It is generally accepted that government policies that exclude potential beneficiaries based on characteristics such as skin color are morally indefensible. Then why do such policies proliferate in San Francisco, a supposed paragon of social justice? The city’s efforts range from the use of obscure racial proxies to open discussion in advisory meetings on how to circumvent Proposition 209, a state law banning discrimination in public employment, education, and contracting. Subtle—and not-so-subtle—discrimination is determining which San Franciscans benefit from preferences in public education, home loans, and government grants.
An example of what we could call modern-day redlining is the Clean Cars for All program (begun in 2018), which encourages low-income Californians to retire older gas-driven vehicles. The program offers grants of up to $9,500 to buy electric cars or to pay for public transportation. While the program imposes an income limit for all participants, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, charged with distributing the grants, implemented a zip-code restriction last year—possibly because its board found that the program “has faced challenges with participant diversity” and aims to “increase participation in underserved communities, particularly in Black and Latinx communities.” Given the zip-code restrictions it follows, Clean Cars for All now excludes 86 percent of white San Franciscans. Meantime, 42 percent of black San Franciscans live in qualifying zip codes, two to three times more than any other group in “designated disadvantaged communities.” Air quality doesn’t respect postal boundaries, however; nor do drivers tend to drive only within their home area. If the goal really is to remove older, polluting vehicles from the streets and promote cleaner air, restricting by zip code seems unproductive.
Another example of modern redlining affects every family applying to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). The district assigned students to neighborhood schools before 1969, when the NAACP sued to desegregate, resulting in court-mandated caps per race and ethnicity at each school. Chinese families then sued SFUSD in 1994 because the caps meant that Chinese students had to score higher than students of other races to gain admission at selective Lowell High. A 1999 settlement prohibited the district from using race in admissions decisions, but instead of abiding by the spirit of the settlement, SFUSD leadership adopted a race proxy known as the “census tract integration preference,” which gave priority to students living in an area where the average student scores in the bottom 20 percent on statewide math and literacy exams. Given that the achievement gap between white and Asian students, on one hand, and black and Hispanic students, on the other, is larger in San Francisco than in any other California public school district, it should not be surprising which groups were most likely to benefit from this preference.
To some, the ends (better integrated schools) justify the means (racial discrimination by proxy). In practice, the groups enjoying preferential treatment did not take full advantage, often applying late or choosing a nearby school rather than a high-demand school where their attendance would help boost “diversity.” The district admitted failure, stating in its justification for formulating a new student-assignment system that “more schools are segregated by income, race/ethnicity, and academic performance than they were 10 years ago.” This setback did not dissuade SFUSD from using race proxies in its new plan, which assigns all students a “diversity category” according to their home address’s neighborhood characteristics, such as race/ethnicity, income, and test scores, and offers a tiebreaker for students living in public housing. All these conditions tip the scales in favor of black and Hispanic students gaining entry to the most sought-after schools. The policy priority for a school district with a budget deficit of over $100 million, as SFUSD has, should be to attract more students by offering fair and predictable school assignments based on proximity—not to alienate parents who can choose to opt out of the system by trying to micromanage the demographic composition of schools.
Other examples of blatant public discrimination include two of San Francisco’s basic-income programs. One recently introduced effort provides $1,200 per month for 18 months to “Transgender, NonBinary, Gender Non-Conforming, and Intersex” residents making less than $600 per month. The program application features a dizzying array of possible pronouns, including “xe/xym/xyrs” and “fae/faer/faers,” along with gender-identity options like “Travesti,” “Aggressive,” and “Maverique.” Those who identify with the gender listed on their birth certificate need not apply. This joins another basic-income program called the Abundant Birth Project, which offers $1,000 per month for 12 months to pregnant black or Pacific Islander women with annual family incomes of up to $100,000. While guaranteed income has been shown in many pilots to boost outcomes, it is unclear why the government should discriminate on race or gender identity when selecting beneficiaries. Were the tables turned, and the favoritism reversed, the outrage would be deafening.
Though California was never a slave state, last year San Francisco authorized an African American Reparations Advisory Committee, whose Economic Empowerment Subcommittee recently released its draft recommendations—among them a $5 million payment for each qualifying black person, debt forgiveness (including all credit-card debt), and a $500,000 grant toward home-buying, with no income limit. The subcommittee recommended repealing Prop. 209 because the antidiscrimination law “created a dynamic that prevents legislators from crafting policy that directly addresses issues that specifically affect certain racial groups.” The Policy Subcommittee did not explain why it is preferable to give government aid only to favored racial groups rather than to all who face such issues, nor did it provide evidence of issues unique to any group.
It is understandable that some members of groups that have endured historical discrimination might want their turn in a favored position, with government preferences benefiting them to the exclusion of others, but civil rights law is clear: preferences based on immutable characteristics are anathema to a free and fair society. Better policy would focus on goals with broad benefits—reducing air pollution, increasing participation in the public school system, assisting those in poverty—that are not grounded in group identity. Supporting discrimination, depending on which group is favored, is a dangerous proposition. Few Americans want to live in Ibram Kendi’s dystopian world, in which “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination” and “the only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Few Americans want a government that discriminates.