As California officials consider reparations to repair basic economic damage caused by slavery, it is local governments that have the authority to either support or thwart such justice initiatives.
A dispute in Fresno, where proposed industrial expansion threatens a community-led plan to address intergenerational equity concerns, is one example. In the coming months, the Fresno City Council and Mayor will decide the fate of the Southwest Fresno community and provide a potential case study for how racial, economic and environmental injustice can impact California.
California claims to be a leader in the fight for racial justice and a global leader on climate, but from the Fresno Southwest perspective, the realities of historic and contemporary politics leave us far from achieving racial, economic, or climate justice. When there’s money to be made in California, it’s usually communities of color who pay the price.
The Fresno City Planning Commission last month voted to move forward with the mayor’s proposals to expand industrial development in southwest Fresno, an area that residents have been fighting hard to evade industry control as residents — mostly people of color — had health effects.
Many descendants of enslaved people in the United States came to California during the Great Migration. Those who settled in Fresno could only buy real estate in the city’s industrial southwest corner, which was and is significantly more polluted than other areas of Fresno, with high rates of correlated health problems to prove it. Southwest Fresno is now ranked in the 99th percentile for environmental hazards. A harmful lending practice known as redlining denied home mortgages to black residents who wanted to buy in other parts of Fresno.
California did not participate directly in the slave trade, but practices such as redlining and racial alliances in Fresno, which were widespread, endured descendants of enslaved Americans from healthier neighborhoods with correspondingly higher property values. This is a clear example of how racism in California has fueled negative, intergenerational impacts on health, the environment, and wealth creation. In theory, repairs are supposed to do some of those repairs.
In 2017, Fresno incorporated the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan into its official planning documents, the result of a community-led campaign to block harmful industrial development and a vision of a healthy, thriving community.
Southwest Fresno needs more affordable housing, not more industrial development. Residents also need and have asked for retailers who offer essentials. Camp settlements like those in southwest Fresno have been transformed into accessible, mixed-use neighborhoods—Emeryville, for example. Fresno residents would also like to see this kind of change.
Their needs must carry as much weight with city leaders as wealthier, “whiter” interests. Will the Fresno City Council and Mayor advance justice in the area?
When faced with the decision to appease business interests at the expense of low-income communities, will city leaders do what they stand for? It’s up to them to reject the rezoning proposal and overlay the district.
The California Reparations Task Force is an incredible start to the conversation about justice, but it’s the local, less splashy decisions like Fresno’s that will define reality. Anyone interested in racial, economic and environmental justice in California should watch what’s happening in Fresno — or get involved. Here’s how:
Keep an eye out for the City Council meeting that will determine the outcome for Southwest Fresno’s zoning.
Call the mayor and council members to let them know that Californians expect communities to be listened to and standards of justice upheld.
Pay attention to your local government’s zoning where much of the movement for justice takes place.
Let members of the California Reparations Task Force know they need to include tactics to appeal to local government authority when preparing their statewide recommendations.
As with many well-intentioned Sacramento policies, it’s what happens in cities and counties that has the greatest impact on Californians.
Eric Payne, from southwest Fresno, is the executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute. Courtney McKinney is the communications director for the Western Center on Law & Poverty in Sacramento. Distributed by CalMatters.org.