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).

Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 3

In the previous part, I focused mainly on the very short chapter about Asian-Americans in the book Season of the Witch and its shortcomings.

However, in my opinion, was is even worse than the shortcomings of that chapter is the fact that Asian Americans are hardly ever mentioned elsewhere in the book. Going through the index, it seems that the only Asian-American who is ever mentioned outside of that short chapter is Wendy Yoshimura, who is briefly mentioned as being a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the person who was arrested with Patty Hearst. It’s as if the book decided to segregate the Asian-American history of this era in San Francisco, squeeze it into a short chapter, and almost never let them be outside that chapter.

A lot of the book focuses on the music scene of San Francisco of the time, which was dominated by white people. Yet they were not entirely white, and not all of the non-white people were black. There was Benjamin Fong-Torres, the first senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine, who was also active in the San Francisco State College protests, and was a DJ at KSAN-FM, one of the radio stations mentioned in the book. Was it absolutely essential to include Ben Fong-Torres in the book? Probably not. However, given that I know a lot less about San Francisco’s rock-and-roll history than Bryan Talbot does … the fact that even I can name an Asian-American who was seriously involved in that history, and Bryan Talbot did not in a 400-page book … is somewhat sad.

Even if the writer did not find any Asian-Americans who were compelling enough to include in the rock-and-roll angle of the book, at least the dominance of white people deserved comment.

And generally, the book ignores how Asian-Americans were involved in or impacted by the events and issues discussed.

The book does this much better with black people – black people are not just in the ‘African-American’ chapters, they can be found in various chapters which are not focused on African-Americans. There is a sense that there are black people in San Francisco, and that they are connected to the narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the book is even better at representing white people than black people. Way better.

Even though Asian-Americans are the largest non-white racial group in San Francisco, and thus their under-representation is most glaring, I think it is also worth examining how the book addresses Latinos and American Indians. I am going to quote everything I can find about Latinos in the book:

The Castro district and the Noe Valley neighborhood were working-class Irish, though the Irish in the adjacent Mission district were giving way to Latino immigrants. (Chapter 2, “Dead Men Dancing”)

In the beginning, he trawled for items at the city’s swanky Nob Hill hotels and the more colorful watering holes down below, like Shanty Malone’s – whose massive floor was marked out with white lines like a football field – and the Black Cat, where drag diva José Sarria would lead patrons each night in a rousing version of “God Save Us Nelly Queens, sung to the stately tun of the British anthem. (Chapter 10, “San Francisco’s Morning Kiss”)

José Sarria, a hometown boy who plucked his eyebrows, slipped into a basic black dress and a pair of Capezio stilettos, and began singing torch songs at the bohemian Black Cat in the 1950s, was the first to politicize the drag world. In between songs, he started preaching that “gay is good,” and at the end of each performance, he had the audience stand and belt out a parody of “God Save the Queen” – “as a kind of anthem,” he later recalled, “to get them realizing that we had to work together, that … we could change the laws if we weren’t always hiding.” In 1961 Sarria took his campaign public, running for the city’s board of supervisors with an early gay pride message. The campaign fell short of victory, but the gay genie was released from San Francisco’s bottle. (Chapter 12, “The Palace of Golden Cocks”)

Some of the organizations that the SLA requested to coordinate the food give-away, including the Black Panthers and the United Farm Workers union, refused to play a role, with Panthers leader Huey Newton proclaiming that he wouldn’t be a party to SLA “extortion.” (Chapter 19, “The Revolution Will Be Televised”)

The temple worked its mojo on dozens of community organizations, from small groups like the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Association to higher-profile ones like the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the United Farm Workers. (Chapter 25, “Slouching Toward San Francisco”

Many of the attackers were from the heavily Latino Mission district that abutted the Castro – a neighborhood that had shared the Mission’s Catholic family values until gays displaced the Irish. Some of the young thugs were wrestling with their own sexual confusions. In June 1977, on the first warm night of summer, Robert Hillsborough, a thirty-one-year-old city gardener known as Mr. Greenjeans to the kids at the park where he worked, was jumped by four young men as he walked to his apartment with his boyfriend. A nineteen-year-old Latino named John Cordova pinned Hillsborough to the ground and plunged a fishing knife repeatedly into his chest and face, screaming “Faggot, faggot, faggot!” It was an intensely personal and physical way to kill a man. Cordova, it was later revealed, led his own secret homosexual life. (Chapter 30, “A Tale of Two Cities”)

That, as well as Santana’s song “Samba Pa Ti” appearing on the list of best songs recorded by San Francisco bands 1965-1985 – is everything I could find in this 400+ page book about Latino people. You may judge for yourself.

The only place in the book where American Indians are mentioned is Chapter 19 – “He sat down for a four-hour lunch meeting at a Hilton hotel in San Francisco with suspicious American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks, who – after making their bodyguards taste the meal – agreed to help with PIN.” Since American Indians were less than 1% of San Francisco’s population at that time, their almost total absence from the book would be easily excusable – if it were not for the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz island. I was surprised that that event was not mentioned at all in the book.

In the next part, I will discuss a major transformation of San Francisco in the 1960-80s which a) totally involves Asian-Americans and b) is totally missed by the book.

Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 2

In part 1, I discussed the under-representation of Asian Americans in a panel about the book The Season of the Witch. In this part, I look at the book itself.

