The Golden State’s leaders believe that they lead a progressive paradise, ushering in what theorists Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca call “a new progressive era.” Others see California as deserving of nationhood; it reflects, as a New York Times columnist put it, “the shared values of our increasingly tolerant and pluralistic society.”
In response to the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to defund the police -- a move applauded by Senator Kamala Harris, a prospective Democratic vice presidential candidate, despite the city’s steep rise in homicides. San Francisco mayor London Breed wants to do the same in her increasingly crime-ridden, disordered city. This follows state attorney general Xavier Becerra’s numerous immigration-related lawsuits against the Trump administration, even as his state has become a sanctuary for illegal immigrants -- complete with driver’s licenses for some 1 million and free health care.
Despite these progressive intentions, Hispanics and African Americans -- some 45 percent of California’s total population -- fare worse in the state than almost anywhere nationwide. Based on cost-of-living estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent of California’s African Americans live in poverty, compared with 22 percent nationally. Fully one-third of Latinos, now the state’s largest ethnic group, live in poverty, compared with 21 percent outside the state. “For Latinos,” notes longtime political consultant Mike Madrid, “the California Dream is becoming an unattainable fantasy.”
Since 1990, Los Angeles’s black share of the population has dropped in half. In San Francisco, blacks constitute barely 5 percent of the population, down from 13 percent four decades ago. As a recent University of California at Berkeley poll indicates, 58 percent of African Americans express interest in leaving the state -- more than any ethnic group -- while 45 percent of Asians and Latinos are also considering moving out. These residents may appreciate California’s celebration of diversity, but they find the state increasingly inhospitable to their needs and those of their families.
More than 30 years ago, the Population Reference Bureau predicted that California was creating a two-tier economy, with a more affluent white and Asian population and a largely poor Latino and African American class. Rather than find ways to increase opportunity for blue-collar workers, the state imposed strict business regulations that drove an exodus of the industries -- notably, manufacturing and middle-management service jobs -- that historically provided gateways to the middle class for minorities. As a recent Chapman University study reveals, California is the worst state in the U.S. when it comes to creating middle-class jobs; it tops the nation in creating below-average and low-paying jobs.
Following Floyd’s death, even environmental groups like the Sierra Club issued bold proclamations against racism, but they still push policies that, in the name of fighting climate change, only lead to higher energy and housing costs, which hurt the aspirational poor. Many businesses, including small firms, must convert from cheap natural gas to expensive, green-generated electricity, a policy adamantly opposed by the state’s African American, Latino, and Asian-Pacific chambers of commerce.
Meantime, California’s strict Covid-19 lockdown policies, imposed by a well-compensated (and still-employed) public sector, have imperiled small firms. “There’s a sense that there was major discrimination against local small businesses,” said Armen Ross, who runs the 200-member Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce in South Los Angeles. “They allowed Target and Costco to stay open while they were closed. Many mom-and-pops may never come back.” Many restaurants -- roughly 60 percent are minority-owned -- may never recover, notes the California Restaurant Association.
In the past, poor Californians, whether from the Deep South, Mexico, or the Dust Bowl, could look to the education system to help them advance. But California now ranks 49th nationally in the performance of poor, largely minority, students. San Francisco, the epicenter of California’s woke culture, has the worst scores for black students of any county statewide. Yet educators, particularly in minority districts, often seem more interested in political indoctrination than in improving scholastic results. Half of California’s high school students can barely read, but the educational establishment has implemented ethnic-studies courses designed to promote a progressive, even anticapitalist, and race-centered agenda. Unless the education system changes, California’s black and Hispanic students face an uncertain future. A woke consciousness or deeper ethnic identification won’t lead to successful careers. One can’t operate a high-tech lathe, manage logistics, or engineer space programs with ideology.
California’s failure to improve conditions for Latinos and blacks was evident even before the lockdowns and recent unrest. What the state’s minorities need is not less policing, or systematic looting of upscale neighborhoods, or steps to reimpose affirmative action, or kneeling politicians; they require policies that empower working-class citizens of all races to ascend into the middle class.
The state’s leaders should prioritize improving middle-class jobs and opportunities, replacing indoctrination with skills acquisition, and encouraging local businesses. Considering the nature of California politics, this can happen only if minority Californians demand something different. That could happen if enough of these residents realize that the state’s ruling progressive class is interested in their votes—but apparently not in improving their lives.
(Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His new book is The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. This piece appeared in City Journal. ) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.