San Francisco’s political establishment doth protest too much

“Are you kidding?” I exclaimed as I saw the headline on a San Francisco Chronicle story in which a San Francisco School Board member, Alison Collins, had been accused of racism and her resignation demanded by a significant chunk of The City’s political establishment.[1] This is, after all, the very same school board that attracted national derision for a decision to cover up a mural in my old high school, then for deciding to rename (a decision later suspended) schools that had been named after famous whites, including presidents.[2]

The reality is a bit more nuanced. And much of what I will write here is based on my own recollections. To call my account of the context here incomplete would likely woefully understate the matter. What I want to do, at the same time I think maybe The City’s establishment needs to catch its breath and step back a bit for a broader perspective, is to explain that there is more to the story that helps to understand what’s happening.

First, let’s take a look at the tweets that inspire the uproar (figure 1):

Fig. 1. “A tweet thread by SFUSD Board Vice President Alison Collins from Dec. 4, 2016.” Screenshot via the San Francisco Chronicle, fair use.[3]

My reaction to these tweets is to think that the uproar seems to make too much of what Alison Collins wrote. The tweets do single out folks of Asian descent for criticism when the elephant in this particular room is white supremacy. But the conversation she’s calling for is a conversation we all need to be having. And to profess such outrage over these tweets and demand Collins’ resignation suggests to me that San Francisco’s political establishment doth protest too much. Which is why I think maybe that establishment should step back, catch its breath, and consider a broader perspective.

Racism in San Francisco, like anywhere else, is a real thing. I remember when I was in Junior High School and High School overhearing locker room conversations about fights between racially-aligned gangs, some Black, some comprised of folks of Asian descent.

At that time, people of Chinese descent were notorious for owning much of the real estate in the Richmond and Sunset districts, including many cookie-cutter four-unit apartment buildings. Landlords often invite contempt,[4] but in my recollection, these folks were no better and no worse than other landlords. I remember a mostly amicable relationship with our landlords on Laurel Hill, for example.

A point that may be forgotten in the wake of Ed Lee’s mayoralty is that people of Chinese descent fought long and hard to gain political representation in a city where they comprise a significant portion of the population. And I would be remiss in neglecting that people of Chinese descent have been subject to particular abuse for a virus that seems to have crossed the non-human-human animal bridge in a Chinese market and that this controversy arises in the wake of a mass shooting of Asian massage workers at locations near Atlanta. Before we accuse folks of over-sensitivity to Collins’ posts, which date to December 2016,[5] long before the pandemic and long before the massage parlor shootings, we need to understand that this so-called “model minority” is entitled to some sensitivity.

Yes, Collins erred in singling out folks of Asian descent. The trouble is that this holier-than-thou uproar strongly suggests to me a political establishment in denial of its own racism. Yes, that would include San Francisco’s Black mayor, London Breed, who is among the politicians self-righteously calling for Collins’ resignation.[6] This situation calls not for assertions of moral superiority but rather some introspection. We all need to be doing better.

