California: Growing Pains and Natural Disasters

Growing Pains and Natural Disasters

Prosperity and rapid population growth continued after the war. Many African Americans who came during World War II to work in the war industries settled in California. By the 1960s they constituted a sizable minority in the state, and racial tensions reached a climax. In 1964, California voters approved an initiative measure, Proposition 14, allowing racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing in the state, a measure later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1965 riots broke out in Watts, a predominantly black section of Los Angeles, touching off a wave of riots across the United States. Also in the 1960s migrant farm workers in California formed a union and struck many growers to obtain better pay and working conditions. Unrest also occurred in the state's universities, especially the Univ. of California at Berkeley, where student demonstrations and protests in 1964 provoked disorders.

Republicans generally played a more dominant role than Democrats in California politics during the 20th cent., but by the early 21st cent. the state had become more Democratic. From the end of World War II through the mid-1990s, five of the seven governors were Republicans, starting with Earl Warren (1943–53). Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor and a leading conservative Republican, was elected governor in 1966 and reelected in 1970; he later served two terms as U.S president. The two Democrats were liberals Edmund G. (Pat) Brown (1959–67) and his son Jerry Brown (1975–83). In the late 1970s, Californians staged a “tax revolt” that attracted national attention, passing legislation to cut property taxes.

During the 1970s and 80s California continued to grow rapidly, with a major shift of population to the state's interior. The metropolitan areas of Riverside–San Bernardino, Modesto, Stockton, Bakersfield, and Sacramento were among the fastest growing in the nation during the 1980s. Much of the state's population growth was a result of largely illegal immigration from Mexico; there was also a heavy infux of immigrants from China, the Philippines, and SE Asia.

Population growth and immigration contributed to growing economic pressures, as did cuts in federal defense spending; meanwhile, social tensions also increased. In Apr., 1992, four white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of brutality charges after they had been videotaped beating a black motorist; the verdict touched off riots in South-Central Los Angeles and other neighborhoods, resulting in 58 deaths, thousands of arrests, and approximately $1 billion in property damage.

In addition to periodic heavy flooding and brushfires, earthquakes have caused widespread damage in California. In Oct., 1989, a major earthquake killed about 60 people and injured thousands in Santa Cruz and the San Francisco Bay area. In Jan., 1994, an earthquake hit the Northridge area of N Los Angeles, killing some 60 people and causing at least $13 billion in damage.

In a backlash against illegal immigration, California voters in 1994 approved Proposition 187, an initiative barring the state from providing most services—including welfare, education, and nonemergency medical care—to illegal immigrants. Federal courts found much of Proposition 187 unconstitutional; the appeal of their rulings was dropped in 1999, at a time when the state's economy had rebounded and a Democratic administration was in Sacramento.

California elected Republican governors—George Deukemejian (1982, 1986) and Pete Wilson (1990, 1994)— before the Democrat Gray Davis was elected in 1998 (and reelected in 2002). The economic downturn in the early 2000s resulted in enormous budget shortfalls for California's state government, and made Davis increasingly unpopular. A recall petition financed mainly by a Republican congressman who withdrew from the subsequent election led to a vote (Oct., 2003) that removed Davis from office. The actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was elected to succeed him, and served two terms through 2011.

In late 2000, California began experiencing an electricity crisis as insufficient generating capacity and increasing short-term wholesale prices for power squeezed the state's two largest public utilities, who, under the “deregulation” plan they had agreed to in the early 1990s, were not allowed to pass along their increased costs. Evidence subsequently emerged of both price gouging and market manipulation by a number of energy companies. In 2003, the state experienced devastating wildfires in the greater San Diego area; the area was again hit with particularly dangerous wildfires in 2007. The housing bubble that burst in 2007 and the significant recession that followed it had especially severe consequences in California, both for the state's economy (which experienced unemployment levels not seen since the early 1940s) and government (which faced enormous budget shortfalls for several years).

Jerry Brown, a Democrat who had been been governor in the 1970s and 80s, was elected to the post again in 2010 and 2014. In 2014, three consecutive years of below normal rainfall combined with hotter temperatures resulted in California's worst drought on record (and by some measures the worst in more than a millenium); the drought continued through 2016. In Oct., 2017, Nov., 2018, Aug.–Sept., 2020, and May–Oct., 2021, the state experienced some of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in its history, primarily in N California, and was ravaged by other extensive and destructive wildfires in the intervening months; while 2020 set a record for acreage destroyed, 2021 has far outpaced it, with three times the area burned. In 2018 Democrat Gavin Newsom won the governorship. His attempts to control the spread of COVID-19 led to a recall effort in 2021, but Newsom easily defeated it that September.

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