This year, Americans witnessed the full impact of systemic racism that has plagued our country since the first Thanksgiving. As the pandemic and recession ravaged communities of color and highlighted long-standing disparities, millions of people peacefully took to the streets to demand racial justice. Despite this, California took few opportunities to right these wrongs, and much progress is needed.
We have seen some of the starkest racial inequities in the pandemic’s impact on communities of color. As Latinx workers perform essential work that keeps our state running, the number of cases in the Latinx community has far outpaced other demographic groups. Latinos only make up 40 percent of our state’s population, but constitute 53 percent of COVID-19 cases.
In addition to risking in-person exposure at work, Latinos are also most likely to become unemployed due to the economic collapse of the service industry. For example, 53 percent of Latinx individuals are part of the food service industry severely impacted by COVID-19. Fifty percent of Latinos lost their jobs between February and September of this year, making it difficult to pay rent or put food on the table.
Given these dire economic circumstances, our Legislature passed policies to ensure adequate PPE for essential workers, to support small businesses, and to provide monetary support to undocumented Californians who pay taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) number. But more is needed.
When it came to racial justice, Californians had the opportunity, in the form of Proposition 16 on the November ballot, to reverse our state’s ban on affirmative action. Prop 16 would have allowed public agencies to consider racial and gender disparities in contracting, education, and employment and removed barriers to equal opportunity.
The original affirmative action ban was enacted during a conservative era of California politics and supported by former KKK leader David Duke. The main opponent to Prop 16, Ward Connerly, referred to white nationalists as “super patriots” and praised Trump as our nation’s first truly “color-blind” president. But despite these bedfellows, Californians declined to reverse this policy at the ballot box. Election results show that much work needs to be done to educate each of our diverse communities about Prop 209’s consequences.
On a more positive note, the Governor recently signed Assembly Bill 979, which I authored along with Latinx and Black colleagues to address the lack of diversity in corporate boardrooms. According to May 2020 data from the Latino Corporate Directors Association, of the 662 publicly-traded companies headquartered in California, 233 had all white boards, while only 13 percent had at least one Latino board member.
Decades of underrepresentation in corporate America have exacerbated the economic inequities in our diverse communities, such as the fact that Latinas make 55 cents for every dollar paid to white men. Since representation across business leadership is critical to addressing these inequities, AB 979 will require publicly-traded corporations to increase the number of board members from underrepresented groups.
2020 also laid bare the incredible racial inequities related to housing. With millions of Californians out of work, we have faced the specter of skyrocketing evictions and homelessness, while too many Latinx families have been forced to live in overcrowded conditions that lead to COVID-19 spread. I authored this year’s main tenant protection legislation, Assembly Bill 3088, that prevents Californians from being evicted for nonpayment of rent through the end of January. But hundreds of thousands of Californians need more than temporary relief, and California is woefully short of the affordable housing and shelter we need to permanently address our housing and homelessness crises.
As we look to 2021, California must adopt policies that produce fair outcomes for all—from health and housing, to employment and education, to environmental justice and criminal justice reform. We need to do more to expand access to food banks, protect essential workers, ensure timely delivery of unemployment benefits, and strengthen labor protections. As the Legislature reconvenes during the winter months, we must keep the experiences of 2020 fresh in our minds as we fight for a recovery that ensures equity for all.