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July 5, 2022

What Is the Limiting Principle on Reparations?

Nearly a hundred years after a racially motivated land grab, reparations will be made. But is the wrong really righted?

Members of the Bruce family are in the process of being given back beachside property. The two parcels of land on Manhattan Beach had a resort called Bruce’s Beach Lodge. It offered job opportunities and access to the seaside for black Americans until 1927, when Los Angeles County took it through eminent domain. The Bruce property was not the only casualty. Several other nearby homes were also taken in an effort to rid that area of black Americans.

On Tuesday, June 28, all members of the Los Angeles Supervisory Board voted to return the public property back to the Bruces’ patrimonial descendants. This marks the first official government act of reparations in the country. It was spearheaded by activist Kavon Ward, who was inspired to act after the death of George Floyd. Ward is the CEO and cofounder of Where Is My Land, an organization that seeks to help black families reclaim land that was taken from them illegally and/or violently by white Americans. It has close ties to Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors.

Ward had this to say about the Bruce case: “We celebrate this victory, but we prepare to keep fighting. Black land [being] pillaged is an epidemic that affected Black people across this country. Not only has it been time for reparative justice, but it’s also time for people claiming that they stand for Black lives to stop talking about what needs to change and actually being about the action it takes to create that change.”

Ward’s theory about the great need for reparations and restitution is an interesting one. Her webpage speaks very passionately about black people’s lost generational wealth. In fact, it makes the claim that George Floyd could have been a millionaire but for theft of wealth by white Americans.

The Bruce case is a cry for justice … but a very shortsighted and misguided one.

Reparations, as a concept, seems like it might be a decent and correct thing to do. But it has several drawbacks. The Bruces still had to sort out who was a real descendant and who was not. There were 100 people who, through the vetting process, were discovered to be greedy interlopers trying to cash in on the inheritance. This was just one land reparations claim from 93 years ago. Imagine that on a greater scale. It is rife with the opportunity for corruption and theft.

Next, there is the question of who qualifies for reparations. According to my own family lore, the land on which Walt Disney World sits once belonged to my forebears. That land was lost in the Great Depression. Should my family receive reparations from the government? The answer is a resounding “No” for many reasons. For the purposes of this argument, though, reparations would be denied because my family doesn’t have the right qualifications: melanin.

Reparations, according to the rules that are being laid out in California, are based on the racial essentialist idea that white equals oppressor (bad person) and black and brown equals oppressed (good person). If you are white, you are immediately disqualified for reparations because this culture and its institutions are designed to help you succeed and create generational wealth. (Tell that to my great-great grandpa who lost everything and to the generations in which poverty ensued).

The other significant drawback to the concept of reparations is that it has no statute of limitations. Take the Bruces’ property as an example. LA County took it from the Bruces. But where did the Bruces get it from? And where did those owners get the land from? If you trace it back far enough, wasn’t that property technically Mexican at one point? Should the Bruces give it to the Mexican government? The Mexicans weren’t technically first; they inherited it from the Spanish. The Spanish first visited the land in 1542, and eventually had a permanent settlement there by the 1700s. Even the conquistadors weren’t the first owners of the property. The land belonged to various Native American tribes. For “stealing the land,” shouldn’t Bruce’s Beach or even all of California be restored to the Native Americans?

This is the slippery slope, the road to hell that is paved with so many good intentions. It is rife with the potential for abuse both financially and racially, and it has no parameters to speak of in terms of statute of limitations. Reparations will ultimately not solve the racial tensions within our country because it justly or unjustly demonizes the past while ignoring or normalizing the needs of the country in the present. As a nation that overcame slavery and segregation and established civil rights, we should be striving to love and get along with one another. Instead, we are retrograding, stirring up old grievances. And in some cases, black Americans are wanting to segregate again. Reparations only serves to feed the rancor of the latter.

Until we can come together and strive to live for the ideal of “one nation under God,” there will not be much progress in the way of healing.

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