California politicians are promising to address racism with new policies, including a potential state constitutional amendment, ACA 5, that would restore racial, ethnic, and gender-based preferential hiring and college admissions. As one lawmaker remarked, “It is time to eliminate the systemic racism that permeates our society. We will not stand for anything less.”

But at least some of the politicians who are promising to address racism are the same ones who are responsible for the reasons so many Californians—particularly Blacks—struggle economically, decade after decade. These politicians must know by now that their policies, which reduce economic opportunities, increase living costs, and perpetuate a failed K–12 education system, have imposed substantial and disproportionate harm on Blacks, Hispanics, and women. But they continue doubling down on this failed agenda by passing new laws and imposing new regulations that make Black lives—and the lives of many more Californians—much worse off. 

Many in the country now blame racism as the central cause of Black economic and social struggles. But in California, economic policies that cater to a small number of political elites are the key factor oppressing people of color. California is perhaps the worst state in the country in terms of economic well-being for Blacks, because the cost of living overwhelms the benefits of even the highest-paying jobs in the state.

 To see this, I first note that Blacks living in coastal California, the location of California’s highest-paying jobs, do earn incomes ranging from 20 percent to nearly 50 percent higher on average than Blacks in the rest of the country. So far so good, yes?  But California’s extraordinarily high cost of living swamps these higher nominal incomes to the point that many families are immiserated and struggle to make ends meet.

For example, after adjusting for cost-of-living differences, real median household income for Blacks living in Los Angeles is 32 percent below the national median for Black households. And it is even worse in San Francisco, where the real median household income for Blacks is 45 percent below the national average.

To put this in perspective, salaries are among the lowest in the country in Mississippi, yet Black median household incomes in Jackson are 11 percent above the national median after adjusting for Mississippi’s much lower cost of living.

Housing costs are the major factor in depressing California living standards. The median-priced home in San Francisco is over $1.6 million. Less than five percent of Black households living in San Francisco can afford that home. In contrast, 55 percent of Black households can afford the median-priced home in the rest of the country.

For those who identify bigotry as the key factor driving today’s different racial economic and social outcomes, think about this statistic for a moment; 55 percent housing affordability nationwide for Blacks, versus five percent affordability in San Francisco, one of the most economically vibrant—and politically liberal—cities in the country.  

This is not overt bigotry and prejudice at work. San Francisco was never the home of Jim Crow, but it is the home of ridiculously stringent regulatory policies that prevent new housing from being created. For example, if a planned apartment building in San Francisco will likely block the sun on a neighboring property, then don’t even try to get a building permit. No go. Similarly, suppose you fancy developing your decrepit, 1970s-era downtown San Francisco laundromat into new housing. Think again, because your eyesore washeteria will almost certainly be petitioned by neighborhood community activist groups to be historically preserved in order to fight gentrification, thus blocking your development.

Every Bay Area property owner knows that you had better be prepared to spend millions in legal fees and several years of your time fighting for the right to use your property to put a roof over people’s heads. The above regulations are just two of the comedy-skit-equivalent restrictions that plague Bay Area housing, where the cost one pays to rent a small bedroom in a crowded home with several other tenants is about equal to a full mortgage payment on a new home in most of the rest of the country.  

Many Black families in California are indeed economically oppressed by housing costs. But this oppression is not the “racist roots of capitalism,” as the New York Times 1619 Project wants you to believe. What is going on in San Francisco is the antithesis of capitalism. Rather, this oppression is blatant non-market-based economic policies created by politicians who are delighted to be part of an anti-racism press conference or photo op in the morning while shutting down new housing proposals in the afternoon.

The failure to build housing is a failure of governance, pure and simple. And this failure is not the consequence of battling political parties. California’s Democratic party has a comfortable supermajority in both the Senate and the Assembly, yet these lawmakers refuse to pass legislation that reduces regulatory barriers and expands housing supply.

Many housing-reform bills have been advanced in the past several years, but they never get enough votes. Most Democratic lawmakers refuse to support these because they would be going against some very powerful political supporters, who either do not want to expand housing or who hold up development in order to funnel some of its economic value to politically important interest and advocacy groups. These range from unions that benefit by being hired onto a construction project to existing businesses that do not want to face new competition and neighborhood activists who demand that developers pay for pet projects.

California legislators have doubled down on the economic pain of over-the-top housing costs by passing legislation last year that disproportionately hurt people of color and women by making it illegal to be self-employed, unless the person’s occupation happens to be in a politically protected classification, such as a physician or attorney. Independent contractors who have lost their livelihoods because of this new law, AB 5, have inundated their representatives with correspondence to abandon it, as has the California Black Small Business Association.

California’s progressive legislators are busy writing legislative proposals to address racism, ranging from providing reparations to the descendants of slavery living in California to limiting felony probation to no more than two years. But no Democratic lawmaker has offered to abandon AB 5. In fact, the latest state budget proposal, which is supposed to address a $54 billion budget deficit, includes $22 million in funding to enforce the law that prevents people from engaging in what is otherwise legal work. 

