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Black and Asian Hate in San Francisco
This is a tough discussion about anti-Asian hate crimes and anti-Blackness in the Asian American communities of San Francisco.
“Ching chong aye yah,” hurled one of the two Black kids to an elderly Asian woman on the 30-Stockon bus in San Francisco. I had kept quiet for a few minutes but I couldn’t keep quiet anymore.
“Hey, if these Chinese people called you a nigger you’d be mad,” I told the kid. “So don’t go saying ‘ching chong’ and shit. Leave them alone.”
“Nobody cares, though. Mind your business.”
“Just leave them alone,” I reiterated. “Respect yourself.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that I had witnessed these kind of anti-Asian slurs. Many of my friends growing up were Asians: Chinese, Tibetan, Laotian, Taiwanese, Cambodian and Punjabi. I knew the families of two Asian business owners growing up who watched out for me like their own kid.
Because I was close to them, I witnessed the instances of street racism they endured, and unfortunately most of it was by young Black boys. Young boys who would mostly mock how they spoke when they entered their stores. Afterwards those Asians would often turn to me and ask me why those Blacks acted like that. My friend from China was much less guarded than his American counterparts and would never cease to ask me: why are all the poor people here Black? Why are those loud kids Black? Why are the criminals Black?
Every couple of years the Bay Area is marred in yet another controversy of anti-Asian violence with some of the most filmed and grotesque examples perpetrated by Black kids. The earliest I can recall was in 2007 when some Black teenagers threw an old Asian woman on the Muni train tracks. Or a Japanese man was beaten to death in Oakland. And the same controversies we’re facing now are happening again, only this time the political stakes are higher.
While empirically the majority of hate crimes against Asians are not committed by Black perpetrators, I’m interested here in the specter of tension between Black and Asians. Tensions that fueled the recall of Chesa Boudin, the SFUSD School Board and many ongoing battles in San Francisco. Be honest, if videos at the same rate of frequency came out of white perpetrators attacking Black seniors, the response would be intense. We would see outrage levels akin to what we saw when Nia Wilson was murdered by a white man in Oakland.
It’s time to grow up and address this head on, because the future doesn’t look bright for criminal justice in San Francisco. The city’s Asian population continues to grow in every neighborhood while there are few Black San Franciscans left. Refusal to have a frank conversation about this forfeits wide swaths of Asian voters to old, reprisal-based criminal justice and poverty crackdowns which will result in more racial strife. Almost every apartment building around S.F. has a “Stop Asian Hate” sign and it feels like it's aimed at these high profile instances of violence—someone has to address it.
Let’s start by understanding that this strife between Blacks and Asians is neither new nor unique to Asians. This is the old Black vs. Immigrant story in which communities growing from immigration first touch down in Black neighborhoods and rub shoulders. This goes back to the Irish, the Italians, the Vietnamese, the Mexicans, the Koreans and so on. This is certainly the story of SF’s southeast neighborhoods where in the last 30 years Asians have moved into Black enclaves like Visitation Valley and the Bayview while the Black population declines.
But San Francisco is more unique: the city has a large Asian community on the trajectory of becoming the majority. Because of the historic activism and mobilization of SF’s Chinese community, the community has a unique power that culminated in the election of the late Ed Lee and cemented an Asian-American political dynasty. Mayor London Breed then inherited this voter based having historically been propelled by the Black electorate, creating an often overlooked electoral unity.
The Breed-Lee coalition of Asian and Black voters created a perfect opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done in years: create communication between the two peoples. This could’ve been achieved through SF’s nonprofits in education, housing and cultural programs collaborating by hosting community cross-cultural events and integrating schools so kids who are raised together will like each other. Hard work and idealistic perhaps, but certainly worth trying.
But instead it blew up, starting with Lowell. Research indicates that children who are exposed to other racial groups and immigrants in school become more tolerant of those races and immigrants. Other research indicates that Chinese preschool children held anti-Black biases but reduced them with exposure to Black people and anti-racism training. But many in S.F.’s Chinese community didn’t care for this type of social benefit and instead sought to re-enforce segregation through the argument of meritocracy. Lowell is a outlier school—the vast majority of high school districts do not have a magnet school of that kind, and class stratification by academic performance already exists with AP classes.
