U.S. News & World Report: “America’s Most Diverse City Is Still Scarred by Its Past”

STOCKTON, CALIF. — A few dozen kids played outside a downtown school this fall under a six-story mural featuring a local community organizer and Martin Luther King Jr. Scrawled across the mural is a quote from the city’s high-profile mayor, Michael Tubbs: “The most important investment we can make is an investment in our people.”

Tubbs’ message is an urgent one in Stockton, an already-poor port city that was ravaged by the 2008 housing crisis. In 2018, Stockton – whose roughly 310,000 residents were 42% Hispanic, 24% Asian, 19% non-Hispanic white and 13% black – was the most racially diverse large city in America, according to a U.S. News analysis based on recent census data.

While city leaders champion Stockton’s diversity, it’s also linked to racial tensions and dire disparities. Like the rest of the U.S., Stockton is a place where race and opportunity have been largely intertwined, with the city’s people of color often faring poorly on health and economic measures despite the city becoming majority-nonwhite more than three decades ago. Now, as the city draws on newfound momentum to pull itself out of financial ruin and “reinvent Stockton,” local leaders are trying to close those gaps.

But the odds might be stacked against them.

“I don’t see how you can govern a diverse city like Stockton and not be equity-minded and equity-focused,” says Tubbs, who is Stockton’s first black mayor, and became its youngest when elected at age 26 in 2016. “For the city of Stockton to thrive, we’re going to have to invest in everybody, but particularly those who haven’t been invested in historically – and that’s the majority of our population.”

In Stockton – situated along the San Joaquin River in California‘s Central Valley – white households have a median income of about $60,700, roughly twice the median income among black households ($30,400) and significantly higher than among Hispanics ($43,900) and Asians ($56,200), census data shows. Similar disparities exist in educational attainment, unemployment and homeownership rates, while people of color also are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty and in neighborhoods with higher crime rates.

“We represent the diversity of the world in a very concentrated city,” says Samuel Nunez, executive director of Fathers & Families San Joaquin, a local nonprofit that works with and advocates for vulnerable families. And while much of Stockton has struggled economically, “scarcity is an illusion, because there’s also concentrated wealth here in this community.”

The city’s current racial disparities are the result of decades of public disinvestment in south Stockton, where many residents are black or Latino, local advocates and city leaders say. North Stockton has diversified as the city has grown, developing its own pockets of poverty but remaining the more prosperous – and whiter – of the city’s two halves. A legacy of redlining and other racist policies is apparent today: South of the Crosstown Freeway are crumbling sidewalks, dilapidated housing and empty lots, while what little development and private investment the city attracted went north.

The neglect left south Stockton’s communities of color to fend for themselves for years. Community advocates say law enforcement looked the other way as the area became mired in violence during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. And in 1999, one of the last blocks of Little Manila – once home to the largest Filipino population in the U.S. – was razed to make room for a McDonald’s and a gas station.

“You did not stop at the red light if it was red,” says Fred Sheil, who moved to south Stockton in 1983 and runs the neighborhood housing group STAND. “All the shootings and the murders and the robberies (were here) and the neighborhood and the city didn’t do jack squat. … It was OK as long as it was all going down here in a black, brown, poor minority neighborhood.”

Today, south Stockton is home to roughly a third of the city’s population, and its lower-income, multiethnic neighborhoods have higher asthma rates, poorer overall health and lower life expectancies than elsewhere in the city.”The simple truth is that our history is on the wrong side of the freeway,” says Dillon Delvo, co-founder of Little Manila Rising, an education and advocacy-focused nonprofit. “The outcome is people are sick and people are dying.”

For years, the city’s woes only spread. Stockton declared bankruptcy in 2012, and the year before, the city’s high unemployment and violent crime rates led Forbes to name it “America’s most miserable city.” In 2016, meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued Stockton Unified, the city’s largest and poorest school district, claiming there was “a culture of over-policing” that disproportionately affected black and Latino students, as well as those with disabilities.

That was months before Tubbs was elected mayor. Soon after his victory, he set out to raise Stockton’s national profile and attract attention and resources from charitable foundations and the state. Now, the mayor himself serves as a symbol of hope for a community that is trying to heal from its past.

