Recently the State of California and two groups, Justice for Bruce’s Beach and Where Is My Land have taken mere talk about reparations and turned it into action.
In 1912, a Black couple, Willa and Charles Bruce purchased a beachfront property in Manhattan Beach, CA. The Bruces quickly added and developed three additional lots making a beach resort and restaurant that allowed Blacks beach access. Bruce’s Beach was one of only and handful of places that Black people could enjoy a day at the beach free from white intimidation and harassment. In 1927, under the pretense of building a park, the city of Manhattan Beach took control of the land from the Bruce family claiming eminent domain and razed the buildings. Eminent domain along with outright seizure of land held by people of color has been a common practice used by municipalities throughout U.S. history.
The September 30, 2021 ceremony held to return the land to the Bruce family descendants and acknowledgment by governor Gavin Newsom of the illegal seizure of the Bruce property should be applauded. The time, place, people and political climate were right for this first step towards racial justice and reparations.
No talk about reparations can be undertaken if we do not start with Native Americans. Activism by Native Americans in California has already set a precedent. In November of 1969 Indian activists used the Treaty of Laramie as a legal reason to occupy Alcatraz. The U.S government had signed numerous versions of the treaty starting in 1851, but had not honored any of them. The treaty of Laramie is one of more than 300 treaties made with Native Americans that were not honored by the U.S. government. A clause in the Laramie treaty says “all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land was to be returned to the Indians who once occupied it.” This clause was used as the reason to occupy Alcatraz for over 6 months.
Before settlers came to the land now called the U.S. it had been occupied by more than 570 tribes of Native Americans. The solution I offer as a starting point for a discussion on Native American reparations is to return all “unused”/”out-of-use” federal land to the Native Americans who once occupied it. This does not displace or disrupt the 360 million Americans who currently occupy Native American land. For millennia before Anglos came Native Americans had maintained these lands in their pristine natural state. There is no reason to think management by Native American tribes of former tribal lands would be anything but exemplary.
Conversations about reparations usually concern granting reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. Many White Americans consider the idea of monetary reparations too large and monumental to undertake. The reason for this is obvious to people of color. White Americans have received the lion’s share of the benefits of stolen labor, land and property from people of color. The difference between average White family wealth and net worth as compared to Black family’s wealth and net worth is just one of the many indicators that show how benefits have accumulated disproportionately to White Americans over the last 250 years.
America’s unwillingness to acknowledge or discuss the matter of reparations has been on full display in Washington since 1989, when Representative John Conyers began introducing a bill just to create a committee to discuss reparations. Congress refused to even form a committee to discuss the matter for 28 years. Representative Conyers retired in 2017.
The numbers on reparation for just labor stolen during slavery and Jim Crow are monumental. Some estimates go as high as $25 trillion. That is one-quarter of all the assets of the U.S. Black Americans have created much of the wealth of this country. Indeed, slavery in the Americas enabled cotton production that was the engine of the entire Industrial Revolution. As happened to Native Americans, Black Americans have had their wealth creation disrupted by white-initiated riots, segregation and land grabs under the veil of eminent domain. The argument of eminent domain was used in 1924 by the City of Manhattan Beach to seize the Bruce property.
But as in the suggestion in the case of Native American reparation there needs to be a starting point for discussion. I propose cash reparations. Interestingly, cash reparations have a precedent set by another California governor, Republican Ronald Reagan, who as president signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1989. This gave $20,000 to each Japanese-American survivor of U.S. internment camps during WWII. About $1.5 billion dollars was dispersed.
Again, for those that say this is too monumental of a task, remember we as a nation have just spent $10 trillion on a “war” in Afghanistan and Iraq that did not benefit the U.S. or its citizens in any observable way (except profiting corporations like Halliburton). This figure is one-tenth the value of all the assets of the country. Over seven thousand were killed and over fifty thousand were wounded in these two “wars.”
There is an interesting twist to cash reparations for Black Americans. This twist is one that is never talked about, and one that White Americans fail to acknowledge when they dismiss the idea of cash reparations: Black Americans would be paying for the reparations too. It is money from taxes we have paid that will be funding these reparations. Black Americans have paid taxes since the Civil War. For generations, we have paid taxes funding services and institutions which thanks to Jim Crow we couldn’t use like public facilities, universities, schools, libraries and civic buildings.
The State of California, governor Gavin Newsom, and groups like Justice for Bruce’s Beach and Where Is My Land may have provided a crack in the wall of denial that has prevented conversations and actions from happening on reparations for the last 160 years. Their actions on reparations in California have proved that the time, place, people and political climate might be right for this first step towards racial justice and reparations in the U.S.