  1. [1]Jill Tucker, “Mayor Breed calls for S.F. school board member to resign over racist tweets directed at Asian Americans,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2021, https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Mayor-Breed-calls-for-S-F-school-board-member-to-16040970.php
  2. [2]David Benfell, “A non-conformist mural and a non-conformist kid: Why the mural still must be covered up,” Not Housebroken, August 14, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/14/a-non-conformist-mural-and-a-non-conformist-kid-why-the-mural-still-must-be-covered-up/; David Benfell, “It’s fine to highlight other people. But don’t cite historical falsehoods when you do,” Not Housebroken, February 21, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/02/06/its-fine-to-highlight-other-people-but-dont-cite-historical-falsehoods-when-you-do/; Isaac Chotiner, “How San Francisco Renamed Its Schools,” New Yorker, February 6, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-san-francisco-renamed-its-schools; Greg Keraghosian, “SF school board pauses renaming 44 schools, promises to consult historians in future,” SFGate, February 21, 2021, https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/SF-school-board-pauses-renaming-44-schools-15968504.php; Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html; Fernando Martinez, “San Francisco school board considers renaming a school after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia,” SFGate, January 29, 2021, https://www.sfgate.com/sf-culture/article/San-Francisco-School-Board-considers-renaming-a-15909103.php; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board May Save Controversial George Washington Mural,” New York Times, August 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/arts/san-francisco-murals.html; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals,” New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/arts/san-francisco-murals-george-washington.html
  3. [3]Jill Tucker, “Mayor Breed calls for S.F. school board member to resign over racist tweets directed at Asian Americans,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2021, https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Mayor-Breed-calls-for-S-F-school-board-member-to-16040970.php
  4. [4]Landlords have continued to be landlords, that is, capitalist scum, even in the pandemic: Associated Press, “Tenants Behind on Rent in Pandemic Face Harassment, Eviction,” U.S. News and World Report, June 14, 2020, https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/virginia/articles/2020-06-13/tenants-behind-on-rent-in-pandemic-face-harassment-eviction; David Benfell, “Evictions in a pandemic,” Not Housebroken, March 11, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/03/11/evictions-in-a-pandemic/; Regina Garcia Cano and Michael Casey, “Wave of evictions expected as moratoriums end in many states,” Associated Press, August 4, 2020, copy in possession of author; Kriston Capps, “Landlords Challenge U.S. Eviction Ban and Continue to Oust Renters,” CityLab, October 22, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-22/landlords-launch-legal-attack-on-cdc-eviction-ban; Kriston Capps, “What Happens When the Eviction Bans End?” CityLab, May 29, 2020, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2020/05/pay-rent-eviction-ban-coronavirus-housing-crisis-landlord/612277/; Michelle Conlin and Christopher Walljasper, “Time’s up: After a reprieve, a wave of evictions expected across U.S.,” Reuters, October 19, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-housing-eviction-insight/times-up-after-a-reprieve-a-wave-of-evictions-expected-across-u-s-idUKKBN27415U; John Fritze and Nicholas Wu, “Trump administration announces nationwide eviction moratorium through end of the year,” USA Today, September 1, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/09/01/trump-imposes-eviction-moratorium-because-covid-19-pandemic/5686402002/; Andrew Khouri, “Depleted savings, ruined credit: What happens when all the rent comes due?” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2021-02-02/rent-debt-worries-grow-covid-strains-tenants; Sam Levin, “California landlords are locking out struggling tenants. A ‘tsunami of evictions’ may be next,” Guardian, July 30, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/30/california-covid-19-evictions-landlords-tenants; Eric Levitz, “This Recession Is a Bigger Housing Crisis Than 2008,” New York, July 13, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/coronavirus-recession-evictions-crisis-congress.html; Leah Litman, “A judge says we can’t ban evictions. It’s an attack on all federal power,” Washington Post, March 1, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/03/01/evictions-court-decision-constitution-commerce/; Heather Long, “Millions of Americans are heading into the holidays unemployed and over $5,000 behind on rent,” Washington Post, December 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/12/07/unemployed-debt-rent-utilities/; Gretchen Morgenson, “Large corporate landlords have filed 10,000 eviction actions in five states since September,” NBC News, October 26, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/business/personal-finance/large-corporate-landlords-have-filed-10-000-eviction-actions-five-n1244711; Renae Merle, “Evictions are likely to skyrocket this summer as jobs remain scarce. Black renters will be hard hit,” Washington Post, July 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/07/06/eviction-moratoriums-starwood/; Will Parker, “Struggling Rental Market Could Usher in Next American Housing Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/struggling-rental-market-could-usher-in-next-american-housing-crisis-11603791000; Catherine Rampell, “Rents for the rich are plummeting. Rents for the poor are rising. Why?” Washington Post, March 22, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/03/22/rents-rich-are-plummeting-rents-poor-are-rising-why/; Ashwin Rodrigues, “Gig Economy Company Launches Uber, But for Evicting People,” Vice, September 21, 2020, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ep435n/gig-economy-company-launches-uber-but-for-evicting-people; Jenny Schuetz, “America’s inequitable housing system is completely unprepared for coronavirus,” Brookings, March 12, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/12/americas-inequitable-housing-system-is-completely-unprepared-for-coronavirus/; Kyle Swenson, “Renters thought a CDC order protected them from eviction. Then landlords found loopholes,” Washington Post, October 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2020/10/27/trump-cdc-eviction-moratorium-loopholes/
  5. [5]Jill Tucker, “Mayor Breed calls for S.F. school board member to resign over racist tweets directed at Asian Americans,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2021, https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Mayor-Breed-calls-for-S-F-school-board-member-to-16040970.php
  6. [6]Jill Tucker, “Mayor Breed calls for S.F. school board member to resign over racist tweets directed at Asian Americans,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2021, https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Mayor-Breed-calls-for-S-F-school-board-member-to-16040970.php

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