Racism has caused a public health crisis in California. Now what?


Editor’s note: Today, Capital & Main is launching a new bi-weekly column, “California Uncovered,” in which veteran journalist Minerva Canto will explore the intersection of health, wealth, and race. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Canto will take a broader look beyond the novel coronavirus at the economic and racial forces driving health disparities in the nation’s most populous state.



A wave of optimism is breaking in California communities where government officials called racism a public health threat early in the pandemic. So many public acknowledgments of racism at once were unprecedented. Now the challenge is to move from solemn declarations to adopting policies that help reverse the effects of this racism.

The American Public Health Association (APHA) has counted at least 37 government institutions in California that have declared racism a public health crisis – the most of any state. And a bill currently stalled in the state legislature would add California itself to the list and create an office of racial equity.

These statements could pave the way for government leaders to transform their communities.

That was the goal of San Jose State sociology professors Scott Myers-Lipton and William Armaline when they unveiled a statistical index in June 2020 that detailed the huge disparities in wealth and health among workers in the Big Tech and people of color living in Silicon Valley.

“The issues raised by the Pain Index are intended to show how institutionalized racism plays out,” Myers-Lipton said.


Four regions in California feature on a recent list of the Brookings Institute’s top 10 metropolitan areas with the most income inequality nationwide.



“The Silicon Valley Pain Index: White Supremacy and Income/Wealth Inequality in Santa Clara County” started at zero for the number of black women employed by 10 top Silicon Valley tech companies. In a county with 74 billionaires, more than one in four residents did not have enough to eat. The document went on to list 65 in total, ending with $307,500,000,000 for the dollar amount of cash reserves among Silicon Valley’s four largest tech companies (Facebook, Apple, Cisco and Alphabet, the parent company of Google).

“The Silicon Valley Pain Index” has become an annual compilation. When the first index was unsuccessful, Myers-Lipton and Armaline held meetings with policymakers after the second index was released in 2021. Less than a year later, a bill to help students low income is in preparation and other projects are in progress. the chart, according to Myers-Lipton.

In many ways, says Armaline, “The Silicon Valley Pain Index” is a mirror of the “economic dystopia we’ve created in this country.”

Indeed, four California regions feature on a recent list of the Brookings Institute’s top 10 metropolitan areas with the most income inequality nationwide. Such widespread inequality does not bode well for the future of the state, where people of color make up more than 60% of the population.

* * *

The “Index” was published by the San Jose State Institute for Human Rights the same week the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors declared racism a public health crisis. It was the first county in California to do so. The timing was coincidental, but not surprising given how many people across the country relied on racism after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, a black man, in May 2020.

“Racism has resulted in geographic segregation that disproportionately exposes people of color to lead poisoning, poor air quality, inadequate nutrition, and underfunded health care and recreation facilities” , reads the San Bernardino County statement.

These solemn declarations were welcome public acknowledgments of the racism experienced for decades by people of color. But in San Bernardino County, not everyone agreed that racism was a problem, even as COVID-19 killed people of color at disproportionate rates.

“I just don’t believe a certain community should be targeted and helped when the whole county is [in] crisis! Shouldn’t your agenda as leaders of our community be to focus on improving the county as a whole? someone posted on the county’s website.

“County supervisors are simply trying to garner votes by intentionally falsifying and misrepresenting statistics,” another message said.


A bill pending in the state legislature would declare racism a public health threat in California and create a California Office of Racial Equity.



Following the racism resolution, San Bernardino County officials convened a group of 16 black community leaders, calling them the Equity Element Group. The group was tasked with identifying racial equity issues and suggesting potential solutions. Members helped draft a request for the county to hire an equity consultant and made recommendations to improve public safety and education.

Meetings and other declarations, but were there any tangible results that improved the lives of county residents?

Pastor Samuel Casey, executive director of Organized Churches for Prophetic Engagement in the City of San Bernardino, helped push county supervisors to make their 2020 racism statement, but now says he’s frustrated.

“Who will be willing to be brave enough to say this is an opportunity we are missing?” asked Casey, a member of the Equity Element Group. Casey remains hopeful, eager for the group to start meeting with the equity consultant to develop “solutions, concrete plans, with accountability, monitoring and resource allocation.”

Asked about the status of the racism resolution, San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert released a statement saying the “resolution is still in effect,” but provided no further detail.

* * *

APHA praise the statements of racism as a public threat, calling them “an important first step in drawing attention to racism and changing the discourse in ways that can lead to changes in policies, laws and resource allocation”.

However, the wording of each statement is crucial in determining the specific actions that government officials should take to follow up.

“There are some where local ordinances have changed… Others where workforce assessments are conducted with a racial equity lens,” said Dawn Hunter, Southeast Region Manager. of the Network for Public Health Law. “A lot of people are still in the ideation stage. I think over the next year we will start to see more actions being implemented.”

Admittedly, 18 months is not a long time to make significant changes. After all, racism leading to health and wealth disparities has been embedded in politics and organizations for generations.

A bill pending in the state Legislature could accelerate statewide efforts to reverse the negative health effects of racism. SB 17 would declare racism a threat to public health in California and establish a California Office of Racial Equity. Improving piecemeal approaches, the office would oversee state agencies in removing policies that result in racial inequality.

The bill has the registered support of 70 organizations, but the socially conservative Capitol Resource Institute argues that the disparities are neither a matter of justice nor the result of institutional racism. CRI placed a written statement on the legislative record that said, in part: “As individuals, we make our own choices, and those decisions have consequences.


Inequalities in health and wealth will continue to plague people of color until policymakers simply issue public statements.



However, decisions made by governments and powerful institutions limit the choices individuals have in the first place.

In his bill to create the Office of Racial Equity, Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician and chair of the Senate Health Committee, details the historical events that led to today’s health inequities . Among them are the genocide of native residents of California, the forced repatriations of thousands of American citizens of Mexican descent, and the internment in prison camps of American citizens of Japanese descent.

“The seeming ease of life in California is an illusion,” wrote Joan Didion in an essay about behind-the-scenes machinery diverting water across the state. Likewise, hidden mechanisms have always existed in California and elsewhere to ensure a steady stream of racist policies and laws. The status quo does not change easily when those in power take advantage of it, even when people’s lives are at stake.

In 2021, the “Silicon Valley Pain Index” grew to 89 digital listings, ending at $2 trillion, Apple’s market value, reflecting a doubling in value during the pandemic. (Earlier this year, Apple briefly hit $3 trillion.) Another number that has risen is the amount of food insecurity, which has quadrupled, with Second Harvest of Silicon Valley providing groceries to half -million customers each month.

As the report notes, “the level of inequality during this pandemic has gone from bad to horrible.”

Inequalities in health and wealth will continue to plague people of color until policymakers simply issue public statements.

An analysis of public statements of racism as a threat to public health, published in the journal Frontiers in public health in June 2021, found that government agencies have committed to adopting changes but have rarely allocated funds for these changes. The researchers also cited a lack of accountability as one of the main issues blocking efforts to move “from anti-racist rhetoric to anti-racist action.”

“Our bodies, our people, deserve better than becoming numbers, figures or models,” the researchers wrote. “It’s time for public health to consider its history, how it works today, and to think more radically and critically about how to move from non-performativity to health equity.”



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