“The sun may rise in the east but at least it’s settled in a final location” – Californication, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Republicans in 2020 lost America’s most populous state by nearly 30 points. Again. Orange County, the beating heart of Reagan’s sunbelt conservatism chose Biden by a double-digit margin. Republicans hold barely 1 of every 5 of the state’s Congressional seats. Thanks to its open primary system, the state’s 2018 Senate election was a contest between two Democrats.
As Dixiecrat refugees flooded into the GOP in the decades after the Civil Rights Act, they pushed the party toward an uncompromising white nationalist agenda. This helped the party seize control of Dixie, but it has doomed Republican politics in the places where America’s future is unfolding. White supremacist mythology is losing its hold on places transformed by knowledge capitalism. You can’t win elections on white paranoia when your voters aren’t interested in whiteness.
Hispanics make up 39% of California’s population while whites are now 37% and declining, but that’s not the whole story. Because the non-white population is so much younger, whites in California still constitute more than half of the state’s voters. California Republicans have further to fall.
Since 1990, almost 8.5 million new voters have been added in the state while Republican affiliation remained flat. Republicans are tied with “No Party Preference” in voter registration records. As weak as the GOP is in California, they are nowhere near rock bottom. California’s Republican Party is little more than a social club for bigots, religious nuts and grifters, politically irrelevant on its way to oblivion.
What would it be like to live in a place where the Republican Party has shrunk to irrelevance? A place where dog whistle politics doesn’t work. Where everyone assumes that every office of any significance will be held by Democrats? California offers a peek at a potential post-white future for the US. Though it has its highlights, on the whole it’s a troubling picture. California is a living experiment in the interest-convergence dilemma.
Professor Derrick Bell in 1980 summarized the interest-convergence dilemma: “The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites.” To date, almost all of the progress we’ve achieved in dismantling white supremacy has been a product of white frustrations with that mythology. IBM began battling Jim Crow because racial bigotry stood in the way of profit. White business owners in Houston in the early 1960’s worked to challenge segregation of public spaces because the practice was hurting business. Once the need for racial justice drifts into conflict with the interests of white allies, progress stalls.
California gives us a picture of life in which a unifying ethic of white supremacy has failed, but no new unifying ethic has emerged. Lacking the sense of “us” created by a shared mythology, one is left with a myriad of “me’s” each clamoring to protect their personal interests at the expense of the public interest. California has two “i’s” and no “us.”
Our white supremacist mythology served a purpose, creating a vision of “us” on which a degree of cooperation could be built among people with otherwise divergent interests, at the expense of a manufactured “them” from which resources and power were cruelly extracted. People will commit remarkable acts of selflessness to protect a mythological us. Strip away any unifying mythology and we’re left with an everyone for themself ethic, in which self-interest defeats community and progress is limited to issues that don’t incur new costs on the rich and powerful.
California is rich and rapidly getting richer. It consistently maintains the highest median household income outside the urban Northeast corridor, a remarkable achievement for a state with such a large population. Venture capital, the investment vehicle of choice for the knowledge economy, is a California business. More than half of all new venture capital investment in the US flows into California startups. New York and Boston come in second and third, followed at a distance by Seattle, Chicago and Denver. The state of Texas chalks up just 1/28th of California’s venture capital investment. West Virginia and Mississippi last year had $0 in venture capital investment.
Venture funding is important as it correlates closely with the creation of new wealth. Venture funded companies commonly include employees in stock ownership very early in their development, creating opportunities for employees of modest means to reap outsized returns if these firms are successful. This feature of the knowledge economy makes California a leader in minting new millionaires.
Massive investments in education and public infrastructure in the early 20th century, when the unifying myth of white supremacy remained largely unchallenged, made California the center of the knowledge capital revolution. For much of the 20th century white Californians could attend college for free. Those investments in education are continuing to pay dividends. Even after spending has been cut back and tuition added, California’s university system remains the envy of the world.
