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September 16, 2020

By Daniel Enemark, Ph.D., Senior Economist and Brooke Valle, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer

This article is part of a series on advancing equity in San Diego County and beyond. Subscribe to our San Diego Works newsletter to be the first to know when new pieces are published. Up next, we’ll discuss the current and planned actions we are taking to fight racial injustice through workforce development.

The history of systemic racism in America—and San Diego in particular—has created a regional economy in which people of color do not have access to the same opportunities as white San Diegans. As a result, even controlling for age, gender and education, Black San Diegans make $10,500 less than their white peers.

This is not just an accidental side effect of inadvertent discrimination; it is the intended outcome of over a century of public policy designed to give white workers an advantage over people of color.

History of Overtly Racist Policies in San Diego and Beyond

  • 1855: The California Anti-Vagrancy Act allows police and local militias to arrest anyone of “Spanish and Indian blood”—referred to as “greasers” in the law—on mere suspicion of vagrancy.

  • 1936: The City of San Diego cooperates with the federal government to draw a “redlining” map, determining which neighborhoods get access to housing loans. The lines intentionally excluded communities of color. The long-term impact of disinvestment can still be seen, for example, in the sudden drop in property values and home ownership rates between Kensington/Talmadge and City Heights.
City of San Diego map showing red lining
Click to enlarge
  • 1954: The federal government’s “Operation Wetback” uses military tactics to deport millions of Mexican immigrants, including U.S. citizens—breaking up families and denying many Americans of Hispanic ancestry their citizenship rights.

  • 1950s: Highway 94 is built to separate Southeast San Diego, a Black neighborhood, from surrounding white communities. At this time, police commonly arrest Black San Diegans for “loitering” when found outside of the Southeast neighborhood. San Diego is “known as a hard town to find a job in” and sometimes referred to as “Little Georgia” because of widespread racism.1

  • 1964: 68% of white San Diegans vote in favor of housing segregation by supporting Proposition 14, which repeals the Rumford Fair Housing Act. By 1977, the Union Tribune finds that banks are still making very few loans in minority areas.2

  • 2014: California finally ends legally sanctioned racial bias in drug sentencing with the Fair Sentencing Act.
  • This may feel startling or direct—that’s because it is. What we have done so far got us to this point. If we want radically different results, we must chart a new path.

    Where Systemic Racism Still Shows Up Today

    Racism and racial inequity will continue to be perpetuated in our communities if we do not collectively commit to take targeted, consistent action. Though our laws are much less explicitly racist today than they have been in the past, our public and private institutions continue to discriminate against people of color. Here are just a few examples:

    Biased Policing

    Today, data shows that San Diego County Sheriffs stop Black drivers at twice the rate of white drivers, and San Diego Police stop Black drivers at three times the rate. Both are 50% more likely to use force against Black San Diegans.

    San Diego Police search Black drivers nearly twice as often, even though they’re 57% more likely to find contraband when searching white drivers.3 Black San Diegans “are approximately five times more likely to get prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites and Hispanics.”4

    Hiring Discrimination

    chart showing hiring discrimination between white and Black people with criminal records

    There is overwhelming scholarly evidence that Black Americans experience discrimination in hiring (Pager 2003 & 2009; Bertrand & Mullainathan 2004; Goldman et al. 2019; Quillian et al. 2017), mortgage lending (Ross & Yinger 2002), and housing (Turner & Ross 2005). In one famous study, Pager sent pairs of Black and white actors to apply for jobs with equivalent resumes, randomly assigning one applicant to have a felony record. Disturbingly, she found that white applicants with felony records got more callbacks than Black applicants with no record.

    Access to Capital

    The average Black-owned business, controlling for credit-worthiness, has access to less than half the credit as a similar white-owned business; the average Latinx-owned business has access to just a third (Henderson et al. 2015).

    How Racist Practices Affect Communities

    The impacts of these practices block valuable members of our community from economic mobility. Nationwide, the median white family has seven times the wealth of the median Hispanic family and ten times the wealth of the median Black family.5 The wealth gap, which vastly exceeds the income gap, is the result of years of public policy and private behavior designed to exclude families of color from opportunities to build wealth.

