldn’t play high school competitive sports until Title 9 came along. We have two daughters who were fortunate to arrive in High school soon after the Title 9 came into action in our society, our daughters are strong and contributory with things they learned playing sports in High School and College. Do we end up having a meaningful discussion about the positive side of changes or do some have to keep bringing up the past negatives which have now become ancient history?

    1. Grapestomper, it will never stop especially as long as people and government continue to count people by race and hyphenate them as well. I became so sick of my country I had to leave. There is no going back to the old days either. It’s sickening and it’s sad that our once great and proud country has turned into a big banana republic cesspool.

  10. There were 360,000 Union Soldiers who gave their lives so that these people could have freedom. Who gets THEIR reparations?

  11. What mechanism will be used to verify a person has a slave ancestor, if they want to make reparations for slavery? Has anyone taught them that family/tribe members often sold their “neighbors” into slavery, but have they reached out to those countries for reparations? Also, not all black people are descended from slaves. Watch the show Finding your Roots. Plus, why should people of today have to pay for something people did over 150 yrs ago? How many of those people that would have to pay have ancestors that arrived in this country less that 60 years ago? Too many questions and not enough good answers.

  12. Suggested businesses to be in if reparations are paid to black Americans:

    1. Gold chain business
    2. Rim business
    3. Carwashes

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