Monday, April 8, 2024








        Try taking an apology to the bank and see what the teller says, or even the bank president.


        One thing for sure: No apology will directly produce a bank deposit.


        Thousands of Black Californians knew this as they attended hearings across the state last year aiming to develop an aid package for descendants of slaves who still suffer after-effects of bondage. So they responded far more enthusiastically to the possibility of cash reparations than anything else mentioned.


        Not preferential college admissions or affirmative action in hiring, nothing else drew crowd approval crowds like cash.


        But there is no cash in any proposal for reparations now being floated in the state Legislature, even the 14-bill package announced earlier this year by the legislative Black caucus.



        That’s partly because there’s no cash to be had in this year of huge budget deficits amounting to somewhere between $38 billion and $73 billion. It’s also due to a seemingly definitive poll which found last fall that California voters by more than a 2-to-1 margin oppose paying descendants of the enslaved cash reparations for atrocities against their forebears.


        That survey by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found 59 percent of voters against and just 28 percent in favor, with a relatively paltry 13 percent undecided or neutral.


        Cash reparations, said poll director Mark DiCamillo, have “a steep uphill climb, at least from the public’s point of view.”


        It’s no surpise, then, that the key piece of reparations legislation this year involves no money, or even affirmative action, which many Californians have long opposed. Rather, it would require the governor to apologize quickly to descendants of human chattel. That costs nothing, but from the viewpoint of Black lawmakers may seem as if it would leave them a big foot in the door for future actions on other types of reparations when times grow fiscally looser.


        Even last year, with much smaller deficits than now, Gov. Gavin Newsom made it clear he would veto cash reparations. Not wanting to embarrass him by forcing an actual decision, majority Democratic legislators won’t yet try to pass out money.


        One reason most Californians look askance at cash reparations is that this state was never a center of slavery. Under pre-Emancipation federal law, slaveowners could bring their human property into free states and see them remain enslaved. Similarly, escaped slaves could be tracked down in so-called free states and forced back to their previous owners.


        California was part of this, but not a ringleader, essentially no more culpable than New York, Massachusetts and Illinois, all hotbeds of abolition.


        California voters looking at those historical realities were not last year inclined to pay the great-great grandchildren of slaves victimized by a Supreme Court that upheld slavery even in free states. That court included five justices from slave states.


        If only because of California’s peripheral involvement with slavery, it would make no political sense to back monetary reparations. Plus, the concept may be illegal on its face.


        That’s because government favoritism of one group over others is not permitted under the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which guarantees all who live in America “equal protection of the laws.”


        So if one person whose forebears suffered legally sanctioned injustice could get six-figure cash reparations from the government, so could any other persons whose ancestors also suffered government-imposed injustice.


        That would include Native Americans enslaved by Californians including John Sutter, whose Sacramento fort is often recognized as a key starting point for the Gold Rush, and possibly also Chinese and Jewish Americans precluded from owning some properties by legally approved property covenants.


        Start giving big chunks of cash to members of all these groups and soon money itself might become meaningless.


        The bottom line: The legislative Black caucus is wise to limit its demands in this early phase of recognition that some kind of compensation is in order for those who continue to be victimized by the aftermath of slavery.


        It’s possible that looser financial times will make more measures possible, but certainly not yet.



    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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