    Line graph showing 25% of variation in pay is explained by race of workers

    As a result of past and present discrimination, the proportion of youth ages 16–24 who are disconnected—out of school and not working—is nearly twice as high among Black San Diegans (18%) as among whites (9.6%). Among San Diego young adults who do find employment, white workers are paid twice as much on average ($25,000) as Black workers ($12,000). A quarter of the variation in median wages across occupations in San Diego County can be attributed solely to the racial composition of the occupation.

    These disparities start early in life. While San Diego County schools enroll 60% of white students in college preparatory courses, only 44% of Black students are routed to these courses. While schools prepare 71% of white students to perform at grade level in English and 59% in math, they prepare only 40% of Black students to perform at grade level in English and only 26% in math.6

    Nationwide, white teachers have lower expectations than Black teachers of their Black students’ academic potential,and lower expectations actually cause lower performance.8 Black students are less likely to be referred to gifted programs than white peers with the same test scores.9 Black and Latinx students receive harsher discipline for the same behavior, even after controlling for family socioeconomic status.10

    It’s no wonder our young people lack equal access to opportunity.

    What’s Next

    While we can’t erase the past, we can change the future. Our next article will discuss the specific actions the San Diego Workforce Partnership is committed to taking to address racial disparities in access to opportunity. Using our Listen, Learn, Act framework, we are digging deep to understand and name the policies and practices inherent in the systems where we work and to radically shift the tide. This work isn’t easy, but we know that together we can create change. Don’t forget to subscribe to our San Diego Works newsletter to receive these articles in your inbox.

    [1] Ford, L and E Griffin. (1979). The Ghettoization of Paradise. Geographical Review 69 (2): 140-158.

    [2] “Study shows few home loans made in minority area,” San Diego Union January 16, 1977.

    [3] Chanin, J., Welsh, M., & Nurge, D. (2018). Traffic enforcement through the lens of race: A sequential analysis of post-stop outcomes in San Diego, California. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 29(6-7), 561-583. Sinyangwe, Samuel. (2019). Evaluating Policing in San Diego. Campaign Zero.

    [4] NBC 7. (2019). Racial Bias Evident in Drug Prosecutions in San Diego: Data. Aired December 2, 2019.


    [6] Ana Hernández Kent, Lowell R. Ricketts, & Ray Boshara. (2019). What Wealth Inequality in America Looks Like: Key Facts & Figures. St. Louis Fed Center for Household Financial Stability. Retrieved from 2020/02/02 from

    [7] Gershenson, S., Holt, S. B., & Papageorge, N. W. (2016). Who believes in me? The effect of student–teacher demographic match on teacher expectations. Economics of Education Review, 52, 209-224.

    [8] Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. The Urban Review, 3(1), 16-20.

    [9] Grissom, J. A., & Redding, C. (2015). Discretion and disproportionality: Explaining the underrepresentation of high-achieving students of color in gifted programs. Aera Open, 2(1), 2332858415622175.

    [10] Skiba, R. J., Horner, R. H., Chung, C. G., Rausch, M. K., May, S. L., & Tobin, T. (2011). Race is not neutral: A national investigation of African American and Latino disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Review, 40(1), 85-107.
    Skiba, R. J., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. L. (2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. The Urban Review, 34(4), 317-342.


    Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1013.

    Goldman, B., Cooper, D., & Kugler, T. (2019). Crime and punishment: A realistic group conflict approach to racial discrimination in hiring convicted felons. International Journal of Conflict Management, 30(1), 2-23.

    Henderson, L., Herring, C., Horton, H. D., & Thomas, M. (2015). Credit where credit is due? Race, gender, and discrimination in the credit scores of business startups. The Review of Black Political Economy, 42(4), 459-479.

    Pager, D. (2003). The Mark of a Criminal Record. American Journal of Sociology, 108(5), 937-975.

    Pager, D., Bonikowski, B., & Western, B. (2009). Discrimination in a low-wage labor market: A field experiment. American Sociological Review, 74(5), 777-799.

    Quillian, L., Pager, D., Hexel, O., & Midtbøen, A. H. (2017). Meta-analysis of field experiments shows no change in racial discrimination in hiring over time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(41), 10870-10875.

    Ross S, Yinger J. 2002. The Color of Credit: Mortgage Discrimination, Research Methodology, and Fair-Lending Enforcement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

    Turner MA, Ross SL. 2005. How racial discrimination affects the search for housing. In The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America, ed. X Souzade Briggs, pp. 81–100. Washington, DC: Brookings Inst. Press.

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