First of all, I’ve noticed that, out of all of the reviews of the book on Goodreads, the one with the most likes is this review.

I think Talbot paid a little more than lip-service to the African American community – there are two entire chapters focused on African-Americans, and there are a number of other chapters where African-Americans are dicussed, heck, the book even mentions Sylvester, a prominent queer African-American (though it only mentions Sylvester on two pages and almost does not mention that he was African-American, while having an extended discussion of Sylvester’s white colleague Hibiscus), but I otherwise agree with the reviewer about the book’s “white scope”.

However, in a book that is over 400 pages long, Asian-Americans only get serious discussion in one 9-page chapter “The Empress of Chinatown” (one of the shortest in the books), and that chapter is mostly about Rose Pak, Ed Lee, and Gordon Chin, and does not even really describe how Rose Pak “was able to protect her own community from suffering the same fate as the Fillmore district.”

Speaking of the Fillmore district … the book gives the “negro removal” in the Fillmore district quite a bit of attention, as it should, and one the audience members who got the microphone also made a big deal about it, yet the book – nor anybody at the panel – even mentioned that Japanese-Americans were forcibly removed from the Fillmore District before African-Americans were. It is yet another example of how relevant Asian-American history got ignored.

I was also really surprised that destruction of the International Hotel only got three paragraphs (in that same short chapter – “The Empress of Chinatown”). The book puts a lot of emphasis on the radical leftist groups in San Francisco, especially the Symbionese Liberation Army, so why not mention the radical leftist groups which were involved in the struggle over the International Hotel? Also, there are multiple chapters about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple – why not mention the role he played in the International Hotel saga? I certainly think the International Hotel merited its own chapter in the book.

The book discusses various racial conflicts in San Francisco … where Asian Americans are conspicuously absent. The only thing the book has to say about Asian Americans and the Zebra Murders (which, according to the book, nearly caused a rupture in racial relations in San Francisco) is:

When the city was convulsed by the SLA and Zebra, Chin and his fellow activists just kept their heads down. “We knew all that stuff was just a passing circus,” he reflected. “We were committed activists who were in it for the long haul. We weren’t out to overthrow the American government or even city hall.”

Okay, so that was Chin and his colleagues’ take on the Zebra murders, but what about the Chinese-American community in general, or other Asian-American communities? Also, just because Gordon Chin and his associates were not so interested in revolution, that was not true of all Asian-American activists – one of the groups which was most active in the struggle over the International hotel was a Filipino-American communist organization with ties to the Communist Party of the Philippines, which was (and still is) waging guerilla warfare against the government of the Philippines (there is more information in the book San Francisco’s International Hotel by Estella Habal).

Speaking of Jim Jones again, much is made of the interracial nature of his church, Peoples Temple, yet nothing is said about where Asian-Americans fit into this. Were Asians significantly represented in Peoples Temple, or not? If yes, that should have been mentioned. If no, it should have been mentioned that the People’s Temple was not appealing to a major racial group in the city. Someone in the book is quoted in the chapter “The Reckoning” as saying “I still think the goals of the Peoples Temple was beautiful: black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, all coming together.” Asian-Americans are not on the list.

I continue in Part 3 with more thoughts on the way the book presents Asian-Americans, as well as Latinos and American Indians.

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.

San Francisco, Schools, Race, and Class

This post was inspired by this news from Philadelphia, but I am going to talk about San Francisco.

In San Francisco, about one-fourth of K-12 students attend private schools – one of the highest rates in the United States. About 90% of public school students in San Francisco are people of color, whereas private school students are overwhelmingly white. Class is also a divider – generally, it is assumed that the white students who attend public schools do so because their families cannot afford private school.

Many white families who cannot afford private school struggle to put their children private school anyway. They claim that it’s because they want the best for their children – but most of them do not do comprehensive research on public schools, so I don’t know how they can know that the private schools are better. The evidence I have encountered suggests that the private schools do not actually provide a better education than the public schools – based on some of the stories I’ve heard, I even doubt that private schools are safer than public schools. I think the real reason white families act this way is that, in the United States, sending one’s kids to an urban public school is a threat to one’s white middle-class identity – it’s something that is simply not done. My mother phrases this in a more blunt way – “they do not want their kids to mix with the ‘wrong’ kids”. Of course, in ‘liberal’ San Francisco, the white families are not going to admit that.

My own situation was unusual – I am white, my family could have afforded private school, yet I only went to public schools. My mother actually did investigate different options, and found no evidence that the private schools were better than public schools. Furthermore, as a taxpayer, she felt that it was the government’s responsibility to educate me, and she thinks activism, not private school, is the appropriate response to problems in public education. My father has philosophical objections to private school – he thinks thank sending children to private school is bad citizenship.

I don’t think going to public school gave me a greater awareness of people with a different class/race background. I was told to try to cover up the affluence of my family. Thus, I generally avoided discussing class issues (and I got the subtle message that I should keep a certain distance from them). Furthermore, my peers generally did not bring up the subject, because it was assumed that we were all in a similar situation and there was nothing to say. If there was a significant effect, it was that it hindered me from identifying with people from my own class – I simply did not know anybody my age (outside my family) who came from an equally affluent background.

This is just scratching the surface (I didn’t even address the divides inside the public school system), so I might write more on the subject.