Marin County Confronts Institutionalized Racism by Focusing on Equity

By Brent Ainsworth
Public Information Specialist - County of Marin, CA

From what I've heard, at 3CMA annual conferences and beyond, my home county of Marin has quite the national reputation. Marin (muh-RIN) County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, is sometimes playfully scorned as a den of decadence, labeled a haven of NIMBYism and jeered for its liberal extremism.

Believe me, we've heard it all. And a lot of the good-natured ribbing is well deserved. Is it a claim to fame? Not really. One of the worst hits to Marin's image is not funny at all – the revelation of longstanding institutional discrimination against people of color and a resulting lack of demographic diversity.

A recent statewide analysis ranked Marin as No. 1 among 58 California counties for racial disparity. A study by the Association of Bay Area Governments showed that three Marin municipalities – San Anselmo, Ross and Belvedere – were the least racially diverse towns and cities in the Bay Area, with white populations in the high 80 percent range. Overall, Marin is 85 percent white and one of the oldest (in terms of average resident age) counties in California.

The "Exclusive" adjective covers financial wherewithal, too. The median household income is just under $105,000. The median price of a single-family home in the county is $1.02 million, and that creeps closer to $2 million the closer you get to the Golden Gate Bridge. Mind you, most of those are not mansions. Typical rents are $2,250 for a one-bedroom apartment and $3,360 for a two-bedroom unit. Truly nuts.

A lot of people would love to live in Marin, but most of the county is intentionally undeveloped. Consider federal and state park lands, water district land, county open space and agricultural land trusts, and you end up with nearly 85 percent of Marin County as undeveloped and not zoned for subdivisions. Environmentally minded local government leaders made the commitment years ago to avoid sprawl and to preserve that beauty. Most of the 260,000 residents live along the Highway 101 corridor on the eastern side of the county that borders San Francisco Bay.

Some have said, "If you can't afford to live here, tough luck." But it didn't necessarily end up that way naturally. We can point to the practice of redlining that was common nationwide until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Government-endorsed redlining on maps prevented non-white people from securing loans, purchasing homes and building (ironically named) equity in certain neighborhoods, especially in coveted suburbia.

Although the practice was outlawed, its racial remnants are evident today. Many of Marin's towns, cities and unincorporated hamlets have white populations above 90 percent, and other small zones have highly concentrated populations of African Americans and Latinos – remnants of redlining.

The State of California mandates that municipalities plan for growth, including for lower-income households. Quotas for new affordable housing must be met or else the state withhold other types of funding. Marin has been accused of dragging its feet to meet such quotas. Towns, cities and the county hear opposition from neighbors who say that affordable housing units near where they live will drive down the value of their homes.

Today, the well-off residents strive to maintain their standard of living, but most workers who stock grocery store shelves, wait tables at restaurants or teach preschoolers can't afford to live anywhere close to workplaces in the richer areas. Accordingly, traffic is horrendous. Thousands of lower-income workers commute to Marin to work each day, joining Marin residents who commute over the bridge to the city, turning Highway 101 flow to a painful crawl. Although there's a new commuter train system in the northern half of Marin, public transportation is not that popular. It's California, and the lovefest with the automobile in the '50s and '60s undermined public transportation for generations.

As tough as it is to discuss, racial inequity became the topic of high-profile and packed county public meetings. Answering to the cries from its few remaining working-class residents, the county is gradually working to level the playing field for all residents. The county singled out "Diversity and Inclusion" as a focus area in its 5 Year Business Plan, adopted in 2015. Equity measures were emphasized in the 2016 State of the County update after shocking metrics were released about income disparity and discrepancies in life expectancy based on ZIP codes. Accordingly, the county compiled and shared metrics on a new equity dashboard, and the Health and Human Services Department's strategic plan, released this month, focuses on equity and its relationship to wellness.

In 2017, the Board of Supervisors adopted a Racial Equity Action Plan, helping Marin become one of the first counties in California to formalize such a plan. The first goal is to commit, as a county workforce, to achieving racial equity through education and community leadership. The second goal is about outreach and engagement by partnering with advocacy groups and other local institutions. The third and final goal was to ensure that the county is an equitable employer by refining hiring practices and flushing out artificial barriers to employment.

An employee group turned to the Government Alliance on Race and Equity for guidance, and new efforts to engage residents and strengthen community partnerships are starting to pay off. Employees learned how to normalize conversations about race, develop new policies within their own departments and agencies, and become leaders in recognizing and eliminating structural racism. The county implemented an eight-hour training program on cultural intelligence and structural racism for every employee. Programs are underway to increase gender and ethnic diversity on hiring boards and to and to ensure that there is diversity in each candidate pool, including openings for top administrators. Diversity has been embraced and celebrated, including by affinity groups for employees of African American, Latino, and Asian/Pacific Islander descent. Grassroots organizations were created for LGBTQ and disabled employees (and their allies) as well.

All narcissism jokes aside, Marin has publicly acknowledged the painful parts of its past. The county government is working with its partners to rectify past policies and foster a more inclusive and welcoming workplace at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael and other county offices. We believe we're changing for the better.

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