Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco

In early November, I attended a panel which discussed Season of the Witch by David Talbot. The cover of the book says “In a kaleidoscopic narrative … David Talbot tells the gripping story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 and 1982 – and the extraordinary men and women who led to the city’s ultimate rebirth and triumph.”

Four of the people on the panel (including Mr. Talbot himself) were white, and one, Belva Davis, was black. Unsurprisingly, it was Belva Davis who started the conversation about black people in San Francisco, specifically that only about 5% of the population of San Francisco is black today, whereas it was much higher in the past. Then the white people started talking about how, yes, things are bad for black people in San Francisco. I do not recall seeing any black people in the audience – there may have been some, but if they were there, they did not make public comments. Would the topic even have come up if Belva Davis had not been there? I’ll never know.

One thing which was glaringly missing from the panel discussion were Asian Americans. The only Asian American mentioned in the entire panel was Ed Lee, and there was no discussion of what he did during 1967-1982 – it was just references what he is doing now as the Mayor of San Francisco, and the results of the election that week (in which Ed Lee won a second term as mayor with 56% of the first-round vote).

Here’s the thing. You do not have a serious conversation about race in San Francisco unless a) it is a discussion of a very specific sub-topic and/or b) you include Asians in the discussion. Today, Asian Americans are about one-third of the population of San Francisco. I do not remember seeing any Asians at the panel. There may have been some, but they were definitely way less that 1/3 of the audience, and they were 0% of the panel speakers. Belva Davis did bring up a specific subtopic, and I have no objection to what she said – I am more concerned with the way to discussion progressed, in which people treated it as if talking about black people meant they were having a comprehensive conversation about race in San Francisco.

To be fair, during the years that the book covers, San Francisco had a smaller Asian-American population. According to the 1970 census, only 13% of the population of San Francisco was Chinese, Filipino, or Japanese (other Asian-American groups were not listed on the 1970 census). That said, they still outnumbered black people in San Francisco in that year’s census results. The story of black people being driven out of San Francisco is relevant to the story of San Francisco; the story of Asian-Americans increasing as a population is just as relevant. And I think the absence of Asian-Americans in both the discussion at the panel and the audience is … noteworthy.

Yes, I recognize that time was limited at the panel, an I probably would not bother writing a post about this if the book Season of the Witch itself had not also under-represented Asian-Americans… which I will discuss more in Part 2.

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One thought on “Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 2 | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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