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Opinion What Manhattan Beach, Calif., says about reparations

Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach, Calif. (Dean Musgrove/AP)
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The saga of Bruce’s Beach, a California park with stunning Pacific Ocean views, is a story for our times. The land was effectively stolen nearly a century ago, when the Manhattan Beach City Council voted to seize the property from Willa and Charles Bruce, a Black couple. Now, another government body is taking steps to return the land to the original owners’ descendants. But the town refuses to apologize for its long-ago actions, as some of those descendants are demanding.

The episode is, in microcosm, an example of the complexities of reparations, the emotional issues surrounding them and the difficulty of owning up to past sins. Can our nation make adequate financial reparations if it can’t agree on verbal apologies? What precisely is owed to descendants of the victims of racist government actions? For every Evanston, Ill. — which recently voted to offer up to $25,000 toward down payments or home repairs for Black residents affected by housing discrimination and their descendants — there are other places where legislation to even study reparations is foundering. The tangle of injured feelings stirred by the Bruce’s Beach dispute helps explain why.

Manhattan Beach today is a wealthy, very White suburban enclave a few miles south of Los Angeles International Airport. Black residents account for less than 1 percent of the population. In 1912, it was a slightly developed weekend and summer community when the Bruces bought property and opened a beachfront resort for Blacks. They prospered and soon purchased adjacent land.

But the Bruce family and their patrons were harassed. Car tires were slashed, and a Ku Klux Klan member was suspected of setting a fire on the property.

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In 1924, the city used eminent domain to acquire the Bruces’ land and some other nearby properties. “We thought that the Negro problem was going to stop our progress,” City Council member Frank Doherty later wrote, “so we voted to condemn” two blocks “and make a city park there.”

After several years of legal wrangling, the Bruce family received $14,500 in compensation from the town (about $225,000 in 2021 dollars). That’s peanuts in Manhattan Beach, where the median home price is $3.2 million.

When the Bruce family lost their property and business, they lost their best chance at intergenerational wealth. In that fate, they were not alone. In 2019, the median wealth of Black households was $24,100, or less than 13 percent of the $189,100 of White households. White U.S. families are twice as likely to inherit financially as Black families, and their inheritances are three times as large.

“We’ve had to struggle ever since,” Anthony Bruce, a great-great-grandson of the original owners, told me. He describes himself as being part of “the lower end of the middle class.”

Last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, area activists began talking about the injustice of Bruce’s Beach. They held a Juneteenth picnic to raise awareness, and Manhattan Beach’s City Council commissioned a task force to investigate as a petition circulated. Within months, state and county officials began working to return the land; legal and financial issues are in flux.

But when the Manhattan Beach task force recommended a formal apology, the town government — and some residents — balked. “We can’t paint the entire city of that time or today with a broad brushstroke of racism,” said City Council member Joe Franklin. “No resident in Manhattan Beach now is responsible for the racist actions.” Mayor Suzanne Hadley said they feared lawsuits and liability. So the town came up with a statement of “acknowledgment and condemnation.” It plans to spend up to $350,000 on a site installation to tell the property’s history.

Not good enough, says Anthony Bruce. He thinks his family should receive their land, an apology and possibly financial compensation. The loss of the thriving business has impacted the family for generations, he says. “We need to hold [Manhattan Beach] accountable for their actions.”

A second Black family that lost land at Bruce’s Beach to eminent domain in 1924 is also stepping forward. Anna Gonzales, 88, the oldest granddaughter of George and Ethel Prioleau, whose seized duplex makes up part of the park, also wants an apology. “We don’t blame the people who live in Manhattan Beach” today, she told me. “They’re not the ones who took the property, but there is a city responsible for their history.”

Our national history is one in which Black Americans have faced injustices since slavery: They earn less than Whites, are less likely to graduate college, are more likely to be jailed and have shorter life spans. But polls show that most White Americans don’t support reparations, and many social welfare programs — which often benefit Blacks disproportionately — draw more support when framed in race-neutral terms.

Correcting for racist actions that continue to the present day is a web of financial, legal, social and other issues that many Americans don’t want to face. When a wealthy, liberal California town can’t bring itself to even apologize for seizing land from Black residents a century ago to solve its “Negro problem,” it underscores what a long road lies ahead for justice and reconciliation.

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