Reclaiming the California Dream
Episode 3 - The Racism Behind California's Tax Revolt
Reclaiming the California Dream is a limited podcast series featuring amazing stories from deeply rooted California community members and what their community means to them. By working together to pass the Schools and Communities First Act, we can sustain our culture, provide stability for our families and build a future where all Californians have access to quality health care and education we deserve.
Reclaiming the California Dream is brought to you by AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund (https://aapiforce-ef.org) and Project by Project San Francisco (https://projectbyproject.org).
Produced by Raymond Luu.
Policy researcher EJ Toppin breaks down how California politicians have used taxation policy as a veil to perpetuate racial inequality.
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Hey everyone. Welcome to our limited podcast series, Reclaiming the California Dream. We’ll be hearing stories from some amazing individuals and how much their community means to them. The Schools and Communities First Act also known as Proposition 15 will restore $12 billion a year in funding for our roads, parks and libraries, health clinics, and trauma centers, local schools and colleges. By working together to pass the Schools and Communities First Act, we can sustain our culture, find stability for our families and build a future where all Californians have access to quality healthcare and the education you deserve. And today’s episode Lan talks with EJ Toppin, a researcher at the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. EJ explains how certain historical economic policies were designed to keep marginalized communities oppressed and created long sustaining inequalities that we’re dealing with today. By presenting these findings, he and his team hope to educate California voters to make informed decisions when they go to vote in the upcoming November election.
Can you start off by telling me a little bit about yourself, start off with introducing yourself what you do and your upbringing, what brought you to what you’re doing right now.
So my name is EJ Toppin, and thank you for having me participate in this conversation. I really appreciate it. And this was a very important topic to be discussing right now. I am a researcher at the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, the Institute formerly known as the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and we’re an organization that focuses on social and racial justice issues, broadly economic inequality, housing issues, health disparities, and systemic barriers that present challenges to the most marginalized and oppressed communities of our society. And we use our research to look into, find, and elevate different policies and practices that would remove these barriers so that all in society, particularly the most marginalized will be able to thrive and live the lives that they desire to live.
And our analysis is really rooted in systems and structures. We firmly believe that it’s the design of society that, you know, limits opportunity and creates burdens for different populations. So we focus our work on how to restructure society, to really create conditions where people can live their most full lives. I came to Othering and Belonging Institute through graduate school. I was a student at the Goldman School of Public Policy doing a Master’s in Public Policy. My focus was really to center my education on racial justice issues. Before going to grad school, I had been working in the U S Senate. And while there I worked on environment, energy policy, transportation, climate change, and I really loved the issues I worked on and they were very important to me, but I really felt that I needed to devote my life to fighting racial injustices and make that the center of the work I was doing.
And while the work I was doing in Congress was really important, racial justice wasn’t the center of that work. So I took grad school to really reorient myself to that work. So I ended up at UC Berkeley for grad school and was very fortunate that an institute like Othering and Belonging was there. I started working with them as a student. A lot of my work focuses on housing issues. What are the issues, particularly in California that are causing extraordinary housing unaffordability, what’s leading to widespread gentrification and displacement of communities, particularly communities of color who have been longtime residents in places where they’re now being displaced from what are the forces that are causing that and what are the policy solutions to prevent those things from happening.
Thank you for sharing that. Can you tell me a little bit about the research that you’ve done on California’s Proposition 13?
Certainly. So my research sort of has to do with housing injustice, unaffordability, with the strong lens of racial justice. Within that scope, I work on a number of projects and other projects that I’m working on has to do with the proliferation of corporate ownership of residential housing and the racial imbalances and discrepancies that play out within that trend, that growing trend, but really my work on Prop 13 came out of our Institute really believing that there was a need for a different perspective and a need to push a different narrative into this conversation around Prop 13 reform, as we’re getting closer to the 2020 election. And particularly that issue of Proposition 15 that’s on the ballot. A lot of the analysis out there in ways pointed to racial disparities, but it didn’t take racial justice as its main lens in critiquing Prop 13. So I, and the team that I worked with at Othering and Belonging decided to dig into the impact that Prop 13 had on the state of California and particularly communities of color and other marginalized communities to see what was the literature out there.
What had people written about, but also what was under examined. And could we look into this research into the literature that’s out there and fill in the gaps or pull out certain, maybe buried threads that actually speak strongly to racial injustice and racial disparities that were the result of Prop 13 and bring people’s attention to that so that when they go to, when they go to vote in the November election in 2020, that they are equipped with just a broader understanding of the issue and its impact. And so they can bring that information to bear as they make, whatever decision they make as they’re voting…we are a nonprofit organization, so we can’t advocate one way or the other for certain ballot measures. But our goal is to present information, research and data, and put that out into the public discourse to inform people about certain decisions that they may make at the ballot.
