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Column: California should revive affirmative action and launch a slavery reparations task force

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) has introduced bills to revive affirmative action and consider slavery reparations.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) has introduced bills to revive affirmative action and consider slavery reparations in the state.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Shirley N. Weber, a Democratic assemblywoman who represents parts of San Diego and its suburbs, practically exploded when I asked her whether two recent bills she has authored are intended as symbolic, amounting to mere consciousness-raising for Californians.

One bill would put a proposition on the California ballot asking voters to repeal Proposition 209, the 1990s-era amendment to the California Constitution that outlawed affirmative action and resulted in an immediate, precipitous drop in the number of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans enrolled at University of California campuses. While some campuses, including UCLA, have made progress in reversing the drop since then, others have struggled.

The other, if it makes it through the state Legislature, would create a task force to study and develop reparation proposals for the state’s African Americans, who have suffered lasting effects from injustices like slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, unequal education and mass incarceration.

“No, hell no!” Weber said. “I am beyond consciousness-raising..... I don’t do things for people to think about.”

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Her two bills were voted out of the Assembly’s appropriations committee on June 3, and she said she expects them to come to the Assembly floor soon, where she predicts they will garner enough votes to move to the Senate. If both houses approve, the bills move to the ballot, where, as Weber put it, “I only need 50% plus one” for ratification.

Sounds so simple.

Over the years, courts have issued conflicting rulings about the constitutionality of various affirmative action programs. Proposition 209 has been upheld more than once, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not looked kindly on many affirmative action programs.

But times have changed. The electorate has changed in California, and given events of the past two weeks, it’s quite possible that voters are willing to revisit the idea that some groups of people have been disadvantaged for so long that they may need extra support to get to college, to get a job, to get a government contract.

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“The worst effect of 209 is that it has limited opportunities that most people don’t even think about,” said Weber, 71, a professor of Africana studies at San Diego State University for 40 years before she became a legislator. Affirmative action programs are not just limited to college admissions; they also seek to redress underrepresentation of minorities in, for instance, public contracts involving construction. “I go to apprenticeship graduations in San Diego all the time — like carpenters — and there are no African-American kids there,” she said.

In Sacramento, said Weber, who chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus, construction of a new state building caused concern.

“Black people came knocking on my door and said, ‘You need to investigate why, with tax dollars being used, there are no Black people on the project.’” She took her concerns to the governor, she said, “and sure enough, they hired four or five guys.”

She fielded the same complaint a few years ago from African Americans in San Diego, who saw no Black people working on the construction of a new state courthouse.

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“Eventually, I asked our folks in the trades in San Diego how many Black people were working on that building,” she said. “They said they had one Black ironworker, but he was in L.A.”

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The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer launched a thousand protests, and revealed to many — seemingly for the first time — how racism underpins so much of American life. It’s like a software program, always running in the background.

“One of the battles you face,” said Weber, “is people don’t believe that life is that bad, or that racism exists, or that it existed for their parents but not for them, or that there are no lingering effects of slavery.”

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It’s not clear at this point how many Californians are descended from slaves, but that is one of the questions the task force — should the Legislature approve the bill — will attempt to answer.

Some things we do know: When it comes to slavery, California has a sordid history, starting with the enslavement of indigenous Californians by Spanish colonists and missionaries.

And though California didn’t have an overt Black slave trade, as Weber put it, “They condoned slavery and respected the right of the slave holder to own people. California brags about being a free state, and it really was not.”

California insurance companies, she said, insured slaves brought to California during the Gold Rush. Whites from the southern and eastern United States came West to try their fortunes, bringing their enslaved servants with them to toil in the gold fields.

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This, according to historical accounts, was among the reasons the California Constitution, adopted the year before California achieved statehood in 1850, outlawed slavery from the beginning; gold seekers didn’t want to compete with those who had the advantage of slave labor.

“We haven’t prescribed the outcome,” Weber said. “But something has to be done. It could be as simple as anyone who has lived in California for a certain number of years, they get admission to the university for free.”

Though polls show that most Americans do not support reparations for slavery, attitudes could change now that so many eyes are being opened to systemic racism. An April 2019 Fox News poll showed that overall, 60% of respondents opposed paying cash reparations to descendants of slaves but 54% of Democrats favored it. (Eighty-one percent of Republicans opposed it.) Last year, a House judiciary panel convened a hearing on reparations, for the first time in a decade.

Reparations for past wrongs have become, if not commonplace, then certainly not rare.

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Germany made reparations to victims of Nazi crimes during the Holocaust. South Africa has made reparations to victims of apartheid.

The U.S. has compensated victims of the Japanese internment during World War II, as well as victims of the Tuskegee experiment, where 399 Black men with syphilis were deliberately left untreated without their knowledge to study the diseases’s progression.

Chicago is making reparations to African Americans who were tortured by police between 1971 and 1992. North Carolina has offered reparations to the mostly poor Black women who were forcibly sterilized by the state.

In 1994, the state of Florida offered a reparations package to survivors of a race riot that destroyed the Black town of Rosewood. It included monetary compensation and college scholarships for their descendants.

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If we can open our eyes and our hearts to the legacy of slavery — and we have been making progress on that in recent weeks — then we can certainly open our wallets, as well.


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