You may have heard that San Francisco’s Board of Education voted 6-1 to rename 44 schools, not only stripping ancient racists of their laurels, but also Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The history upon which these decisions were made was dodgy, and the results occasionally bizarre. Paul Revere, for instance, was canceled for participating in a raid on Indigenous Americans that was actually a raid on a British fort.
In normal times, bemusement would be the right response to a story like this. Cities should have idiosyncratic, out-there politics. You need to earn your “Keep X weird” bumper stickers.
But San Francisco’s public schools remain closed, no matter the name on the front. “What I cannot understand is why the School Board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. And that’s where this goes from wacky local news story to a reflection of a deeper problem.
San Francisco is about 48% white, but that falls to 15% for children enrolled in its public schools. For all the city’s vaunted progressivism, it has some of the highest private school enrollment numbers in the country — and many of those private schools have remained open. This is why the school renamings were so galling to so many in San Francisco, including the mayor. It felt like an attack on symbols was being prioritized over the policies needed to narrow racial inequality.
I should say, before going further, that I love California. I was born and raised in Orange County. I moved back a few years ago, in part because I love California’s quirks and diversity and genius. California drives the technologies, culture and ideas that shape the entire world. But for that very reason, our failures of governance worry me.
California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, when you factor in housing costs, and vies for the top spot in income inequality, too. California is dominated by Democrats, but many of the people Democrats claim to care about most can’t afford to live there.
When he ran for governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom promised the construction of 3.5 million housing units by 2025. Newsom won, but California has built fewer than 100,000 homes each year since.
Watching SB50, State Sen. Scott Wiener’s ambitious bill to allow dense construction near mass transit, fail has become an annual political ritual.
California talks a big game on climate change, but even with billions of dollars in federal funding, it couldn’t build high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project was choked by pricey consultants, private land negotiations, endless environmental reviews, county governments suing the state government. It has been shrunk to a line connecting the midsize cities of Bakersfield and Merced, and even that is horribly over budget and behind schedule.
Smaller projects are also herculean lifts: to get years of environmental review. It’s become common in the state to see legislation like the California Environmental Quality Act wielded against projects that would curb sprawl. Groups with no record of green advocacy use it to force onerous environmental analyses that have been used to block everything from bike lanes to affordable housing developments to homeless shelters.
This is a crisis that reveals California’s conservatism — not the political conservatism that privatizes Medicare, but the temperamental conservatism that stands athwart change and yells “Stop!” In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal. Those signs sit in yards zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes that would bring those values closer to reality. Those inequalities have turned deadly during the pandemic.
There is a danger — not just in California, but everywhere — that politics becomes an aesthetic rather than a program. It’s a danger on the right, where Donald Trump modeled a presidency that cared more about retweets than bills. But it’s also a danger on the left, where the symbols of progressivism are often preferred to the sacrifices and risks those ideals demand. California, as the biggest state in the nation, and one where Democrats hold total control of the government, carries a special burden. If progressivism cannot work here, why should the country believe it can work anywhere else?
I hope California keeps being weird. But it needs to do better.
Ezra Klein is a New York Times columnist.
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