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Blog Post · June 3, 2020

Racial Disparities Are Widespread in California

photo - African American father holding young son

At no time in recent history have deep racial disparities in well-being appeared as obvious as they do today. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers last week is the latest in a long history of violence against African Americans in this country. At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected Californians according to race. As glaring and immediate as the current injustices are, they are a culmination of long-term trends that have resulted in a gulf of opportunities—and outcomes—across racial and ethnic groups.

In this post, we focus on California’s African American population, quantifying disparities with white Californians across a range of areas: criminal justice, health, income and wealth, and education. Disparities in these areas are deeply embedded and must be addressed if California is to improve the safety, health, and overall well-being of its African American communities.

Criminal justice. Despite California’s relatively small African American population (6%), about 15% of all stops made by the state’s eight largest law enforcement agencies are of African Americans. Roughly 16% of all arrests are of African Americans, and African Americans account for 26% of the state’s probation population, about 25% of the jail population, and 29% of the prison population.

Health. African Americans are much more likely to die from COVID-19, with a death rate about twice that of whites, according to the California Department of Public Health. Several factors contribute to this disparity, including underlying health conditions, differential access to care and insurance, and increased exposure to the virus related to employment and housing conditions. Moreover, evidence suggests that the stress brought on by racism itself has long-term negative health consequences.

Income and wealth. African-American families in California are most likely to find themselves at the bottom of the income distribution. They are about two times more likely to be earning at low income levels than at high income levels. For white families in the state the opposite is true: they are more than twice as likely to be earning at the top of the distribution.

Figure - African-American Families in California Are Much Less Likely To Earn Higher Incomes

Wealth is more unevenly distributed than income—meaning that those with lower incomes have fewer overall resources to rely upon in times of economic crisis. Data are limited when it comes to wealth and race in California, but nationwide a white family of median wealth has more than eight times the resources of an African American family of median wealth, a gap that has grown in recent years.

Access to jobs is also lower. The unemployment rate for African Americans in the US—already higher in normal times—as of April stands at 16.4%. For whites it is 13.8%.

Education. The majority of African-American Californians have some college education, but they are much less likely than whites to hold a four-year degree (or higher)—25% vs. 44%. African-American high school graduates leave school less prepared to attend California’s universities: about 31% of African-American students met standards to enter the University of California or California State University systems, while nearly 49% of white students did so. These gaps are evident early in students’ careers: in fourth grade, twice the percentage of white children than African-American children met English standards (64% vs 32%) and more than twice the share met math standards (60% vs 25%).  There is tremendous concern that the pandemic is further exacerbating the existing inequalities in education.

Reducing these disparities will not come easily. Racism’s impact is both happening in real time and embedded in long-term, structural disparities. In the wake of the current civil unrest, reform efforts must focus on both the criminal justice system and other foundational systems to bridge the large and significant inequities that African Americans face in California and across our nation.


arrests California State University coronavirus COVID-19 Criminal Justice health Health & Safety Net Higher Education income inequality jobs K–12 Education Population racial disparities racism University of California