Pam Sornson, JD

April 18, 2021

The concept of connecting economic partnership to fair and just business practices is gaining traction. Recent national events, both positive and negative, suggest that truly meaningful change may be on the horizon. Many of America’s largest corporations have recently spoken out against racism of any kind and, perhaps for the first time, suggested that doing further business with them will depend on their potential corporate partners’ inclusive and equitable activities. For businesses everywhere, these developments suggest that now is a great time to reevaluate the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies and to explore how enhancing those efforts can offer opportunities that may have lain dormant for years.


DEI: California’s Challenging History

Even a cursory review of its history reveals Southern California’s racially imbued biases, which tragically flow through the filters that informed the racially fraught evolution of the United States itself. Inherent and entrenched racism has hamstrung many of the regions’ diverse communities, limiting their opportunities and reducing their access to resources while also – ironically – restricting the area’s opportunity for economic growth by shutting out a significant percentage of its workforce population.


For African Americans

The struggle for equality in California has been ongoing since the first wave of African Americans (Blacks) arrived in the 17th Century.

By the time of the Gold Rush, when California became a state, many free and formerly enslaved African Americans had settled up and down the coast, buying land, participating in the community, and pursuing riches in the state’s lucrative gold mines. Their progress was effectively halted in 1850, however, by the all-white, newly installed state legislature. Despite voting to prohibit slavery, that group also passed laws banning Blacks from voting, owning land, and black children from attending school with Caucasian children. The orders significantly hindered African American economic opportunity for years.

Things did not improve for Blacks in California as decades receded into the 19th Century and the 20th Century dawned. The passage of “Jim Crow” laws in many states, including California, imposed legal sanctions for Blacks that did not apply to whites, effectively eliminating gains made after the American Civil War. The spread of both hatred and the Ku Klux Klan affected thousands of African Americans who had immigrated to the state in search of a better life, especially after the end of Worl War II.  

By the mid-20th Century, California’s Black population had settled in enclaves throughout the state, many in the LA region. Like neighborhoods in the rest of the country, LA’s African American communities struggled to integrate both before and after the Brown Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954. That court case triggered significant racial unrest across the nation, which, by 1965, was roiling California, too. 

On August 11, 1965, an altercation between white police and a Black family in Watts, California, triggered a five-day riot that left 34 dead, caused over 1,000 injuries, and over $40 million in damages. While politicians tried to alleviate the racial stress over the next 20 to 35 years, by the 1990s, unfulfilled promises again gave way to significant racial angst. In 1992, the police beat Rodney King in a South Los Angeles street, which was both recorded and shown widely around the country. When juries acquitted those four officers of any crime, the ensuing riots left 58 people dead, over 1,000 buildings destroyed, and over $1 billion in damages.  

In the 28 years since those events, by many accounts, things have still not changed demonstrably for LA’s Black populations. Employment challenges, extreme poverty, and a lack of training opportunities continue to condemn generations of African Americans to lives of reduced productivity and prosperity.        


For Asian Americans

The challenges posed by exclusion have been just as significant. Despite their immense contributions to the country’s development, they, too, were often treated as second-class citizens in both social policies and practices.

In the 1860s, Chinese migrants worked alongside white people building the western portion of the Transcontinental Railway. By 1870, Chinese migrants comprised 20% of California’s labor force, even though they comprised less than 1% of the nation’s population. Their collective efforts threatened the white communities in which they lived and caused the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which established a prohibition against Chinese naturalization for the subsequent 60 Years.

 In the early 1900s, South Asian Indian immigrants landed in California’s agricultural valleys, working the fields as farm laborers. Their efforts were also rebuffed as a “Hindu invasion,” and Congress outlawed what was called the “tide of the Turbans” in 1917.

By 1924, all Asians (except Filipino nationals) were excluded by law from obtaining many opportunities enjoyed by whites, including the right to seek citizenship, own land, or even marry a Caucasian person.

The 1942 passage of Executive Order 9066, which segregated Japanese Americans as potential enemies and stripped them of their possessions and rights, only deepened the mistrust between that community and its non-Asian neighbors over the next seven decades. (Star Trek’s George Takei tells of his experience as a young boy in a Japanese detention camp.)

Tragically, these long-past racist events laid a significant foundation for the social and inequitable tribulations that continue to plague the United States and California.


DEI: California’s Promising Future

Equally tragic, today’s news mirrors many of those past injustices, as violence and political actions aimed at Black and Asian citizens trigger more racial unrest. In Los Angeles, the angst seems particularly painful, considering a full 20% of the region’s population is of Black or Asian heritage and contributes significantly to the County’s economy.

However, the good news is that LA’s response to the situation over the past year is definitely different from actions taken in previous dark times.

In early June 2020, the LA County Health Department reported the racial breakdown of recent COVID-19 cases and deaths. Those metrics clearly showed whites were affected less by the disease than other races (Blacks, Islanders, Latinx, and Asians), causing it to declare that “racism is a public health issue” and the root cause of healthcare inequities between Whites and Blacks. ‘Public health issues‘ typically garner more resources and support than concerns that don’t rise to that level.

Also in June 2020, the LA Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) steered a $50 million endowment to the John H. Mitchell Trusts to improve the entertainment industry’s diversity and ethics endeavors. The funds will support scholarships and academic programs that will increase the diversity of the industry’s workforce. Both UCLA and USC contributed an additional $5 million each to further the cause.

In July 2020, just weeks after the George Floyd incident, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors established an anti-racist policy agenda, the Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiative (ARDI), which was quickly embraced by LA county department heads. Further, although it took some time, the ARDI recently appointed its inaugural Executive Director, Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza, to lead the County’s DEI efforts. (Dr. Scorza participated in Pasadena City College’s Workforce Development Conference in November 2020 and spoke about his philosophies and goals with PCC’s Salvatrice Cummo, the executive Director of PCC’s Department of Economic and Workforce Development.)

In September, even the LA Times acknowledged its past wrestles with racism and vowed to do better. That Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong now owns the media outlet indicates that the Times will follow through on its pledge.


Pasadena City College Embraces its Diversity Pledge, Too

Pasadena City College (PCC) is well attuned to the needs of its entire student population and has worked to ensure that each student has the representation they need on campus. The African American Advisory Committee, the Asian American & Pacific Islander Advisory Committee, and the President’s Latino Advisory Committee each acts as a nexus between its constituents and school administration.

However, believing that those efforts may not be enough, PCC recently invested its inaugural Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Dr. Kari Bolen. In this position, Dr. Bolen sits at the right hand of PCC superintendent/president Dr. Erika Endrijonas, where her inputs, insights, and wisdom will help guide the school to an even more inclusive and equitable future.

Dr. Bolen shared with PCC’s EWD Executive Director, Salvatrice Cummo, her thoughts on her new charge and her aspirations for the school going forward. A graduate of USC and former Director of Intercultural Affairs at Pepperdine University, Dr. Bolen brings an in-depth knowledge of the region’s racial and social history.

As John F. Kennedy said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” Based on these positive responses to the challenging racial unrest of the past, it appears that California, the LA region, and PCC are well engaged in the trend towards building a more equitable and fair economy that benefits all of their people, regardless of race or ethnicity. It’s about time.

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