Column: Homelessness in Long Beach. What’s racism got to do with it?

A law officer killing a black man in broad daylight, in the full view of witnesses, while the dying man cries out for his mother, does not suggest a single, depraved mind. Rather, George Floyd’s murderer is a product of a sick, racist system that afforded him privilege.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines racism as a system of structures which assigns value and determines opportunity based primarily on skin color, affording some people advantages throughout society.

The CDC’s social determinants of public health—the environmental factors that affect a person’s health and wellbeing—are not only about health care access and quality, but also about educational access and quality, economic stability, neighborhood and built-environment infrastructures, and social and community contexts.

As of April 2021, 150 cities, states and health agencies throughout the U.S. have recognized a clear connection between racism and public health issues.

According to a 2020 report by the Committee for Greater LA, the COVID pandemic shook foundations and uncovered the effects of paved-over anti-black racism, including precarious employment, significant disparities in digital access, unaffordable housing, disproportionate homelessness, unresponsive government, and so on.

The report determined these inequalities are entrenched in structures designed to maintain the privileged by excluding and marginalizing others.

For example, blacks who hold bachelor’s degrees made an average of $31 per hour, while whites with similar qualifications made $39 per hour. The living wage to support a family of four in LA is about $32.12 per hour, so that the average black family is not paid a living wage.

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) states that “The impact of institutional and structural racism in education, criminal justice, housing, employment, health care, and access to opportunities cannot be denied: homelessness is a by-product of racism in America.”

So what does racism have to do with homelessness in Long Beach?

A year after the adoption of Councilman Rex Richardson’s Framework for Reconciliation, Long Beach remains a tale of two cities.

Studies show that, in the city of Long Beach, black people face greater barriers to employment than whites, are paid less than whites at every educational level, and, as they earn postsecondary degrees, the black unemployment rate increases. In contrast, as white people of Long Beach earn higher-level academic degrees, their unemployment rates decrease.

Many black people in Long Beach live in overcrowded, loud, violent spaces, with low access to healthy food, and under the constant threat of skyrocketing rent, or being flipped out of their homes by gentrifying investors—not to mention the threat of death by killer cops. Some residents experience paralyzing fear, stress, anxiety, and depression from walking, driving, sleeping, and breathing while black.

Sadly, even the most liberal of Long Beach still shake the stick of economics in the face of a segregated city. The individualistic American ideal that if people work hard enough, they are guaranteed more access is a big, fat, white lie.

The truth is that historical and systemic discriminatory practices ensure some Long Beach families will never live outside the 90813 ZIP code, where the mortality rate is the highest in the city.

A timeline of systemic racism against black people. Created by Shilita Montez.

But these truths surrounding systemic racism might not hurt that bad unless you live across the street from Harvey Milk Park, or at Venice Beach, or any other place where people sleep in the streets within arm’s reach of your million-dollar home or business. Then the truth hurts like hell.

The hardest truth to face may be that the effects of systemic racism are not solely endemic; racism doesn’t just affect the victim. Like homelessness, systemic racism is an epidemic that affects all of us.

Equitable cities are well cities. They experience longer lifespans, stronger, more sustained growth and upward mobility, increased productivity, reductions in health care spending, and more seamless connections to global markets.

Conversely, the Committee for Greater LA found that L.A County loses more than $300 billion in annual GDP due to systemic racial disparities.

Racism is a virus we can’t mask up against. We cannot wash our hands of it.

Equity doesn’t just happen because we finally vote in a black president or convict a killer cop. Equity is hard work. Denial, apathy, and the placebo of privilege sits like a knee on the city’s neck. Because pretending racism doesn’t exist only makes you sicker.

The author opposes capitalization of “black” and “white” in reference to race as false and misleading signification.

Shilita Montez is a longtime Long Beach resident, doctoral candidate, parent, educator and community agent. 

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The Community Editorial Board is made up of seven members of the Long Beach community and are drawn from different life journeys, different parts of the city and different socioeconomic experiences. The board writes on issues and subjects in which it has a personal interest, experience or expertise. The board operates wholly separate from the newsroom and members serve a one-year term. The Community Editorial Board can be reached at [email protected]
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