Who is particularly harmed by this law? People of color. In the Bay Area, nearly 80 percent of gig workers—the group that was originally targeted by the law—are people of color, and more than half of gig workers are immigrants. Racism? How could it not be?  And this racism is created by the most progressive lawmakers in the state.

Why won’t Democrat legislators roll back AB 5? Because by trying to force independent contractors into formal employer-employee relationships, unions—which are perhaps the most important political supporters for many Democratic state and local lawmakers—have new employees to potentially organize into collective-bargaining units.  And now that the country is deeply engaged in soul searching about old racial wounds, let’s not forget that trade unions—the potential beneficiaries of AB 5—were among the most racist institutions of the 20th century.

But the most insidious racism among California politicians is in K–12 education. Less than five percent of California’s Black students are in a high performing school.

Many Black students are woefully unprepared for postsecondary education, because they attend horribly deficient K–12 schools. What to do? Much research shows that school performance could improve substantially if common-sense reforms were made to teachers’ union agreements, including the time to teacher tenure, the ability for a school to fire teachers for cause, and the introduction of merit-based pay. Very different studies show that simple modifications could improve student lifetime earnings enormously.

Several of the authors of these studies provided expert witness testimony in a lawsuit brought by nine California schoolchildren. This lawsuit was led by Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, who, along with seven other children, filed an equal-protection lawsuit against the State of California, arguing that their constitutional rights were being violated because of the awful education that they were receiving. These exceptionally bright students—almost all are students of color—took their education in their own hands because no one in the state’s K–12 school system would.

Now, the state could have faced this lawsuit by treating it as an opportunity to systematically address California’s educational shortcomings, particularly in schools primarily attended by children of color. This opportunity could have opened the door to implementing politically sensitive school and union reforms that virtually all experts view as required. But the state chose to fight its own students while having the backs of their politically important teachers’ unions.

The trial judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on all counts. His decision, which focuses on the disparate impact of badly performing schools on Blacks and Hispanics, emphasizes that the expert findings were not only compelling but that they “shock the conscience.” Let that soak in for a minute, because we are dealing with kids here, most of whom have no other educational options.

One of the experts found that spending one academic year with a poorly performing teacher was equivalent to losing about 9.5 months of satisfactory education. Note that a school year is about 9 months. According to this research, having a bad teacher for a year is worse than having no teacher at all.

The trial judge’s decision struck down teacher tenure and dismissal rules. You are now thinking that perhaps the state should have worked cooperatively to improve their very own schools rather than losing at trial, yes? And that this decision should have been a wake-up call for much-needed reforms, yes?

Wrong. In what is perhaps the most ironic of all this year’s political campaigns, then California attorney general Kamala Harris, who is now considered a frontrunner to be Joe Biden’s running mate, and who argued so passionately during her presidential candidacy about public education and minorities and failed schools, appealed the decision, just two days after it was announced.

The state’s progressives decided to fight its own children yet again, including children of color—more than 4.5 million—many of whom receive deficient educations. Ironically, no one in the original trial, including the experts on behalf of the state, claimed that minority children were not being significantly damaged by attending bad schools. Nor did the Court of Appeals, which agreed that harm was being done but claimed that the lawsuit did not merit an equal-protection argument because school administrators—not the tenure and teacher dismissal statutes—determine where badly performing teachers are placed. 

What the Court of Appeals failed to see is that the original experts, including school principals, showed that bad teachers are invariably sent to poor districts with disproportionate minority student populations. Put differently, the worst teachers don’t magically find their way into teaching in Beverly Hills. Since the teachers can’t be fired, administrators must place them somewhere in their districts, and the worst teachers are transferred to districts with overwhelmingly poor families. Yet again, progressive politicians failed people of color and their children.

It has been six years since the Vergara lawsuit, and nothing has changed. But it is much worse than that. In 2018, two Democrats faced off in the election for school superintendent. One candidate, then Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, was the status quo candidate, hand-picked by the state Democratic party, and with 100 percent teachers’ union backing.

The other Democratic candidate, Marshall Tuck, was a school reform candidate, who believed that modest changes to teacher tenure and compensation policies, including introducing merit-based pay, would improve schools substantially. But at the state’s 2018 Democratic convention, Tuck was not even allowed to speak. His convention presentation, where he had planned to describe his reforms and why they would help children from poor families, was drowned out by a well-orchestrated chorus of boos. This is the state’s progressive political agenda. And it stinks, no matter what you call it.   

As the country confronts difficult issues associated with a complex past, it is fundamental that we focus on solutions for our collective future. Reforming institutions and creating policies that are fair, equal, and efficient is what everyone should demand from their representatives.

But the history of progressive politics in California is anything but this. And unless this inconvenient progressive history is recognized, then trusting voters will continue down this stained path, voting for more progressives and dooming more generations of people of color and their children to futures that could have been so much brighter.

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