Monday, April 3, 2023







        The amounts of money now bandied about as some Californians debate whether the state should pay reparations to descendants of slaves with African forbears dwarf anything this state or any of its localities has ever considered.


        The state-appointed Reparations Task Force, yet to take a formal position on this, was urged by many Black activists to recommend giving $360,000 each to about 1.8 million Black Californians whose ancestors were enslaved, even though there was no legal African-derived slavery in California after statehood began in 1850.


        Some task force members resist such huge cash payouts, preferring other forms of reparations in fields like education and employment, especially since the state faces a deficit of more than $20 billion as its budget-approval deadlines approach.


        Almost simultaneously, San Francisco supervisors unanimously expressed support for a draft plan by a city-appointed committee calling for $5 million cash payments to all local descendants of slaves, plus guaranteed annual stipends of $97,000 for 250 years. No one has any idea how the cash-strapped city, down a reported 100,000-plus residents since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, could pay for all this.


        But the proposed largesse for persons with enslaved ancestors may be misdirected, suggests an about-to-be-published, eye-opening book by a University of Delaware historian, who says that while California had no legal Black slaves after statehood, it condoned plenty of other slavery.


        The coming book, California: A Slave State,” by Jean Pfaelzer (Yale University Press, probable price $35), claims that while California never had many African-descended slaves, it has had many others, including an unknown number of human-trafficked women held as sex slaves today.


        Writes Pfaelzer, “The story of California is a history of 250 years of uninterrupted human bondage. California thrived because it welcomed, honed and legalized ways for humans to own humans…”


        Pfaelzer writes that at the same time slave ships crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean, bringing human chattel to the future United States and many Caribbean islands, Spanish priests who established the historic string of missions along the California coast were enslaving nearby Native Americans.


        “Under four empires – Spain, Russia, Mexico and finally the United States,” she says, “(California) grew as a slave state.”


        She begins with the history of U.S. Army depredations against indigenous tribes, especially in Northern California, where troops made weekly forays to Indian settlements throughout the 1850s, driving their residents at gunpoint to strongpoints like Ft. Seward, near the present-day Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County, where adult males were slaughtered and their bodies burned, while women and children were sold off or indentured.


        She relates that almost any California Indian could be captured and enslaved unless they could prove they were gainfully employed – and very few could. She adds that many families were deliberately separated, a practice also inflicted on African-descended slaves in the old South.


        Pfaelzer also describes how Chinese laborers brought to California by 19th Century railroad barons were enslaved in a variety of ways.


        She describes Chinese women caged and violated for decades in San Francisco brothels, and Southern whites bringing Black slaves to California during the Gold Rush.


        Her book should raise new questions for reparations commissions, state and local. Perhaps the commissions should not focus solely on or be composed almost exclusively of Blacks and perhaps they ought to consider the diverse forms of slavery practiced here, rather than concentrating exclusively on the plantation-centered slavery of the old South.


        There’s also the question of whether the virtual decimation of Native American tribes by things like warfare and smallpox left so few alive that the take from casinos run by those who have survived obviates the need for any reparations.


        But this would leave out enslaved Chinese, modern trafficked humans from eastern Europe and Asia and others who contributed unwillingly to California’s rise to its current status among the world’s top five economies.


        All of which means slavery reparations commissions operating today are incomplete in their very composition, which will inevitably make any plans they offer one-sided and favoring descendants of one type of slavery over others that were comparably cruel and debilitating.


        That ought to cause everyone involved to take a deep breath before adopting expensive but unfair and incomplete plans.



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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