California Here We Come, Right Back Where We Started From

Noah Smith of Bloomberg has often argued that Hispanic assimilation and a minority-white America will make for an assimilated, multicultural society and a declining salience of race to American culture, most recently in this Twitter thread. In this case, he uses California’s demographic transformation to forecast the future of race in America, which is helpful, because this argument is demonstrably untrue in California’s case.

California has a majority Hispanic public school population, and student achievement within each race (white, black, Asian, and Hispanic) is not only below average relative to the rest of the country, but racial gaps are very large as well:




naep_ca_2011_reading_8th_results (1)

White/black and white/Hispanic gaps in degree attainment (percent of young people receiving college degrees) are also larger in California than in the rest of the country:


The increases in diversity and Asian educational attainment in the state have largely displaced blacks from the state university system, and the politics of affirmative action have been more rather than less fraught as the state changes demographically:


Anecdotal accounts also confirm that racial issues in California schools have hardly retreated from salience.  Last year, San Francisco schools responded to high failure rates and racial gaps in achievement in its “Algebra for All” initiative (tracking all middle school students to take Algebra 1 by the end of 8th grade) by replacing it with “Algebra for None.” When Governor Jerry Brown, argued that the achievement gap was unlikely to disappear and should not be the main measure of the efficacy of education policy, a consortium of civil rights groups immediately joined together to force him to walk back his remarks. Meanwhile, the head of the San Francisco school board called for schools named after George Washington to be renamed, since Washington was a slave owner.

Education is not the only arena in which California has seen increased racial inequality in recent decades. During the last few decades of rapid demographic change in California, racial gaps in income have also rapidly increased, relative to both whites and Asians:

California’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) is 7th highest in the country, equal to that of Honduras, Nicaragua, or the Dominican Republic. Despite a near doubling in state GDP over the last 20 years, there has been a near tripling of the number of Californians in poverty and receiving food stamps:




Black/white gaps in mortality and in the percent of residents receiving cash welfare are larger in California than in most states:


receiving welfare


These racial gaps in income, poverty, and educational attainment, are compounded, of course, by some of the highest average housing costs in the country, and typically large gaps in homeownership:



A reasonable inference is that California’s supermajority Democratic state legislature and Hillary Clinton’s massive electoral margin are not a sign of the reduced salience of race but its increased salience. Clinton’s campaign- friendly to corporations, focused strongly on racial identity, eager to maximize aggregate economic product and then redistribute it rather than use industrial  policy to ensure rising median wages, matched well the current political economy of California.


California has a lot going for it, economically and geographically (although its recent fire and water crises might be signs that it is approaching some of the limits of its natural bounty), but the idea that it demonstrates how a demographically transformed America will escape from the salience of racial barriers and from structural racial inequality seems demonstrably untrue.

14 thoughts on “California Here We Come, Right Back Where We Started From

  1. Love your blog, just found out about it. You give a whole new ideologically neutral, objective perspective of things in these increasingly toxic times. I’d love to send you some interesting things you’ve probably never read before that I’m pretty sure you will appreciate, how can we get in touch?


  2. The California Smith describes certainly doesn’t seem any California I’ve been to, but it is an easy deception since most people probably have no first-hand experience.


      1. Maybe. If those social bands really exist, they are really small [which has nothing to do with how influential they might be].

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Noah Smith often makes a lot of facile points, and he should really know better. That being said…The other day I went to an old industrial town that used to have a terrible reputation for having lots of problems with drugs/crime, and now there is a big latin-american immigrant population. And surprisingly, it wasn’t like Detroit or anything. Of course, it isn’t a place I would like to live and the school test scores are abysmal, but I didn’t feel nervous walking down the street, and there weren’t boarded up buildings or anything like that. That is all to say that Latinos kinda just form a toned-down underclass compared to african-americans.


  4. California always does terrible on the NAEP test, especially compared to Texas, which has fairly similar demographics. On the other hand, I’m not sure that California does all that badly relative to Texas on higher stakes tests like the SAT and ACT.


    1. Yeah, the NAEP is a pretty good test, but the fact that it’s low stakes for the teachers and kids means you should take it with a grain of salt. On the other hand, the graph below the NAEP results is based on the Stanford Education Data Archive, which is high stakes (for teachers and sometimes kids) 3rd-8th grade tests.


  5. About what I expected. Yes California is rich, but it was rich prior to immigration and now has issues of growing inequality and dependency. The Immigration Wonks neglect all that because they assume at some point the newcomers will rise to the level of the original inhabitants


  6. In a nutshell, you and Noah are coming to different conclusions because he’s talking about feelings and you’re talking about facts. Not that feelings aren’t important…


  7. “California has a majority Hispanic public school population, and student achievement within each race (white, black, Asian, and Hispanic) is not only below average relative to the rest of the country…”

    It’s my impression that under the long period (ended not all that long ago) of Publican dominance of the California state government — and especially the more recent period in which any tax / revenue increases had to be supported by supermajorities of both chambers of the lege — the funding of public education at all levels in the state went from above the norm for the country as a whole to well below.
    If these impressions are correct, it’s hardly surprising that one of the impacts would be lower performance in standard measurements of the affected students — and such results therefore need have less than nothing to do with either the degree of economic inequality or any changes in the extent of ethnic diversity that the state has experienced.
    Happy to be corrected if any of my recollections are inaccurate; I am not a Californian (except, possibly, in spirit).
    In any event, a gentle reminder:
    “Correlation is not causation.”


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