Lowell was a bad option for Blacks regardless of the situation. If they didn’t get in, they would go to high schools with fewer AP classes because Lowell hogged them and thus less reward for higher academic performance. If they did get in, they’d have to bus themselves in the early hours of the morning across the city to endure being the only Black kid in class with all the prejudices and misconceptions from Asian peers. Prejudices that I encountered as a Black teenager in white and Asian AP classrooms, but that I was able to counter by being there. Or were countered by the presence of other Black kids in lunchrooms, hallways and other non-AP courses.
Yes, the Chinese community often values uniquely high academic performance, but doing well in school is more than studying for tests to get accepted into good colleges. Schools are also about understanding your society and how it interacts with you as an individual. A Computer Science professor of mine at UC Berkeley once muttered during lecture how socially unaware he found Lowell students about society. The tensions between Black and Asian students illustrate that Lowell was failing in that regard. Eliminating the test requirement was the right choice by the former school board so that SF would now be in line with almost every school district elsewhere that doesn’t shut off developing young teenagers to races different than them at age 13.
But the priorities of the SFUSD board were misguided for a district that was nearly taken over by the state for its horrendous budgetary situation—all the while obsessed over revisionism about Abraham Lincoln or whatever. But the pandemic closures that put SF children behind other public school districts was likely the primary motivation of the parent vote to take out the board. Yet the undeniable racial tinge about Lowell and Alison Collins’ remarks has created a new chapter of San Francisco race relations with various race-based proxy wars.
The Asian school official who simply explained to ESL students why they shouldn’t say “nigga” was not a fire-able offense or even an offense. I think the NAACP made a big deal out of it for no reason or possible retaliation about the Alison Collins removal. If she had said “n-word” instead of nigga this wouldn’t have even been an issue. But what does “n-word” mean to students who don’t speak English as a first language? The whole thing was completely overblown and made restorative justice harder to apply.
Because when an Asian school official like Ann Hsu actually does something racist—claiming Blacks and Hispanics simply come from education unconcerned households—Asian parents get indiscriminately defensive. Those remarks are prejudiced and do indicate an unfit knowledge for teaching children although I certainly don’t think they can’t be unlearned and she did apologize. But if neither sides shows willingness to make self-critiques or reflections about their community’s bigotries, you have a racial strife and nothing more.
But let’s delve into Hsu’s claims that many have long asked: why are Black people not upwardly mobile, high academic performers as many Chinese-Americans are? There’s a total difference being selected to immigrate to the United States with some community support networks and a spiritual drive to live out a second life for yourself versus being an American for 9 generations who was explicitly disadvantaged by the state.
Black people have lived in the U.S. for 400 years, 246 of them as the property of white people, and 349 of them as explicit second class citizens of the state. That means Black people have only had our rights on paper in this country for ~13% of our time here with no institutional leverage to reverse the systematic disadvantages in housing, employment and education that put us where we are today. If Black people were descendants of immigration we would not have these problems, case and point: the remarkably high mobility and academic attainment of Nigerian-Americans.
The majority of Asians trace their ancestry in the United States to 20th century immigration and arrived on the civil rights foundation Black people and Asian activists fought and suffered to create. Northeast Asians have done well at establishing self-sufficient communities, tutoring centers, ownership of housing and commerce, to foster growth, educational excellence and upwards mobility. It’s important to note in San Francisco this was built up out of defense against racism, mobs and riots from whites. That is the story of immigrants in America but it is not the story of slave-descendant Black people and Native Americans.
These things are much harder for Black people to achieve after decades of redlining, loan denials, substandard education and housing. When Black people try to use institutional powers to rectify that harm, it becomes an “Affirmative Action” battle with other minorities who did not suffer that level and legacy of systematic oppression. Other groups not understanding this history — or falling for white propaganda that reparation or Affirmative Action comes at other minorities’ expense — continues the 87% of harm in perpetuity. Not understanding Black people’s history may explain some of the absurdity in Asian parents en-masse trying to fire Supervisor Walton over saying “nigga” as if it’s equivalent to anti-Blackness.
One example is the significant resistance to locating subsidized housing in the Sunset District with obvious anti-Black overtones. Overtones Asian friends have told me their parents have about Black people since I was a kid. That they say we’re criminals and suspicious. This type of prejudice may not seem as bad as getting punched in the face or assaulted, but perpetually keeping Black people in poverty in S.F. by denying integrated housing or schooling is what fuels poverty and anti-Asian resentment.
