‘Bad to horrific’: Racial discrimination and wealth inequality grew under COVID-19
SJSU Human Rights Institute Director William Armaline and other speakers at a June 23 news conference. He spoke about the Silicon Valley Pain Index, an annual report focusing on racial discrimination and income inequality in the region. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Inequality in Silicon Valley has gone from “bad to horrific” over the pandemic, as indicators such as hunger, homelessness, income inequality and the wealth gap have all increased since last June, new research shows.

“While our community was shocked at the incredibly high levels of racial discrimination and income and wealth inequality detailed in the 2020 (report), the 2021 Silicon Valley Pain Index shows how the level of inequality during this pandemic has gone from bad to horrific,” the report said.

The Silicon Valley Pain Index, conducted by the San Jose State University Human Rights Institute, is an annual report focusing on racial discrimination and income inequality in the region. The report was inspired by an index compiled about New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The report aims to use the latest data and reporting to reveal structured inequalities and hold institutions accountable for inaction.

The first report, published in June 2020, highlights the prevalence of white supremacy and a widening gap of wealth inequality in the South Bay.

But the inequality has only gotten worse as the pandemic engulfed the nation last year, the research’s lead author said.

“Whether you look at food insecurity, housing or income inequality, all went in the wrong direction, the negative direction,” SJSU sociology professor Scott Myers-Lipton told San José Spotlight. “The levels of inequality are through the roof.”

The professor led a news conference Wednesday at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in downtown San Jose to publicly release the report’s findings.

“Pain is what we see when we see our police get a 4% pay increase, and yet we see less, less services being granted to change the conditions that are causing the inequality,” said Jahmal Williams, co-chair of Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet of Silicon Valley. “I want to see this study really touch the lives of our lawmakers, touch the lives of our council members and the lives of our CEOs.”

SJSU sociology professor Scott Myers-Lipton at a June 23 news conference. Photo by Vicente Vera.

“A tale of two economies,” Silicon Valley saw tech giants thriving during the pandemic. Apple doubled its value last year, becoming the first company to reach the $2 trillion mark, the research shows. The top 10 richest Silicon Valley moguls, all of whom are white men, also grew their net worth from $248 billion to $571 billion last year. That’s a 130% increase, according to the research.

But over the same period, the average per capita income of Black residents in Silicon Valley declined 1% per year. The average of Latinx residents’ income saw a slight increase of 5.7%, or $1,658, per year from last year. People of color with some college education earned about $11 less per hour than white residents with similar credentials.

Speakers wait their turn at the June 23 news conference on the Silicon Valley Pain Index. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Food insecurity increased fourfold over the pandemic, according to the report. The area’s largest food bank, Second Harvest, served half a million people a month last year, a number that stunned Myers-Lipton.

“That’s one fourth of the county’s total population,” Myers-Lipton said.

Housing insecurity rates also skyrocketed. Nearly 197,000 households in Santa Clara County faced eviction or couldn’t pay their mortgages last year, compared to approximately 12,000 households in 2018.

“Inequality was already a smoldering smoldering fire,” said Sacred Heart Community Service Executive Director Poncho Guevara. “With COVID, it just turned into a raging wildfire that affected the lives of so many people.”

The homeless population in the county also increased by 9% in the last year, the research shows. African American residents made up 17% of the area’s unhoused population in 2020, while 44% of them are Latinx. According to the report, 197 unhoused people died under COVID-19, an increase of 22% from the previous year.

“In terms of housing, this will get worse,” SJSU Human Rights Institute Director William Armaline said Monday. “We can see a blood bath with the eviction moratorium soon to expire.”

Since 2020, California has passed two rounds of eviction moratoria to protect renters across the state from becoming homeless. As the latest ban is set to end on June 30, lawmakers are mulling over another extension.

SJSU Human Rights Institute Director William Armaline at a June 23 news conference. Photo by Vicente Vera.

San Jose is also much behind in its affordable housing goal of 10,000 units by 2022, the report shows. It has completed just 427 units since 2018.

Communities of color in Silicon Valley, especially the Latinx community in East San Jose, also bore the brunt of COVID-19, as they were overrepresented in number of infections and death rates while receiving the vaccine at a much lower rate than their white counterparts. Vietnamese and Filipino residents was also impacted by the virus disproportionately, the report shows.

“The pandemic has exacerbated and laid bare the infrastructure of inequality here,” Armaline said. “This is unstable and unsustainable.”

In terms of leadership positions, Silicon Valley’s tech giants have promised to increase diversity for years, yet the numbers of people of color at the top remain minuscule. The report found Apple has one Black person on its management team. Almost 4% of Facebook employees are Black, and four of its executives are Native Americans. Two percent of Google employees are Latinx women. And out of 285 Cisco executives, five are Black, the report shows.

The report also highlights a “concerning” high school dropout rate of 14%, which impacted those who are homeless, English learners and Latinx students the most.

Corina Herrera-Loera, president of the Alum Rock Union School District Board of Trustees, said it’s no accident why the dropout rates are higher in certain communities.

“If you are hungry, you can’t focus in school,” she said. “(You can’t focus) if you don’t know where you’re going to sleep.”

This year’s report also shows that no San Jose police officers have been prosecuted for killing someone since 2015, despite the city being ranked no. 1 in police fatal encounters in the Bay Area.

Now that the report is out, Armaline said the Human Rights Institute will work with communities, organizations and stakeholders on next steps. He hopes private sector agencies will see the pain index and be inspired to act.

Myers-Lipton said he hopes the report could help spark more conversations around inequality in Silicon Valley—and lead to policy changes that would “reflect our needs.” Some of those policies include creating affordable housing and raising minimum wage.

“I hope this is a wake up call,” Myers-Lipton said. “Are we happy with this level of ‘pain’? Or are we going to do something about it?”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

2021 SV PAIN INDEX

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