Opinion: Newsom and California lawmakers need to say where they stand on reparations for slavery

Photo/Jason Henry/The New York Times / Kamilah Moore, the chair, left, and Amos Brown, the vice chair, right, preside over a Reparations Task Force meeting in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, May 6, 2023. A task force recommended that legislators enact a sweeping program to compensate for the economic harm from racism in the states history.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature will soon receive a sweeping set of recommended reparations for African Americans whose ancestors suffered economically from slavery and racial discrimination. Then what?

Then the governor and lawmakers will need to emerge from cover, face the public and devise a better response than we've been hearing: "I'm waiting for the final report of recommendations."

The report will be sent to the state Capitol by July 1. That's the deadline for the California Reparations Task Force — created by Newsom and legislators — to finish its two years of often-acrimonious work.

This will be a tough one for every politician and policymaker who tries to create a balance between providing some realistic semblance of justice without breaking the state bank. And there'll be some who just flat-out think that major reparations are unreasonable but hesitate to say it publicly.

"I'm a hard 'no,'" one influential Sacramento Democrat told me. When asked whether I could quote him, he responded: "Oh, sure, and then I'll be called a big racist and get all kinds of crap."

One person willing to speak on the record was Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio, a veteran Capitol operative.

"Democrats need to tread carefully on this one," he told me. "There needs to be an aggressive educational component about the recommendations to overcome voter skepticism that has been reflected in polling so far."

There hasn't been a public opinion poll on what California voters think about reparations that I know about.

But the Pew Research Center conducted a nationwide poll in November, and the response was mostly negative — 68% of adults were opposed to paying descendants of slaves in some way. Just 30% supported it.

Within racial and ethnic groups, 77% of Black people favored the idea. But only 18% of white people did, along with 39% of Latinos and 33% of Asian Americans.

For those who did favor reparations, cash was the least popular option. The most popular idea — by 82% of those surveyed — was educational scholarships.

One task force recommendation is that all state residents eligible for cash reparations be entitled to free tuition at California universities.

That certainly has merit. It could be a first step toward providing free tuition for all Californians — regardless of income — at the University of California and state university system.

Don't dismiss that concept so quickly. Free tuition was the state's policy for generations until the 1970s when Sacramento got cheap and the universities became greedy. Free tuition had long been a California attraction and helped provide the state with an educated workforce that built the economy.

California voters are more liberal than Americans as a whole, so they may be more receptive to reparations than most of the nation. But I suspect it will be a hard sell.

It will require strong backing from the governor, and so far he hasn't said much. What he did say recently got him in trouble. He seemed to dismiss the idea of cash payments, an impression his office later tried to erase.

"We should continue to work as a nation to reconcile our original sin of slavery and understand how that history has shaped our country," he said in a statement.

"Dealing with the legacy of slavery is about much more than cash payments," Newsom said.

The task force suggested cash payments of a lot more than $20,000 for descendants of slaves. It hasn't recommended a specific amount but has placed harm from slavery and racial discrimination from $150,000 to more than $1 million a person. So, we could be looking at tens of billions of dollars in payouts. Or more.

Good luck with that. The governor just projected a $31.5 billion budget deficit for the next fiscal year.

Nothing brings out the worst in politicians and people like a fight over race.

The upcoming tussle at the state Capitol over reparations can have a happy ending for everyone, but only if there's realistic compromise.

The Los Angeles Times