At a rally for reparations at the African Burial Ground National Monument, July 23, 2021 in New York City. (Photo/Forward-Michael M. Santiago-Getty Images)
At a rally for reparations at the African Burial Ground National Monument, July 23, 2021 in New York City. (Photo/Forward-Michael M. Santiago-Getty Images)

What would happen if Black Californians received reparations? The Jewish experience provides some answers.

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Jewish victims of the Holocaust have so far received over $90 billion in reparations, while African Americans who were enslaved and their descendants received nothing.

You could argue over the exact amount that this country owes descendants of enslaved individuals, but it’s become increasingly difficult to argue that it’s zero.

Even though slavery ended more than 150 years ago, a milestone we celebrate on Juneteenth, a new report makes the case that the time for reparations is now  — and given our own history, we Jews should understand this better than anyone.

On June 1, a California commission tasked with investigating whether the state should offer reparations to Black residents released a detailed report on the lasting effects of slavery and white supremacy, which it called “a persistent badge of slavery.”

Those effects have been part of a national debate for some time, but the recommendations of this task force went further than any other state in detailing both the history and possible remedies. (At a municipal level, in 2021 Evanston, Illinois approved reparations for Black residents.)

The 492-page report examined the history and lasting effects of slavery and discrimination in areas such as housing, public health, education and criminal justice — and that history is damning.

California entered the Union as a free state in 1850, but at the height of the Gold Rush, between 180 and 1,500 enslaved people were trafficked into the state and forced to work in the mines.

“In order to maintain slavery, government actors adopted white supremacist beliefs and passed laws to create a racial hierarchy and to control both enslaved and free African Americans,” the report states.

The nascent state was also complicit in human trafficking: An 1852 law required Californians to capture those who escaped and return them to their enslavers. In 1874, 22 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous “separate but equal” decision, California’s high court ruled segregation in the state’s public schools was legal. California did not allow Black men to vote until 1879. The state gave free land to white homesteaders until 1900, then banks redlined Blacks out of suburban neighborhoods, depriving them of opportunity to build wealth as so many Californians have, through real estate.

As a result of these and other discriminatory practices, the commission found the median Black household had a net worth of $24,100 as of 2019, just 13% of the median $188,200 net worth of white households.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is a senior columnist for the Forward. Follow him on Instagram @foodaism and Twitter @foodaism or email [email protected].


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