What you were saying really reminded me of this quote by what’s his nameAtwater. Lee Atwater. Are you familiar with Lee Atwater? He has this quote. I just pulled it up. He says “You started out in 1954 by saying N-word, N-word, N-word, by 1968, you can’t say N-word that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing states’ rights and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things. And a by-product of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites and subconsciously maybe that’s a part of it. I’m not saying that, but I’m not saying that if it’s getting that abstract and that coded that we’re getting away with the racial problem one way or another.” So it’s just like…he was saying this around the time when, when Prop 13 popped up. So for our listeners, can you talk a little bit more about why Prop 13 is..to be blunt — racist, and why people don’t realize that? I think nowadays we see people loving Prop 13 and fighting for the protection of Prop 13 and they refuse to even acknowledge the racial ties that it had.
Yeah. So that’s a really telling and infamous quote that you just cited by Lee Atwater, who was a Republican consultant advisor. And I actually use this quote or have used this quote in explaining how our economy is racialized. I, in addition to my work at Othering and Belonging, also, co-teach a critical race theory class at the public policy school at Berkeley. So it really illustrates in clear terms that although we think of our economy as neutral and objective, if you have the wealth that you have, it’s hard earned, any market exchange is free from any value, judgment or biases. That’s the predominant view of how our economy works, but it’s not that simple. So historic patterns and instances of discrimination really contributed to creating disparities and inequities between racial groups earlier. I was mentioning that some of my work that I do focuses on gentrification and displacement, a lot of the mainstream economic analysis of gentrification displacement will say, look, these are just market forces playing out.
Sometimes certain populations will end up having to relocate, but that’s just how the market works. What that view completely ignores is the history of, of racial discrimination. While other areas, whiter areas were invested in, where assets were able to increase, particularly the asset of the home, those same populations who were invested in take advantage of that value mismatch and migrate back to cities that were under-invested where property values are low. And then as they do that, drive up those values and displace people who were disinvested from by the state. So that’s not in any way what people would describe as people’s prevailing perception of the free market. So the same thing is true around Proposition 13, which passed in 1978 and locked in property values of that time, locked in those low tax rates at a time that the landscape of home ownership was skewed towards white people because of these discriminatory practices.
So at Othering and Belonging, we have report called Roots of Race In Place that goes through the history of racial discrimination housing in California, where it talks about red lining and urban renewal where communities of color were destroyed and raised, and people were displaced of racial covenants, whereas written into the deeds of homes that those properties couldn’t be sold to Black people or to LatinX people or to Asian people. You have after World War II, where Japanese Americans were interned during the war and lost their property in significant numbers, trying to return to their communities and find a place to live again. But were faced with these same racial covenants that said this property won’t be sold to anybody of Asian descent at the same time because communities of color were deprived of homeownership. A lot of them were in situations where they’re renting.
And as we’ve seen in recent years, rents are skyrocketing. A lot of times, these populations are more dependent on public assistance. And the safety net that government provides, what Prop 13 did was reduce the amount that California could take in to provide those services. So communities of color, their services that they depended on were reduced as they were locked out of home ownership. This was by design. Securing white racial advantage played a large part of public policy decision making. And of course, hearkening back to the Lee Atwater quotation. A lot of this can be communicated in terms that never refer to race at all, but underlying that is the history that built the conditions that we live under, which are mostly to do with racialized history of structuring the conditions that we live under today.
Thank you for that. I think you did a really powerful job of breaking down how race plays into the conversation and how the politicians did such a phenomenal job at hiding race. But I think another thing I wanted to discuss is in addition to race, it’s also like Prop 13 is framed as this middle class benefit, right? Like Prop 13 protects middle-class homeowners. It was framed as like keeping grandma in her home. So even if we take the race discussion out of it, I think another thing that’s left out is the fact that most of the tax benefits are not going to homeowners; they’re going to corporations. So can you talk a little bit about that? Like what’s happening there? Why is it that this issue that really benefits corporate property owners is framed as benefiting everyday middle class families,
Right. So when we’re having a discussion about how race plays into public policy and the consequences of policy decisions, it’s important to know that it’s impossible to de-link race from class, that you can’t talk about one without the other, really any, any arena or format a lot of times, and you’ll see this across different policy issues in order to protect something that’s benefiting large corporations or the wealthiest is to frame it as, you know, if we were to undo this, it would hurt middle-class people of color. It’s important to realize that a significant portion of the benefits that Prop 13 generates is on the commercial side of properties. And so just to back up a second, Prop 13 applied to both residential and commercial properties, and this is what proposition 15 is about. It’s called a split role provision because it separates the residential from the commercial, the parameters for the conditions of Prop 13. Provisions of Prop 13 will remain in place for the residential side.
What’s changing is how properties are assessed and taxed on the commercial side. It’s important to, to realize that there are estimates right now that place the addition or the return of revenue by implementing the split roll provision back to the public coffers between $8 to $12 billion. So that’s money that can be reinvested back into communities that have suffered as a result of this Prop 13 regime. And I’m trying to remember the exact figures, but I believe that it’s of the revenue that will return to the public coffers. This is really about holding corporations, commercial sector accountable to paying their fair share toward the flourishing of society at large, the country at large has been dealing with immense levels of economic inequality. This issue at large, a lot of a huge part of it has to do with the fact that corporate entities, commercial entities have not been contributing to investing in society. A lot of times they’ve been investing back into their own shares and investing in their, in their profits, the returns to executives and to their shareholders at the expense of the public. It’s really the public that generates a good deal of, of their wealth.
