Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 4

In the previous part, I discussed the fact that Asian American issues are almost totally ignored outside of their short chapter, as well as the (non)representation of Latino and American Indian people. In this part, I was to talk about a major change in San Francisco involving Asian-Americans which the book totally misses.

Okay, it manages to briefly mention one piece of the tranformation:

But the neighborhood’s quaint exterior masked a social tempest. Following the immigration reform law of 1965, which eased the longtime anti-Chinese quotas, a new wave of immigrants came flooding into San Francisco’s Chinatown, West Coast capital of the Chinese diaspora. The neighborhood’s dreary tenement buildings, welfare hotels, and public housing barracks were soon stuffed with families from Guangdong Province and other Asian regions that were the chief exporters of human capital to America.

In my opinion, this paragraph understates just how big a deal this was. I am not an expert on the post-1965 Asian immigrant wave to Chinatown, but even I know that it changed the language of Chinatown itself – before the dominant language was Toisanese, and during the 1970s, the Cantonese became the new dominant language.

However, there is another part of this story which the book does not make any reference to, and it is a part of the story which has had more of an impact on my life growing up in San Francisco than any of the many things which the book says about the Haight-Ashbury, even though I grew up within walking distance of Haight and Ashbury streets, and I spent much time in the Haight-Ashbury in my youth. That is the integration of Asian-Americans into the western neighborhoods (which are also known as the “outside lands” and “the avenues”, but in this post I’ll simply call them the ‘western neighborhoods’).

The book occasionally mentions the western part of the city as being the a set of conservative neighborhoods full of people who vote as homeowners and taxpayers. Even today, the these neighborhoods are the stronghold of middle-class (as opposed to upper-class) conservatism in San Francisco (though, of course, someone who is a conservative by San Francisco standards may not be considered a conservative in many other parts of the USA).

For many decades, the these neighborhoods was almost entirely white – by design. There were many measures which a) ensured Chinese people (specifically) could only settle in Chinatown and b) in the neighborhoods themselves, there were mechanisms such as covenants which forcefully kept Asians (and other disliked groups) from buying homes in an area. Failing those measures to keep Asians in their place … well, the first Chinese family which ever settled in the Richmond district found a landlord which was willing to rent to them, and then they received a great deal of harassment from their neighbors (their landlord was also harassed). Somehow, they managed to hold on, since as of 2010, when I learned about this family, they were still living in that location in the Richmond district.

However, today, these neighborhoods are just about 50% Asian-American. How did this happen? Many of the measures which forced Chinese people (and to a lesser extent, other Asians) to live only in certain parts of the city broke down during the Civil Rights era. The combination of greater freedom and the increasingly crowded conditions of Chinatown inspired many Asian-Americans to settle in other neighborhoods, particularly the western neighborhoods. And this was going on during the years that the book covers.

The western neighborhoods cover roughly a third of the city (it depends on how you define the borders). A third of a major American city was converted from segregated whites-only neighborhoods into racially mixed neighborhoods within the span of about two decades – is this not a major transformation? And why does a book which claims to be about radical change in San Francisco from the 1960s to the 1980s fail to mention it at all?

In the next part, I address two factors which may have caused to be biased in the way that it is – the white-black binary, and what I call “Neighborhood Tunnel Vision” (actually, I’ve never called it that before, I made up that name right now, but it is a concept I have thought about for a long time).

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One thought on “Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 4

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 5 | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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