‘Dying to stay here’: The plight of Black people in Silicon Valley
Chuck Cantrell is seen in this screenshot from his video project, "Dying to Stay Here," released in December 2023.

A local economist startled by the staggering disparities pushing African Americans to the margins in Santa Clara County is launching a video and podcast project hoping to bring more attention to the issue.

Chuck Cantrell’s “Dying to Stay Here” video was formally released at CreaTV studios in San Jose earlier this month. The roughly nine-minute film overviews racist societal structures and business cycles that disproportionately punish African Americans in the expensive Silicon Valley, making it harder to live in the region.

“Marginalized people are the canaries in an economic coal mine. African Americans are singing a song,” Cantrell told San José Spotlight.

Cantrell, an African American economist and San Jose planning commissioner, evaluated 18 different sets of public data focused on health, employment, infant mortality, school populations, wealth gaps and unhoused populations, among other areas.

“It’s publicly available data, I didn’t do anything people can’t go and discover on their own,” Cantrell said.

Employment disparities 

One of the most stark disparities Cantrell highlights in the project are employment trends. He said since 1974, whenever African Americans reach full employment in the labor market, a recession typically follows.

He keys in on a business practice known as “last in, first out,” where the newest employees at a company are often the first to be let go or laid off in a recession.

He said the practice has in effect become a racist trend, as African Americans are the last labor group to reach full employment in booming economies, and the group with the most severe unemployment figures as soon as a recession strikes, based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. African Americans, for example, experienced roughly double the rate of unemployment of white workers in recent recessions, including in 1983, 1992, 2003 and 2010.

At the peak of the pandemic in spring 2020, Hispanic or Latino workers had the highest percentage of unemployment, about two points higher than African Americans. But by summer 2020 and since then, African Americans have experienced the highest unemployment levels, effectively double that of white workers in 2022.

Cantrell added that incomes tend to decrease more for African Americans later rejoining the labor market than other groups.

“So it’s literally last in, first out, and you do that twice here, with diminishing wages and lower savings because you spent everything you had to survive, and after two cycles, it’s nearly impossible to live here,” Cantrell said.

Pushed to the edge

Cantrell said for three decades there’s been a consistent decline of African Americans in Santa Clara County, who now make up less than 3% of the region’s population.

At the same time, African Americans account for about 18% of the county’s homeless population. Hundreds of unhoused people die on the streets each year in the county, with mortality rates as high as 20%, Cantrell said.

“We’re not leaving, we’re literally dying to stay here,” Cantrell said in the video.

If the trends don’t change, his analysis indicates that within 35 years, the region could be facing “essentially the extinction of African Americans.”

The uneven playing field for African Americans in Santa Clara County highlighted by Cantrell resonates with the Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of the NAACP San Jose/Silicon Valley, who has advocated for years for changes to improve equity. He, too, has faced economic challenges in the pricey area.

“His is another voice, another way of crying out, for the same thing we are showing you on paper,” Moore told San José Spotlight of Cantrell’s project. “We are seeing something happen to one subset of people, it’s only so long before it starts happening to others.”

He said Cantrell’s project fits into a larger picture of a broad devaluation of African Americans by the city, county and private businesses, which has been called out in multiple reports and studies, and collated in documents such as the annual Silicon Valley Pain Index.

Devaluation of African Americans

Some of the most recent numbers from the index show that 26% of African American or Black residents own a home in Santa Clara County compared to 63% of white residents. This gap has widened since 2015 when it was 35% to 60%.

White workers with a bachelor’s degree receive 62% average higher compensation for their work in comparison to African American workers with a bachelor’s degree in the region. Meanwhile, about 16% of African Americans in the county are in poverty, compared to Vietnamese Americans at 10%, Latinos at 9%, Filipinos at 7%, Korean at 5%, whites at 5% and Asian Indian at 2%.

“If people are continually telling you about or warning you about something, and you’re not doing something as a county or city, it’s neglectful on your part,” Moore said.

In addition to economic inequities, Moore said the history and contributions of African Americans have been destroyed, ignored or undervalued in the county and the state as a whole, leading to “cultural deserts” where African Americans feel isolated.

“It’s the inner stress that we have that kills us, it’s the stress of being alone, it’s the stress of not being recognized or being heard,” Moore said.

Cantrell said while the short video project is mostly designed to get more people thinking about the issues and help spark dialogue, it isn’t focused on solutions.

To more deeply explore the topics and data, Cantrell plans to launch an accompanying “Dying to Stay Here” podcast. It will feature interviews with local residents and experts in economics and health to discuss how the community and its leaders can step up to address the issues facing the African American community.

“There’s plenty to be done about it,” Cantrell said.

Moore said leaders need to take action now to address the exodus of African Americans from the region.

“If this community really wants to not just talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, but if they really want to practice it, they must ask themselves what can they do to stop the flight of (African Americans),” Moore said. “Why are we leaving?”

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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