When it comes to preening, no American politician excels more than California Governor Gavin Newsom. His latest achievement, if you want to call it that, has been signing America’s first “reparations” bill for African-Americans. Although the terms are vague, there are promises of new free tuition and housing subsidies to anyone proving they are descendants of slaves. All this is supposed to be overseen by an Office of African American/Freedmen Affairs.
Given that California was never a slave state (in 1852 it was home to a total of 1500 enslaved people), the adoption of this statute seems a bit absurd. Generally the most persistent racial discrimination was aimed at larger populations — native Americans, the old Californios (descendants of Mexican/Spanish settlers) and, most of all, Asians, who were banned from landownership and were subject to brutal pogroms, with the worst occurring in Los Angeles in 1871.
Indeed, despite the existence of racism and often hostile relations with law enforcement, African-Americans saw California as a liberation from far more oppressive conditions in the South. Moving to LA en masse in the 1920s and 1930s, their numbers increased during World War II thanks to good jobs in the burgeoning aircraft, automobile, and construction economies. While black people no doubt faced some discrimination during this period, they experienced far less than they did elsewhere; in L.A., wrote Ralph Bunche, black people were “eating high up” off the hog.
Although never a large percentage of the state’s population, African-Americans peaked at just under 8% in 1980. But they made a big impact, producing such pivotal figures as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and San Francisco’s longtime Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, both refugees from Jim Crow Texas.
More recently the black population in California has actually declined to nearer 5.5%. The losses have been heaviest in the progressive-dominated cities. Since 2000, Los Angeles’ black population has dropped by 80,000, from 11% to 8% of the population. South Los Angeles is now majority Latino, while South Central Los Angeles, the site of two of the worst riots in American history, has suffered a growing gap with the surrounding area in terms of homeownership, income and educational attainment.
“We are becoming more dystopian,” attorney John Heath, a native of south Los Angeles, tells me. “We can’t house people affordably and only build luxury, and there’s no place for a middle class.” In his community, as in others, he says: “if you want to improve your life, you consider Dallas or Charlotte.”
The black hegira is even more obvious in Newsom’s hometown of San Francisco, where he also served as Mayor. The city’s African-American community has declined from one in seven in 1970 to barely one in twenty today, with most now ensconced in public housing. They are now so marginal that one filmmaker even made a movie called ‘The last Black man in San Francisco’.
Where are African-Americans headed? Primarily to cities in the South, the Intermountain West and even parts of the Great Plains. They do it because life is better for them there. Just look at African-American incomes and homeownership rates: California now ranks in terms of incomes and homeownership towards the bottom of states. Today, adjusted for costs, African-Americans have incomes slightly below their counterparts in Mississippi.
Reparations will undoubtedly be welcomed on campuses, the media and among professional race advocates. But ultimately it is not more important than the chance to earn a decent living, buy a house and get a good education. Under California’s current policy agenda — labelled as “the green Jim Crow” by civil rights attorney Jennifer Hernandez — these aspirations are blocked as companies and industries leave. They cannot be met by more subsidies and admissions of guilt.
Californians of all races, including African-Americans, need policies that don’t assuage white guilt but help minorities and poor people where it really matters — in the pocketbook.