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. Poorer families — disproportionately nonwhite and immigrant — are pushed into long commutes, overcrowded housing and homelessness. Those inequalities have turned deadly during the pandemic.
“If you’re living eight or 10 people to a home, it’s hard to protect yourself from the virus,” Senator Wiener told me. “Yet what we see at times is people with a Bernie Sanders sign and a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign in their window, but they’re opposing an affordable housing project or an apartment complex down the street.”
Once you start looking for this pattern, you see it everywhere. 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. In San Francisco, for example, it took 10 years to get two rapid bus transit lines through 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.
The vaccine rollout in California was marred by overly complex eligibility criteria that slowed the pace of vaccinations terribly in the early days. Those regulations were written with good intentions, as California politicians worried over how to balance speed and equity. The result, however, wasn’t fairness, but sluggishness, and California lagged behind the rest of the nation for the first weeks of the effort. Eventually, the state reversed course and simplified eligibility.
Some conservative outcomes are intended; California’s voters blocked the 2020 ballot initiative restoring affirmative action on purpose. But some reflect old processes and laws that interest groups or existing communities have perverted for their own ends. The California Environmental Quality Act wasn’t passed to stop mass transit — a fact California finally acknowledged when it recently passed legislation carving out exemptions. The profusion of councils and public hearings that let NIMBYs block new homes are a legacy of a progressivism that wanted to stop big developers from slicing communities up with highways, not help wealthy homeowners fight affordable apartments. California wants to be the future, but its governing institutions are stuck in the past. Its structures of decision making too often privilege incumbents who like things the way they are over those who need them to change.
Writing this piece, I found myself thinking about Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist.” Kendi’s central argument is that it is policy outcomes, not personal intent, that matter. “Racist policies are defined as any policy that leads to racial inequity,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2019. “And so, for me, racial language in the policy doesn’t matter, intent of the policymaker doesn’t matter, even the consciousness of the policymaker, that it’s going lead to inequity, doesn’t matter. It’s all about the fundamental outcome.”
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