Yeah. That makes me want to ask, can you dive a little bit deeper into how Prop 13 specifically harmed communities of color? I think earlier we had talked a lot about how Prop 13 really only only benefits the white middle class and wealthy, but how does it actively harm our communities of color?
So after Prop 13 passed the amount of money that the state was able to bring in through taxes, dropped significantly. The legislative analyst office estimates that the year after Prop 13 passed, tax payments dropped by 60%. And to address this enormous fall in revenue, a lot of that was pulled from, from education dollars. California went from spending about a thousand dollars per pupil more than the national average to falling to 41st in the country. Another issue is that a lot of the larger, more densely populated and urban parts of the state spent a lot more on public services and had much higher percentage of their population being communities of color. And after Prop 13, the amount of money that they could spend on those social services drastically declined. Whereas white and wealthy areas, people were privately wealthy. So they’d already didn’t spend a lot on public services.
So this created a disproportionate impact where places that had poor communities of color, and again, because of historic discriminatory practices, those communities were less well off. This is also true of education funding. Prop 13 can be framed as a backlash to California Supreme court mandate to equalize education funding across the state between wealthy districts, between whiter districts and their poor counterparts. And also the counterparts that have more students of color as a result, whereas wealthy and whiter communities could use private dollars to fill in the gaps where Prop 13 might have taken away public funding for schools, communities of color didn’t have the same luxury and their public education dollars were cut across the board. I believe I recently recently saw a statistic that said Oakland Unified School District is facing a $35 million budget deficit, this coming year. Another outcome, the government facilitated healthcare that the state oversaw, the state took control of the government funded healthcare and particularly mental health services.
The amount of funding that could go towards these services was caught if they could, in any way, tangentially tie this to a mental health issue would do so, so that they wouldn’t be paying for that care; the state would be. So let’s put a strain on mental health services. At the same time healthcare workers were let go. Attrition happened across the board. And as we know, COVID is disproportionately affecting communities of color because these communities are disproportionately frontline workers, essential workers, people who don’t have the luxury of working from home. Another outcome of the constricting of mental health services, that a lot of people, instead of being able to get treatment were pushed into the carceral system, which contributed to a rise and explosion in incarceration rates. We know how racialized the incarceration system is. So racial disparities play out in a number of ways as a result of Prop 13.
After hearing that, it just feels like everything is connected to Prop 13, which it very well might be. So as you are aware, we have a coalition of a lot of different people who are fighting to win Prop 15 and to reform Prop 13 in the name of racial justice. We have housing organizers. We have healthcare providers. We have teacher unions, grassroots organizers, just far and wide people coming together to reform Prop 13 and make California what it should be. You know, like we have the biggest economy out of any state in the country, yet our students, our communities, our lived experiences, aren’t reflecting that, but our opposition has a lot of money. They have a lot of corporate backers and just a lot of money to fuel their opposition campaign. So in your opinion, what do, what does our movement of folks who are fighting to win Prop 15, what do these folks need to do in order to win?
One part of the strategy that’s essential, which as you described, they’re already doing, is forming a broad based coalition that brings together a number of interests, brings people together across racial groups and across class. And as we’ve discussed in this conversation, Prop 13 touches a number of policy areas. So right there, you have communities of people who are actively working on each of these issues. And as pernicious as Prop 13 has been, working to reform it really has the potential to unite people working across issue areas. It’s going to take this sort of united effort to address it and to start to close widespread and growing inequality in the state. This is one way to begin that effort to turn the tide, to really change the narrative and to change how policy making occurs in the state and reorient that toward people in communities.
So that’s another really key thing. While Prop 15 is one small component, one piece of the puzzle, it can be talked about and organized around as a way to really begin to shift on a broad scale, how policy is conducted and who is at the center of policymaking, which is putting, the goal is to put communities and people first. And that can be a rallying point for people in this movement is that, you know, the fight doesn’t stop after election day and I believe beyond. The movement’s on the right path in being so broad based and cross coalitional, if that’s a word but I think the movement’s on the right path and its work only expands its efforts around uniting people behind the common purpose.
Thank you for sharing all of that. I think you just shared a very beautiful vision for what we hope will happen and continue what we hope will happen in November and what we hope will continue to happen after November. I feel like I learned a lot from this conversation, even though I had already read your very well researched op-ed. So thank you so much for sharing your time with us. Is there anything else that you wanted to add or discuss?
No. I think that was pretty full detailed conversation. And thank you for your pointed and important questions that really highlighted some of the most important issues around Prop 13 and the Prop 15 reform effort, you know, again, thanks for the work that your organization is doing toward this initiative, but just civic empowerment broadly and yeah. Thanks for a great conversation.
Wonderful. Thank you as well.
Reclaiming the California Dream is brought to you by AAPIs for Civic Empowerment Education Fund and Project by Project San Francisco. If you’d like to learn more about us, visit our website at aapiforece-ef.org and projectbyproject.org. Thanks for listening. Ad paid for by Chinese Progressive Association, nonprofit 501(c)3. Committee Major Funding from Chinese Progressive Association.