“When you think of the story of Stockton, I mean, we were literally ground zero – that was the baseline for us to improve to where we are now,” says Tubbs, who was first elected to the City Council in 2012 and is considered by some to be a rising star in the Democratic Party.

His ongoing priorities include economic development, improving public safety and ensuring longtime residents aren’t displaced as an infusion of Bay Area commuters moves to Stockton. Last month, Tubbs announced that Stockton will receive a state grant of more than $6.5 million to combat homelessness.

Perhaps the most famous of Tubbs’ initiatives is the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, a universal basic income experiment where 125 randomly assigned residents are given $500 per month on a debit card, no strings attached. Early data from the 18-month pilot suggests most people spend the money on things such as food, utilities and auto care.

A longer-term project backed by Tubbs is the Stockton Scholars program, which through a $20 million grant from the California Community Foundation will provide partial scholarships for the next decade for every student who graduates from Stockton Unified, where most students are Hispanic, black or Asian. Roughly 20% of students in the district drop out of high school, and only about 21% of graduates are considered career- or college-ready, state data shows.

Tubbs has raised Stockton’s profile and charted its course, but he’s ultimately just one vote on the City Council, with the city manager running day-to-day operations – meaning efforts to promote equity and inclusion can be prioritized, or they can be lost to bureaucracy. Local leaders, including Tubbs, say true progress will come from citywide changes, and some are taking steps in that direction.

In Stockton Unified schools, for example, Superintendent John Deasy says he is implementing “a suite of investments to build equity in a highly diverse place,” including by adding counselors and mental health clinicians to schools and training teachers on racial bias in the classroom. Deasy hopes to make a high school ethnic studies elective – introduced after students in a Little Manila Rising after-school program lobbied the school board – part of the core curriculum.

Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones, meanwhile, is working to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the city’s communities of color, with his efforts modeled in part after a reconciliation process used after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Officers are trained in implicit bias and procedural justice, and since 2015, the department has held hundreds of “listening sessions” with the city’s black and Latino communities.

Jones has also implemented policy changes in the department, such as scrapping its zero-tolerance, blanket-enforcement policing methods in favor of a violence-prevention model that targets those most at risk of criminal activity. After reaching a high in 2012, homicides in the city fell 40% between 2017 and 2018 and remained relatively level in 2019.

“I feel like we have a blueprint now,” Jones says. “This work is hard – it’s a lot to do – but it’s worth doing.”

A recent analysis by the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., shows some promising early results from the changes, with residents saying they have “more favorable perceptions of the police and police-community relationships. There also have been more calls to police, an indicator of community trust.

Yet some efforts have proved more fraught. A nearly two-year controversy over whether the city should continue subsidizing a pair of unprofitable public golf courses – one in north Stockton, one in south – ended in August when the City Council approved a plan to close the south Stockton course and keep the north Stockton course open under a 15-year lease with a private operator. Tubbs had proposed selling north Stockton’s 214-acre park to developers and putting the $850,000 used to keep the courses afloat toward other causes, like an affordable housing fund. But nearby residents protested, saying their home values would drop without the green space.

Tubbs says he’s proud of the outcome, but some, including STAND’s Sheil and Little Manila Rising’s Delvo, say the golf course became a symbol of a city divided, with the ordeal serving as a clear example of the wealthier north Stockton area’s “not in my backyard” attitude.

“There were signs everywhere, up on people’s lawns: ‘Stop Tubbs,’ ‘Stop Tubbs,'” Sheil says. “It got ugly so fast.”

Despite the obstacles, Nunez of Fathers & Families says local efforts to promote equity are “moving the needle” in the right direction in Stockton.

And activists say some residents’ resistance to change won’t keep them from fighting for Stockton’s underserved communities. Overcoming generations of trauma could take decades, they say, but breaking that cycle is paramount – perhaps even more so as Stockton, and indeed the country, continues to diversify.

“At the end of the day, can we win? We have to win,” Nunez says. “Our lives depend on it.”