“California is only a single setting in this global moment of history, but some, such as Courtney McKinney of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, believe it can lead by example. “If California is willing to lead on other conversations around climate, around income inequality and around things like this, there is no way to have any of these conversations without acknowledging what has been done to Black people in this country.”
Earlier this week, the Judicial Council of California announced it was considering a vote to end the emergency rule suspending evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement was alarming to housing and anti-poverty advocates, and we quickly raised the alarm about the harm such a move would cause for California communities – particularly Black and Brown renters.
Fortunately, the pressure generated both in public and behind the scenes led the Council to decide against the vote to lift the rule. Western Center played a role in pushing the message that lifting the rule would lead to mass evictions, exacerbating the current public health crisis and existing homelessness crisis, both of which are a direct result of the systemic racial inequality that people in California and across the country are protesting right now.
In a statement released after the decision to suspend the vote, the Council asserted its commitment to racial justice, and acknowledged its role in addressing systems that harm Black Americans:
In our profession and in our daily lives, we must confront the injustices that have led millions to call for a justice system that works fairly for everyone. Each member of this court, along with the court as a whole, embraces this obligation. As members of the legal profession sworn to uphold our fundamental constitutional values, we will not and must not rest until the promise of equal justice under law is, for all our people, a living truth.
The Judicial Council’s proposed action, and its subsequent decision to walk it back, is an important example of how easy it is for our institutions to fall into systemic failures that perpetuate racial injustice, and our duty as advocates to explicitly and forcefully call it out.
The COVID-19 public health crisis is also an economic crisis, especially for Californians, and it disproportionately effects people of color who are most likely to have lost work and their ability to pay rent. The paradox of racial inequality we see in the current economy is that Black and Brown people are more likely to lose their jobs because of the crisis, thereby losing income necessary for housing security, but they are also disproportionately employed in the very jobs that put them in contact with other people, increasing exposure to the coronavirus.
Additionally, and intimately connected to the protests against police violence happening across the globe, evictions always place people of color in direct contact with law enforcement. An estimated 365,000 renter households are in imminent danger of eviction in Los Angeles alone, with disproportionate impact on communities of color. Evictions are enforced by sheriffs’ offices across the state, and the advancement of eviction proceedings forces law enforcement interaction with people in their homes. More evictions mean more interaction with cops.
While the judicial council decision is important now in the midst of uprising and a continued public health emergency, it is important that we do not lose sight of how eviction laws, in California and the rest of the country, reinforce the racist use of government force against people when they are removed from their homes.
It is important that we as Western Center use this opportunity to highlight the ways “neutral” government institutions can and do perpetuate systems embedded in white supremacy. Most systems continue on because it’s “how things are done,” or it’s “the responsibility of another branch.”
Systems resist change; they are built upon repetition to create efficiencies and consistent results. Systems gain legitimacy based on their own perpetuation. The time has come to acknowledge that the racism baked into American systems is illegitimate.
Our current process of evictions is a system designed for efficient and consistent results for landlords to eject tenants with little regard for the outcome. The restart of this process would have (and will have, should it resume without Legislative intervention) devastating effects on Black and Brown households and communities, especially if there is a rush to resume, and a failure to disrupt the patterns of inequity.
While we agree that checks and balances exist for a reason, we do not agree that means branches of government can cede their responsibility to protect people first and foremost. When the opportunity to protect arises, they must do so, even if that means doing things differently, or in ways they are unaccustomed to. We appreciate that the Council delayed resumption of this process because it creates an opportunity to change our approach to this inherently racist system. The times we are in call for thoughtful, longer term solutions, starting with items like our co-sponsored bill, AB 1436.
To move our state and country forward, things MUST be done differently. Otherwise, we will continue to capitulate to the white supremacy this country and state were both founded upon. We expect this conversation and these kind of actions to continue to take place, from the Judiciary, to the Legislature, to the Governor, and within our own organization. This is only the beginning.