Is California A Sunken Place For Black People?
"I had high hopes for black life when I moved here..."
I moved to California almost two years ago under the impression that I was moving to a bastion of black excellence and culture. Turn on any modern black series or film, and it’s likely set against the LA cityscape with gorgeous black leads who make six figures, own million-dollar homes and drive foreign cars with two-syllable names. Growing up to afrocentric parents in the predominantly white city of Seattle, I learned to equate California, and specifically Oakland, with racial awakening, disruption and forward thinking. Suffice to say, I had high hopes for black life when I moved here two years ago.
And that’s not to say Cali has been a complete disappointment. I found that the circle of black celebrities is shockingly penetrable. There are some black people who live in extreme affluence. And the basketball wives are unapologetically thriving. But a center for racial identity and progressivism? Nah, bruh.
California’s stance on what I always perceived to be progressive multiracial liberalism has limits that are quietly anti-black and perplexing. I’ve found that many black people actively subdue their black identity and highlight their other racial or cultural identities instead. A black coworker of mine informed me that their 10-year-old child just found out that they were black. When I asked how that was possible, I was told that California’s education system stresses multicultural colorblindness, to the extent that it’s completely normal for a black child not to “see” their own race.
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I’ve also come across black Californians who publicly dispel any ancestral ties to Africa, claim mercurial ties to Israel, and even affirm that black Americans are the true Native Americans. I promise you, I couldn’t make up some of these stories if I tried.
And then there are the stories from my black professional friends in Cali. Many have been told that they are too direct, aggressive and confrontational, despite their advanced degrees, accomplishments and accolades. I even had a friend tell me that her white female coworkers pulled her aside to confess that the reason she hasn’t received the mentorship she’s so desperately sought is because their senior colleagues are intimidated by her and don’t want to try to relate to her. So instead, they ignore her.
Then there’s my realm of higher education. Throughout California, most universities only have an average black population of 3 percent. This is alarming considering that California is home to the fifth largest black population nationwide. It’s also shocking because it’s a stark contrast from the on screen well-educated and rich characters of Think Like a Man, Being Mary Jane, Love & Basketball, etc. But it makes sense given that the University of California regents abolished race as a factor for consideration for college admission in 1995, resulting in an instant plummet in black student enrollment. For example, in 1997, 7.8 percent of Cal’s 6,250 first-year students were Black, last fall there were 2.5 percent Add to that the fact that in 2013–2014, only three out of 10 black students completed the A-G course sequence required for admission to four-year colleges in California (The State of Higher Education in California, May 2015).
But how did this happen in California, one of the nation’s most racially diverse states? Is there something in the sunshine?
California’s has a horrific history of white supremacy. Immigration bans against Chinese and Mexicans? Check. Government-sponsored relocation of Japanese Americans? Yup. KKK-led reigns of terror against black vets seeking better housing? You got it. “Sundown towns,” small towns with policies stating that blacks weren’t allowed in public after dusk, were a fact of life for black residents from Hawthorne to the East Bay in the early twentieth century. Given this history, my daunting conversations with black Californians about racial identity and success should come as no surprise. California’s Black consciousness isn’t necessarily dormant by choice—it’s a “sunken place” because the state has all but given up on us.
Thankfully, black politicians are still fighting for us. By focusing on policies like affordable housing, criminal justice reform and educational access, energetic, unapologetic and mostly young black politicians are pushing for change in California and nationwide. Compton’s youngest mayor Aja Brown was just re-elected for a second term. Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton just made history as the youngest elected black mayor in January of this year. California attorney general turned senator Kamala Harris is getting all of our hopes up for a presidential run amidst her bold questioning of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently. And then there’s “Auntie Maxine.” Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who has a political career spanning 37 years, has made headlines in the last year for calling out racist policies, our president, and affirming black culture.
I don’t know what the future of black success will be in California, but I know that we have nowhere to go but up. Maybe the new dream team will lead the way.