Hardy Brown | Founder, California Black Media
Special to California Black Media Partners
Last year, I read a book titled “The Color of Law.” Every Californian should read it, too — especially if you truly care about Black lives.
“A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” the book subtitle reads. It is written by Richard Rothstein, a fellow at the Haas Institute in Berkeley. I’ve made a note to myself to write the publisher. I’ll ask them to swap the word “forgotten” in the subtitle with “un-acknowledged.” That switch in the book’s name would reflect just how little most of us Californians really know about our shared American and state history, and the state-created discrimination African Americans have endured. Black people suffering is central to our collective American story.
I was convinced of this when some tone-deaf comments a handful of elected officials made about African Americans and Affirmative Action reached my ears. The lawmakers going around bandying those hurtful, racially-coded and untrue opinions, so far, have been mostly White and Asian American politicians who are opposed to Assembly Constitution Amendment (ACA) 5, not realizing the benefits they themselves have gained from Affirmative Action programs.
They repeat that worn-out, beat-up and shortsighted line you’ve heard too many times. Any policy in California, they argue, that would consider race in college admissions, employment or contracting is itself racist, and it would, by design, reward benefits to people who don’t deserve them based on nothing more than the color of their skin.
That’s where their argument falls short. Yes, Affirmative Action is about race but it is also about much more than skin color.
It is about deplorable current circumstances that grew directly out of specific historical experiences. It is about equaling opportunity for descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States who were denied access to full citizenship rights both by law and custom. It is about compensation for unpaid labor and explicit discriminatory anti-Black, anti-former slave laws cooked up for nearly four centuries in city halls and state Capitols across this great country, including Sacramento.
If the Assembly and Senate vote yes on ACA 5, the measure will appear on the California ballot in November. If voters approve ACA 5, it will once again make it legal in California to consider race in public employment, education, contracting and even in state data reporting.
“The Color of Law” documents in clear and unsparing detail how city councils, state legislatures and the federal government crafted law after racist law, and adapted other public policies with built-in racial biases. These policies were created to intentionally exclude Africans and rob them of economic opportunity afforded others for centuries.
This is not make-believe. This troubling history is all documented.
Those same governments, here in California and around the country, extended hand-up after hand-up, using all of our tax dollars, exclusively to White Americans. These targeted economic programs improved the financial standing of millions of White Americans and contributed to the establishment of a strong and expansive White middle class in the country by the 1950s. Some of those same policies, way too many to list here, also contributed to the geographical segregation, by race and rail track, that persists in our cities and towns across the country.
And, no, “The Color of Law” is not only about states located below the Mason-Dixon Line in the old Confederate South — that all-too-notorious region of our country where slavery’s most infamous profiteers and their surrogates degraded, beat and slaughtered African Americans while whole families of us toiled in the fields without pay for centuries harvesting tobacco, cotton and rice.
“The Color of Law” also includes numerous examples of racist legislation right here in California.
Our state and its cities and towns — from our founding in 1850 to the minute you’re reading this sentence — have passed minor local ordinances and sweeping state laws on everything from public housing to the War on Drugs that have negatively impacted the pockets and peace of Black Americans.
In fact, so many of our cities created adjacent “unincorporated areas” where a majority of African Americans lived and received no municipal services for their tax dollars.
Today, African American Californians have the least household income and wealth among all other races, including many new immigrants, who have come and joined our multiracial American family, and benefited from the civil rights advances Blacks have shed blood and died to make available to all in this country and state.
Our children perform the worst on the state’s standardized tests among their peers of other races and ethnicities. We are arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison more than any other group in California, and we make up the lion’s share of the state’s homeless population.
By every study, we are stigmatized, racially profiled and discriminated against the most. This happens in every arena from hiring and hairstyles to apartment hunting and home buying.
In our UC and CSU schools, African American college students are the only group whose percentage of students enrolled is less than our representation in the state’s population.
Yet, so many of our fellow Californians of other races deny the impact state-created, sanctioned and implemented anti-Black policies have had on our lives and living conditions.
By the time I got to the last page of “The Color of Law,” I can’t say the book opened my eyes to the brutal history of anti-Blackness, enforced segregation, and legalized discrimination in California and around this country. I was born and raised in Jim Crow America in a former slaveholding state, North Carolina, where local elected officials always kept steps ahead of the federal government, rolling out their own counterforce laws to pull back on any national legislation that attempted to advance the rights of the descendants of slaves. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence.
The book did supply, however, a trove of concrete examples that confirm just how deliberate, deep-seated and un-American those policies that excluded African Americans for centuries have been.
So how can some of our fellow Californians turn a blind eye to our state and country’s role in contributing to the desperate and disparate conditions from which Black Californians have yet to recover?
This week, as our state’s lawmakers of all races and backgrounds prepare their hearts and hands to vote on ACA 5 in our state legislature, I urge each one of you to take an honest look at the cruel under-told and understudied history of American policies that have negatively contributed to the current economic and social conditions of Blacks here in California and across the United States.
I ask each one of you to pose some questions to yourself: Why do we keep confronting the same untreated racial problems decade after decade in our beloved Golden State? Why does it take the violent beating or murder of a Rodney King, Tyisha Miller, Oscar Grant, Stephon Clark or George Floyd to shock us out of our complacency? Why don’t we seek lasting solutions from the same hallowed chambers of representative government that have for centuries now too often been the birthplace of policies that have limited the rights of Blacks as Californians and American citizens.