California isn’t golden for everyone

Estellah Aguirre, 2, at her home in Calexico, has struggled with asthma since she was an infant, according to her mother Edna Ruiz. A new study looks at racial disparities in California.
Estellah Aguirre, 2, at her home in Calexico, has struggled with asthma since she was an infant, according to her mother Edna Ruiz. A new study looks at racial disparities in California.

There’s a story we often tell ourselves in California – a story about a state that is home to a uniquely diverse population and where everyone is welcome and has an opportunity to succeed.

It’s an affirming and reassuring story for Californians, particularly at a time when our national politics have been hijacked by divisiveness and discord. It is a point of pride to embrace our leadership of the “resistance” to that rising tide of hate.


Still, it’s important for us to re-examine this story every so often. That’s what we set out to do with Race Counts, a new initiative by the Advancement Project California, in partnership with California Calls, PICO California and USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. The comprehensive, cutting-edge research, funded by The California Endowment and other statewide foundations, looked at ways racial disparities play out in all 58 counties across seven crucial issues.

What we found is that our idealistic vision is a far cry from the often grim reality in California today.

The black community is still weighed down with the worst disparities across the most issues, including life expectancy, homeownership, school suspensions, household income and incarceration. The Latino community is the largest racial group impacted by racial disparities. Several prosperous Bay Area counties also have some of the highest levels of racial disparity. And due to massive disparities in criminal justice and housing, Los Angeles County is ranked closely to inland counties such as Kern and San Bernardino.

Race Counts is a reminder that disparities in California are the product of ineffective systems and policies over the last several decades. As the state’s population grew and became more diverse, public investment decreased. So even as enormous wealth was created, the people benefiting from California’s prosperity were overwhelmingly white and already rich.

As a result we saw worsening educational outcomes, the rise of the mass incarceration, the shredding of the social safety net and our crumbling infrastructure – all hitting low-income communities of color the hardest.

Then came the more explicitly race-based and race-baiting policies of the 1980s and 1990s, including ballot measures that denied services to undocumented immigrants, enshrined an “English-only” approach to education and cemented the notorious “three-strikes” law.

Paradoxically, it was the prospect of financial ruin that finally broke California’s fever for discrimination and division. In the wake of the Great Recession, multiracial movements organized to demand equity, dignity and opportunity. A new wave of ballot measures chipped away at the hateful policies of the past.

These are achievements we should all be proud of and celebrate, particularly when our national leaders advance harmful policies on taxation, immigration, health care and other issues. At the same time, we also need to recognize that Californians still have a substantial amount of work to do if we want to live up to the vision of a truly inclusive Golden State.

Now is the time for us, as a state, to directly address the question of race and racial disparities. All our state and local elected officials must focus on smart and effective criminal justice reform and education while all candidates for governor should be called on to address the findings of Race Counts.

John Kim is executive director of the Advancement Project California and can be contacted at Robert K. Ross is president and CEO of the California Endowment and can be contacted at