The Sunset was developed as a White neighborhood, and upwardly mobile middle class Asian Americans made their way there thanks to Fair Housing laws that Black Civil Rights Activists fought for. (White realtors fought Black arrivals into the Sunset much harder than Asian arrivals as revealed in Segregation Western Style). The Black community then feels like once Asians and all immigrant groups have gotten theirs that they burn that bridge.
And that’s what explains Alison Collins’ comments about “House Negroes,” which unfortunately is a widely held opinion among Black people in San Francisco. The perception that the Chinese community are just white people suck ups. The language was inappropriate. Her broader context though was about anti-Blackness she had witnessed. She said what many Black people were thinking, just as Hsu said what many Asian people were thinking. Both Hsu and Collins apologized for their inappropriate remarks.
Collins is Black, and Black people do not have their own language as other groups do because it was taken from us. Her words were circulated among all non-Black people, Chinese-language media and white-owned newspapers. The lack of Black people having a conversational privacy is another issue reflected in the Supervisor Walton dispute with the Deputy case. Having your own language is a luxury Black people don’t have while the Chinese community and Chinese language media do. Lacking a shared but frank communication between Black and Asian is what fuels anti-Blackness among Asians and anti-Asian bigotry among Black people.
When Boudin first entered office there was an especially hard video to watch of an old Asian man being bullied by a crowd of Black people in San Francisco. He appeared to be collecting trash for the purposes of cashing in the cans when a Black man confiscated his bag and other Blacks ridiculed him from afar—he proceeded to cry. The perpetrators were arrested and Boudin apparently mediated a peaceful resolution between the groups, although this certainly did not satisfy the vengeful hunger for harsher prosecutions.
But what I noticed in the video was the buildings in the background: these Black residents lived in the projects. These attacks weren’t from Black middle class households but the last of San Francisco’s poor Black folks living in their segregated southeast district. It’s racialized poverty. The Black community in SF whose homeownership was destroyed in the Foreclosure Crisis and who are 37% of the city’s homeless population. Who owns no housing or commerce and yet is blamed for San Francisco’s problems. A community completely left out the city’s technology boom other than as service workers and security guards for a largely white and Asian workforce. It doesn't justify the bullying or the hate but when you fight against better housing, education and cleaner environments, you perpetuate poverty and the conditions that lead to hate and bigotry.
I don’t believe the young Black perpetrators would beat up or denigrate Black elders like I see in these viral videos against Asians—chiefly because it’d get around and they’d be stigmatized for it. It is obvious that these attacks are frequently against Asians because of the widely held perception that Asians cannot speak English well nor report these crimes to the police. But if those communities communicated with each other and could hold each other accountable then I don’t think these kinds of attacks would happen.
The answer to this strife is simple, but hard: integrate these communities. Not just socially but economically. That means middle-class Chinese Americans can’t be so reactionary against low-income housing in their neighborhoods or their children going to schools with differently performing children. That means Black parents need to push their children not to engage in that kind of bigotry or reflect on that bigotry themselves. Mayor Breed who commands a unique Black and Asian base of voters should be pushing this.
But here’s the issue: S.F. is the worst achieving school district of any county for Black student success in the state of California. So long as Black children grow up in SF’s most polluted and neglected neighborhoods, told that they’re dumb, uneducated criminals, nothing will change. So long as Black San Franciscans do not have the same kind of economic, educational and political control over their communities and upwards mobility that Asian Americans have remarkably achieved then resentment will persist. Nothing will make Black people care about the well-being of Asian Americans or the next group who moves up into the middle class while they’re continuously left behind.
We’ll also get nowhere if Asians don’t feel safe walking down the street. If Asians don’t feel like they can have a conversation with Black people about the kind of intolerance we’re seeing. It means some Black people have to get out of their comfort zones and admit that they too can be prejudiced and perpetrators towards Asians. We must stand up for Asians when someone attacks or denigrates them.
None of this is an excuse for violence or bigotry. It should never be tolerated. But this is an invitation for doing the hard work of talking about it and ending it.
To my subscribers, feel comfortable to speak your mind below free of judgment. The point of this piece is to foster this long overdue conversation.
Correction: Alison Colins was not raised in San Francisco.