Just as events have shattered assumptions about American exceptionalism, the pandemic and protests have exposed fault lines that render California more similar to the rest of America than many might prefer to believe. For all its claims to exceptionalism, California has an anything-but-exceptional history of institutional racism, fueled by decades of redlining, exclusionary zoning, criminal justice policies that disproportionately hurt black and brown men and failing public schools. Black people are far more likely than white people to die at birth, to be stopped by the police, to be homeless, to be in jail or prison.
The coronavirus has exacerbated racial inequities in health and wealth, disproportionately affecting blacks even as the economic free fall endangers services on which they depend. In Los Angeles County, where blacks are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 as whites, a primary source of care is threatened by state budget cuts. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital is the successor to a hospital opened in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots, a response to the abysmal lack of health care in the predominantly black community. Today, one of the most frequent operations performed there is amputation, a consequence of the high diabetes rates.
As the state faces a deficit of more than $50 billion over the next budget cycles, draconian cuts in services will compound the misery for those with the least to fall back on. In Los Angeles, a 2016 study found black and ethnic Mexican households had about 1 percent of the wealth of whites.
That stark reality, as Black Lives Matter protesters point out, is inextricably linked to the criminal justice system they are now trying to dismantle. California averages between 100 and 200 deadly encounters with the police per year. Two have taken place since the protests began. As thousands paid respects to George Floyd in Houston, a crowd gathered at an Oakland school to mourn one of its former students: Erik Salgado, shot by California Highway Patrol officers in a car with his pregnant girlfriend, who was wounded. A few days earlier and a few towns over, another death: A Vallejo police officer with reportedly a history of shooting incidents fired through his windshield and killed Sean Monterrosa, on his knees, unarmed, in the parking lot of a store that had been looted.
Response to the deaths, and protesters’ broader demands, has been muted among those elected and appointed to lead. In this respect, too, California has proved unexceptional. Public officials took knees, met with community leaders in black churches, issued news releases. They struggled to find meaningful words or actions, apologized for stumbles, defended decisions, led from behind.