The George Floyd tragedy – four years later: where does California stand on equity?

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OPINION – Four years ago, the public murder of George Floyd aired on television and our entire nation and the world were openly subjected to the tragic realities of what Black, Indigenous, People of Color, American Indian and Alaska Native communities already know to be true – current systems of power have churned out a legacy of injustice in their neighborhoods for decade upon decade. After those horrific moments aired for the world to see, we heard government leaders, politicians, philanthropy, and private companies denounce systemic racism as well as make grandiose proclamations and commitments to “do better” and allocate resources to uplift community-driven, equity-based solutions. They hired more diverse staff. They passed resolutions and started anti-racism learning. They promised resources and change.

During this time period, COVID-19 was also killing black, brown, Asian, Pacific Islanders, and native Hawaiians, frontline and working-class community members at vastly higher rates than whiter, more affluent communities, who were not essential workers and could weather the ravages of the pandemic differently. California’s most vulnerable families were in crisis and equity advocates understood the time had come to make meaningful changes that would be lasting and felt by the people most harmed. The California Racial Equity Coalition was formed out of this urgent need. They proposed a realistic first step: a state Office of Racial Equity. The idea was to create and resource an entity within government to lead the states’ anti-racism efforts and address long-standing practices, policies and programs that perpetuate racial harm.

Two years later, the Racial Equity Commission was created. One of its key mandates is to develop a statewide Racial Equity Framework and Budget Equity Tool that will provide guidance and structure to state government in order to ensure it functions with racial equity as a core value for the first time in its history. This was made possible by the decades of work in California and across the nation by advocates who paved the way for real systemic change. Although the Commission lacks the permanency, authority and capacity of a state agency, it is a welcome start.

Fast forward to today, many of the fiscal commitments from governments and companies have gone unfulfilled. Moreover, in a year when California faces a significant budget deficit to the tune of $73 billion, the state’s solution is to reduce or eliminate funds and programs promised to frontline communities at the greatest risk of harm. Granted this isn’t the first time California has taken such an approach – during the 2008 recession, the social safety net and other life-saving programs were decimated in the state budget. But there is a pattern here: when it comes to budget deficits, the state of California balances budgets at the expense of communities that have faced historic and ongoing disinvestment for generations.

The goals and principles that created the Racial Equity Commission are precisely to ensure that when tough decisions have to be made about the state’s budget, the government prioritizes policies and programs that communities need and also includes these communities in the decision-making process. That’s not happening today. California’s leaders must find more equitable ways to balance our budget and not place the burden solely on our most vulnerable families. California’s budget cannot and must not continue to be complicit in perpetuating racial inequities. It’s time for leaders to honor their promises. Communities of color and low-income families in California today face some of the highest economic inequities and that growing gap is made worse by the effects of the housing and climate crises. The state’s forecast for closing the racial wealth gap looks grim.

Community advocates are now demanding the Legislature and Governor Newsom’s Administration to make good on their commitments to equity, and reconsider the drastic cuts highlighted in the most recent May Revision. Find budget saving solutions that do the least amount of harm to those who are already struggling. Communities who have been under-resourced the most should be prioritized to receive their basic needs. That is the definition of equity – and it is now time to make this a reality, not just rhetoric in response to terrible tragedies.

Elena Santamaria is Partnerships Manager and Senior Policy Advisor with NextGen Policy. Maria Barakat is Program Manager for Transformative Racial Equity at the Greenlining Institute.

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