The overwhelming bulk of California’s wealth remains in the hands of white families. Until 1947, those free public universities were only open to white students. Segregation in public schools up to that time meant it would be decades before Black and Hispanic students would receive anything approaching the educational opportunities open to white students. Absence of a family history of college education, thanks to discrimination, further dampened opportunities for people of color. California is one of America’s richest states, and San Francisco perhaps its single richest wealth engine, but much of that boom in wealth was set aside for whites.
Which leads to an interesting challenge. While California mints new millionaires at a blistering pace, the state also leads the nation in poverty. California may have abandoned the mythology of white supremacy, but its legacy remains. With no new mythology in place to create a sense of “us-ness” among its citizens, there’s little shared identity on which to build politics of common interest. California’s noisy progressives have been quick to tear down symbols of racism, but less enthusiastic about reforms that might impact their wallets.
How did the state that cultivated Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan become a graveyard for the GOP? It’s not because California voters are so politically progressive. California is living on the other side of the death of white supremacy. That doesn’t mean they don’t have bigots. It doesn’t mean the state has become a beacon for African Americans or minorities. It means that the unifying myth of white supremacy has lost its hold on the population, its power to unite. White supremacy no longer inspires enough people to hold California communities together. Nothing has replaced it.
The death of white supremacy doesn’t end racism. It doesn’t necessarily produce more enlightened public policy. The collapse of white supremacy merely provides an opening for the emergence of something better. Something better might not necessarily emerge.
As recently as 2008, California voters approved a referendum to ban same-sex marriage. In 2020, while the state gave Democrats a thudding victory, voters rejected a series of progressive ballot initiatives, including an effort to reform the state’s disastrous, 70’s-era property tax laws which have fed their housing crisis. They rejected common-sense bail reforms, new rules for the gig-economy, and an effort at rent control. California’s voters aren’t particularly progressive, they just aren’t responding to Republicans’ white supremacist rhetoric.
America’s largest Democratic state just a few years ago failed to adopt a single-payer health care system. While San Francisco’s tech foundry stamps out new millionaires, its mayor in 2018 formed a “poop patrol” to contain the tide of human waste on the streets. California’s political leaders have manufactured a homelessness crisis on a scale hard to find in any country at peace. One in four of America’s homeless are sleeping in California. There are more homeless people in California than residents of Charleston, SC.
The reason is simple. California’s voters won’t allow the state, or their local governments, to loosen constraints on new home construction that prop up the value of their personal real estate investments. From Steve Lopez:
California’s wealth, in a way, is driving its poverty. The coastal-city empires of commerce can’t function without the support of those who teach our children, take our blood pressure, deliver our mail and fix our cars, but those hardworking folks are barely hanging on in this housing market while tech execs count bonuses and drive the cost of shacks into the millions.
Without some unifying mythology it is very difficult for people to form an “us” that includes others whose lives they don’t readily comprehend. Absent that mythology, otherwise nice people produce cut-throat politics in which my interests are the only interests that matter, if for no other reason than that they’re the only interests I can comprehend. Only a mythology of “us” can form the basis of shared interest.
What can a Democratic government accomplish in a place where white supremacy has receded to the margins and the GOP has become irrelevant? So far, they can move forward on matters that don’t split the state’s coalition between affluent, educated voters and minority voters from lower castes. In other words, progress on racial issues is now possible in ways not seen elsewhere in the US, so long as none of these policies undermine the financial or class interests of the affluent. The interest-convergence dilemma limits the horizons of California’s minority residents.
Oakland is piloting a remarkable citizen-run police oversight committee. Last year the Assembly passed legislation creating a task force on reparations. California has used its heft to push the federal government on carbon pollution and renewable energy. The state has pushed past federal resistance to begin building high speed rail links between major cities.
Where does California’s progressive tide break? Where it confronts the interests of the state’s large, powerful, overwhelmingly white “progressive” elite.
Protecting LGBT citizens from employment or housing discrimination? No problem. That’s been the law for nearly 20 years. Want to help Black and Hispanic students overcome historic discrimination by giving them a leg up in college admissions? No can do. That might make it harder for the less accomplished kids of affluent Bay Area families to leverage their ACT prep courses, elite high schools and money to muscle into coveted spots in the state’s public universities.
