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Gavin Newsom Likes Racial Justice — As Long as It Doesn’t Cost Anything

California governor Gavin Newsom ran for office promising to pursue racial justice. But his stance on two recent bills shows that his anti-racism is pure rhetorical posturing.

California governor Gavin Newsom speaks to attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco, California. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

If centrist liberalism were a person, that person would be Gavin Newsom. He talks a big game about about equality and justice, but his actions as governor of California tell a different story.

In June 2020, amid the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Newsom gave a press conference in which he condemned “the looting” and “the violence,” but also spoke in fiery terms about the need to “tear out the institutional racism from all of our institutions, large and small” as part of a reckoning to “systematically foundationally address the root of these issues.” A few days later, in a speech in Sacramento, he talked about the “achievement gap” in education and economic success between Californians of different racial backgrounds, speaking of the need to “get serious about addressing these disparities.”

His rhetorical emphasis on justice and equality outlasted that summer of nationwide unrest. When he beat back a recall attempt last month, he said in his victory speech that “economic justice, social justice, racial justice” and “environmental justice” had all been “on the ballot” in the race between him and Republican Larry Elder.

Given Newsom’s background, the idea that he’s developed a deep commitment to “economic justice” might raise a few eyebrows. As the Substack author Alice from Queens has noted, Newsom’s father was widely described as the “consigliere” to the California “oil-fortune heir” Gordon Getty. In a time when billionaires were much rarer, Getty was a billionaire. “Newsom would later sell himself to voters as an ‘entrepreneur,’” but “it was never a secret” that Newsom’s first businesses “were capitalized by Gordon Getty.”

Newsom’s political career, meanwhile, was underwritten by San Francisco’s “first families.” Newsom “wasn’t born rich, but he was born connected — and those alliances have paid handsome dividends throughout his career,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “A coterie of San Francisco’s wealthiest families has backed him at every step of his political rise.”

Even so, you might think, people change, sometimes even reflecting critically on their communities of origin. And even if we ultimately distrust Newsom’s commitment to the broader goal of “economic justice,” perhaps he at least genuinely cares about tearing out “institutional racism” from institutions large and small, “getting serious” about addressing racial disparities, and closing the “achievement gap.”

Hold that thought.

Some of the sharpest left-wing critics of current progressive discourse about race have argued that “disparities” shouldn’t be the primary lens through which we think about injustices that disproportionately impact racial minorities. Critics like Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels warn that excessive focus on disparities per se lends itself to a politics that prioritizes the diversification of the upper rungs of the economic ladder over justice for the (multiracial but disproportionately nonwhite) population at the bottom.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that critics like Reed and Michaels are wrong, and we should be primarily thinking about racial injustice through the lens of disparity. Let’s also focus on Newsom’s recent record in one of the domains he himself emphasized in that speech in June 2020: the “achievement gap” in education and subsequent career advancement.

If “racial justice” in this domain was on the ballot in September, what did the Californians who voted by a margin of 61.9 percent to 38.1 percent to keep the governor in office get for their votes in October? Two of Newsom’s back-to-back decisions combine to tell a striking story about what, in practice, “racial justice” in the education system means in Newsom’s California.

On October 2, Newsom signed a bill to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in California high schools. Seven days later, he vetoed Assembly Bill 1456 — a measure, unanimously supported by the legislature, that would have expanded the state’s primary financial aid program, Cal Grant, to make an additional 150,000 students eligible for aid.

The first is a largely symbolic victory. The second would have materially benefited many victims of an injustice — financial hurdles to pursuing higher education — that disproportionately impacts nonwhite students.

For example, 20 percent of black students and only 4 percent of their white counterparts default on a student loan within twelve years of entering college, and vastly more black students than white ones are unable to make it to the finish line of a four-year degree. The prospect of having to navigate byzantine financial aid bureaucracies and/or incur debt that students may not be able to pay off later in life is enough to stop many students from low-income families from trying to go to college in the first place.

The best solution to these problems would, of course, be implementing Bernie Sanders’s sweeping proposal to use a modest tax on Wall Street transactions to erase all student debt and eliminate tuition at all public universities, community colleges, trade schools, tribal colleges, and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). That possibility was lost, for the time being, when the Democratic establishment consolidated behind Joe Biden to stop Bernie’s momentum in last year’s contest for the Democratic nomination. Sadly, even Biden’s proposed consolation prize of tuition-free community colleges may be in the process of being surrendered in budget negotiations.

The bill Newsom vetoed, though, would at least incrementally chip away at this injustice — and thus help to close the “achievement gap” in education he professes to be so concerned about.

In his defense of the veto, Newsom touted an expansion of something called the “Middle Class Scholarship” program that he had signed off on. But 110,000 of the 150,000 students who would have been eligible for the Cal Grant expansion attend community colleges, and community college students are ineligible for the “Middle Class” program — even though black students are more likely to start at two-year schools than white ones. So much for “getting serious” about addressing disparities.

Newsom’s veto to the changes in Cal Grant requirements also keeps in place a GPA requirement that’s “a particular problem for older students.” Far more community-college than four-year-college students are twenty-five or older and need to “hunt for old high school grade reports” to prove to bureaucrats that they qualify for the requirement. Black and Latino students are disproportionately likely to be older students as well, since racial disparities in college enrollment were much higher in the recent past.

As a strategy for closing the “achievement gap,” excluding students with bad high school grades is also perverse. Students of all backgrounds, who might have had problems in high school for a wide variety of reasons, need community colleges as a way of getting a second chance after bad experiences in high school. (I’m one of them. I have a PhD now, but my high school grades were such that I never would have been able to get into a four-year school to get a BA if I hadn’t started out at a community college and transferred.)

While plenty of middle-class students fall into this category, and they too deserve an education, this is another problem students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds — who are disproportionately nonwhite — are more likely to have. Bluntly, if little Billy has trouble focusing on school, he’s a lot more likely to pull through with an adequate GPA if he has parents with the money for tutors or the time to get Billy’s learning disabilities certified.

Gavin Newsom is happy to score a few points with the progressive side of the culture wars by having high school students take an ethnic studies class where they’ll learn about social injustice. Materially distributing resources to even incrementally chip away at those injustices by helping the students who’ve passed their ethnic studies requirement go to college, though? In the words of a classic Phil Ochs song about liberals like Newsom, that would be “going a little bit too far.”