After Supreme Court Ruling, Reparations Fight Lives On as ‘Not Race-Based’

The uncertain legality of paying reparations for slavery and its legacies came into focus last week when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected racial preferences in college admissions nationwide. But while some see the ruling as a major setback for the reparations movement, it isn’t likely to deter its advocates, who say that redress for racial discrimination would not be based strictly on race. 

The same day the Supreme Court declared the admissions practices at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina unconstitutional, Kamilah Moore, head of the California task force at the forefront of the national reparations effort, announced on Twitter that the cause is not affected by the decision: “Our reparations recommendations are not race-based, but rather are based on lineal descent.”  

It’s a subtle distinction stemming from the California Reparations Task Force’s razor-thin 5-4 vote last year to restrict eligibility for reparations only to California residents who qualify by lineal descendant – either from an enslaved African American, or from a free African American person living in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century. That eligibility criterion will exclude several hundred thousand black people living in California – namely Caribbean, African, and South American black immigrants who arrived in this country in the 20th century.  

On the same day the court ruled, the California task force had rolled out an ambitious reparations program for an estimated 2 million black residents, containing more than 100 proposals, including free college tuition, a guaranteed income program, and cash payments that could exceed $1 million for some eligible African Americans.

Task force members repeatedly stated that their damning historical analysis of American racism, and their proposed remedies, are intended to serve as a blueprint for the entire nation to adopt in atonement for what they see as the original sin of slavery and its discriminatory legacies, such as segregation, redlining, and mass incarceration.  

The totality of the demands – which would cost California taxpayers an estimated $500 billion to $800 billion if enacted as proposed – is calculated to show that colorblind policies are woefully inadequate for the task of remedying a centuries-long catalog of historical injustices. Indeed, the task force’s report, exceeding 1,000 pages and drawing on international human rights precedents, reads like a case brought before an international human rights tribunal, putting American society on trial for crimes against humanity.  

“For those reactionaries who say slavery is old news and the time for reparations has passed, well, you know what, I’ve been a civil rights lawyer for 20 years and I say show me the statute of limitations on mass genocide,” said task force member Lisa Holder at the panel’s final meeting last month. “Show me the statute of limitations on the world’s greatest crime against humanity and show me the statute of limitations on accountability for original sin.” 

California’s reparations agenda is now in the hands of state legislators, who will have to decide which, if any, of the recommendations will become law and state policy and which will be shelved. But even before the Supreme Court ruled that using race as a factor in college admissions is unconstitutional, courts had struck down race-based and identity-based preferences – such as a federal $4 billion debt relief program for non-white farmers, and California laws imposing gender quotas and diversity mandates on corporate boards.  

At the same time, California voters in 2020 resoundingly reaffirmed the state’s 27-year statewide ban on racial preferences in state government hiring, contracting and in college admissions – known as Proposition 209. 

Lawsuits are virtually assured, as reparations skeptics consider eligibility by lineage to be a proxy for race. What’s more, one of the California Reparations Task Force’s 100-plus recommendations would repeal Prop 209, which was upheld by 57% of voters in a 2020 referendum. If that happens, the action would provoke the advocacy groups that had formed for the express purpose of keeping racial preferences out of state government. 

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