Want to fight homelessness by making housing affordable for ordinary people earning a wage? Sorry, can’t do that. Elderly white progressives in Berkeley sitting on million-dollar houses, shielded by the state’s absurd property tax exclusions, will fight tooth and nail to reinforce the state’s homelessness problem and protect their personal interests. It’s all Kumbaya and drum-circles until you try to build new housing on my block.
When COVID arrived, America’s great progressive stronghold should have been a bulwark. It wasn’t. The state didn’t perform as poorly as America’s COVID charnel houses in the Deep South and the Dakotas, but endless carping over masks and other restrictions dogged the state’s response. Not helping matters were Nancy Pelosi’s secret visit to a banned hair salon and Governor Newsom’s illicit fine dining in defiance of lockdown rules.
What happens when you replace an ugly, broken unifying mythology with nothing? You get a fractured population, pursuing the narrow politics of personal or class preferences, with no shared foundation on which to build common interests. In other words, you get California.
California remains America’s most promising launch point for a more equitable future, but the state’s experience so far reminds us that darker possibilities loom. The power dynamics from which white supremacy evolved, specifically its usefulness in fragmenting lower caste political organization, would remain relevant even if we forgot the meaning of race tomorrow morning. From Francis Ansley:
The class domination model [of white supremacy] has a “political face” in addition to its economic one. Its political aspect points out that white supremacy not only allows super-exploitation of blacks, but also blocks potential class-based action by splitting the working class. It is axiomatic that exploited classes divided against each other have less power compared to the relatively united exploiting classes.
White supremacy created an artificial alignment of interest between whites across class lines. It offered protection to working whites from the imagined predations of a mythical black menace in exchange for isolating them from any class organization across that racial barrier. Within that arrangement, lower income whites secured some valuable concessions, like preferential access to health care, schools and government jobs, a very unique form of “white socialism,” exclusive access to most labor unions, preferential treatment from law enforcement and the courts, plus the mythical wages of an imaginary white identity, softening white poverty in the glow of the master race.
Strip away that unifying mythology without replacing it, and the affluent actually enjoy greater power and fewer constraints than they experienced before. After the decline of white supremacy, the same gambit of race-based class division can be run in reverse, at perhaps an even lower cost.
A century ago, wealthy whites built a coalition with lower caste whites by weaving stories of the dangerous negro who will threaten your family and property. A similar new affluent class can now win votes from struggling Black and Hispanic workers by playing up the threat from cultish, bigoted white terrorists. Wealthy white progressives can wring political concessions from working voters without having to share anything of material importance. Herding lower caste minorities into an affluent white coalition might actually be cheaper than the bargain high caste whites struck over white supremacy.
As lower-caste whites still invested in white supremacy grow more militant and dangerous, wealthy whites have less and less political incentive to grant concessions to minority voters. Merely being less dangerous than those wildly racist Republican politicians is enough to co-opt the political power of minority groups.
Why are white liberals so enthusiastic about diversity training, “woke” signaling and inclusive pronouns? These are cheap political compromises that allow them to co-opt the political power of lower-caste non-whites without having to give up anything that matters to them. If we aren’t careful, we’ll replace a white supremacist mythology which demonized one lower-caste group based on their skin color, with the same mythology aimed a different skin color, to the same effect – fracturing the political power of lower-caste voters.
It’s the California Compromise: Vote to sustain the power of your tech overlords because at least they won’t kill you, unlike those drooling, inbred Republican hicks. It’s not an empty promise, but it’s many miles short of real political equity. In a perverse twist, the California Compromise might actually produce less overall sharing of wealth and power than white supremacy did. And it definitely isn’t a new unifying mythology. California is proving that post-white politics doesn’t necessarily produce equity, fairness or justice.
California is the best place to live in America if you can afford it. It’s also the most promising place in the world to become wealthy, as long as you’re starting out with the education, connections and other tools necessary to enter the game. For everyone else, a nascent post-racial order is delivering considerably less than promised.
Pushing white supremacy to the margins will not, by itself, pave the way toward equitable policies that other countries take for granted. Without a new unifying ethic, unseating the old ethic merely frees a new, less white class of wealthy to form more preferable alliances to divide the less affluent and preserve their interests.