Capitol Journal: Don’t be too smug, California: The state has its own shameful history of racism and bigotry

For more than a century, Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Long Beach, bearing the name of the Confederate general, avoided scrutiny over its name. But pressure from the Legislature in 2015 prompted the school to change its name.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

So this is making America great again? We’re losing respect around the world. The president is striking out in Congress. And he seems incapable of leading a nation that he increasingly is tearing apart.

He’s a president who can’t even manage a simple, believable denunciation of racism and bigotry. He equates people protesting against racism and bigotry with the racists and bigots themselves.

For the record:

9:10 a.m. March 2, 2024An earlier version of this column said Braxton Bragg commanded a U.S. Army outpost at Ft. Bragg before defecting to the Confederacy. The town was named for Bragg, but he never served at the outpost.

And President Trump thinks California “is out of control?” That’s what he told Fox News earlier this year.


When it comes to racism and bigotry, California admittedly can’t be too smug. The state ranks No. 1 in the nation for hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. There are 79 active here.

There’s also our shameful history, although we’ve mostly owned up to past sins and steadily become more tolerant.

California rejected slavery from the start, but committed genocide against Native Americans. In the 1850s, the state government paid bounties for their body parts — 25 cents per scalp, up to $5 for a whole head.

In his 1851 State of the State message to the Legislature, Gov. John McDougall declared a “war of extermination” against California Indians. In 1769, there were 300,000 here. By 1900, their numbers had fallen to only 17,000.

For many decades, California discriminated horribly against Asians. Japanese immigrants were barred from owning property. The Chinese couldn’t legally migrate here at all.

In more modern times, Californians voted overwhelmingly half a century ago to continue racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. Ronald Reagan strongly supported the discrimination while being elected governor in 1966. The state and U.S. Supreme Courts ruled the discrimination unconstitutional.


In 1994, Californians voted in a near landslide to deny public services, including education, to immigrants here illegally. That meant kids would be kicked out of school. Proponents insisted that was aimed at illegal immigration, not Latinos. Whatever, courts ruled it unconstitutional.

Confederate names have no place on California schools>>

In contrast, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature recently extended Medi-Cal healthcare for the poor to undocumented children.

Two years ago, the issue of racial hatred resurfaced when a young white supremacist who was obsessed with the Confederate battle flag gunned down nine African Americans in a black Charleston, S.C., church.

That started a serious movement in the South to ban Confederate flags from public buildings and tear down old monuments to Dixie war heroes, including Gen. Robert E. Lee. In all, about 70 monuments have been destroyed or moved, but more than 700 remain.

It was the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue by the city of Charlottesville, Va., that white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan were protesting when they clashed with counter-demonstrators last Saturday. Three people died and 35 were injured.

Californians looked around two years ago and found a couple of schools in Long Beach and San Diego named after Lee. The schools since have changed their names under pressure.

California confronts its Confederate past as monuments are abruptly removed>>

Elsewhere in California, there were five markers erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of the so-called Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway System, named after the Confederate president. A Stockton street was named for Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

And Ft. Bragg on the north coast was named for Braxton Bragg, a U.S. Army officer who defected to the Confederacy and became a high-ranking general.


So what’s wrong with all that? Really little, if you can dismiss the ugly fact that the battle flags and warrior monuments have become idols worshiped by white supremacists and the KKK. Nazi swastikas and Confederate flags have become matching parts of many racist uniforms.

Updates from Sacramento »

For many of us, the Confederate flag has always been a symbol of slavery, treason and racism. The Civil War was started by the South to protect slavery, pure and simple. Yes, it was about states’ rights — the states’ rights to keep black people in bondage and enhance the wealth of plantation owners.

Confederate flag represents South no more than Mexico’s represents California>>

I say this as a native Californian whose parents came here from the South, descending from many generations of Southerners. My great-great-grandfather Skelton, a Tennessee tobacco and hog farmer who never owned slaves, died fighting for the Confederacy.

You can spare me any nostalgic fairy tales of Southern charm, magnolias and the Antebellum era. It may have been a grand way of life, but only for wealthy white folk.


In 2015, state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) pushed a bill through the Legislature to prohibit calling any California public school, building, park or road anything Confederate.

The legislation stated that certain groups use Confederate symbols “to demean and offend whole segments of our society while sowing racial divisions.” Enshrining the names of Confederate leaders, it said, “is antithetical to California’s mission of racial equality.”

Brown vetoed the bill, contending that naming things should be the prerogative of local governments.

“I’m for local control, too,” Glazer says. “But we’ve given them decades to change their names. Isn’t that enough? But some did come around.”

“Those symbols, those flags,” he adds, “do belong in our history books — just not in a place of honor.”

Trump seems utterly confused about all this, unable to distinguish the moral right from wrong. To borrow his line: So sad!


Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter


Confederate names have no place on California schools

Confederate flag represents South no more than Mexico’s represents California

Forget about single-payer healthcare. This California congressman has the real solution: Medicare for all