After he was spotted crying at Barack Obama's victory speech, Jesse Jackson noted the historical portent of the president-elect's status as the first African-American to win the office, but then added a caveat. "I don't mean to be a Pollyanna," he said. "We still have in America abandoned urban ghettos and barrios. Plants that are closing." Though Obama may have recruited many volunteers and backers from San Francisco's famously left-wing, self-described progressives, Jackson would be foolish to look to this city for solutions to those bread-and-butter African-American issues.
While San Francisco streets may have filled on the night of Nov. 4 to celebrate an electoral revolution against racial injustice, its famous left-wing politicians frequently ally themselves against African-American interests. And those politicians' most cherished dreams — such as municipalizing PG&E — have no practical effect on improving city slums, stemming violence, or creating jobs.
Though outsiders know San Francisco for beautiful tourist vistas and a preponderance of left-wing voters, the reality is that the city is a quilt with some of the most expensive neighborhoods in America interspersed with slums that are so inhospitable and dangerous that the city's Housing Authority is on a federal "troubled agency" watch list. The left wing's answer has been empty advocacy of so-called affordable housing, which has so far done nothing to improve the city's ghettos.
The city school system has remained segregated along racial lines despite a revised 1983 court decree demanding integration. School board members recently hounded an African-American schools chief out of office after she allegedly called parents racist for protesting their children's assignments to mixed-race schools.
Violent crime disproportionately affects the city's African-American neighborhoods, where it's common for residents to have numerous friends or relatives who have been maimed or killed. White neighborhoods such as West Portal or Mount Davidson, meanwhile, seem as safe as rural Tehama County. This dichotomy means that, though the city's police department is notoriously inept when it comes to solving murders, violent crime is a back-burner political issue.
Much political discourse is still defined by widespread left-wing hatred for Willie Brown, the first African-American mayor in the city's history. And many political fights still center on a "progressive" attempt to dismantle his vision of accelerated city economic development that would benefit the predominantly African-American neighborhoods in the southeastern part of the city.
A close read of San Francisco's 2008 local ballot revealed elements of the uncomfortable role these racial themes play in San Francisco's liberal politics.
When San Francisco's left-leaning politicians purport to address needs of African-American residents, they focus on affordable housing, offering measures that fail to provide sufficient housing, make the city more affordable, or make any measurable improvement in the city's ghettos.
In this spirit, white, leftist Supervisor Chris Daly earlier this year backed a ballot measure that would have likely killed a $2 billion, 10,000-unit housing development proposed for the former Hunters Point shipyard, in defiance of the city's sole black member of the Board of Supervisors, Sophie Maxwell, who represents the area.
This fall Daly sponsored Proposition B, which critics say would have created a $10 million annual political-patronage slush fund to finance favored nonprofits. Prop. B provided only enough money to build less than 1 percent of the housing that city planners estimate is needed for low-income workers. (At press time, Prop. B was narrowly losing with thousands of votes still to be counted.)
While Willie Brown isn't known as a policy wonk, he ran San Francisco with a specific vision of its future that involved improving prospects for residents of largely African-American neighborhoods such as the Bayview. He pushed through a $1 billion light rail line that connected the Bayview to SOMA and downtown, and used his statewide political muscle to recruit the University of California to locate its new campus at an abandoned railyard at the line's terminus. And he hired Gerald Green to become the city's planning director, with orders to swiftly approve commercial and residential projects in the neighborhoods nearby.
Stopping these plans became a left-wing cause celèbre and the subject of endless intrigue at and around the Planning Department, where the most caustic of critics referred to Green as Brown's "house Negro." Activists and sympathetic politicians proposed "industrial protection zones" and "growth moratoria" — efforts that slowed, but didn't halt South of Market development plans. But a historical preservation measure on last week's ballot may just finally give them their wish once and for all. Critics say Proposition J, which was championed by termed-out progressive Supervisor Aaron Peskin, could turn SOMA into a series of historic districts immune to new development.
Termed-out supervisors aren't the only ones to battle the city's black leaders. One of the uglier episodes of San Francisco's recent racial history involved Arlene Ackerman, a former Washington, D.C. schools superintendent who came to San Francisco the year Brown was elected mayor. She began her term rooting out corruption, and continued with a series of measures designed to improve test scores citywide. Her efforts incited a war with leftist members of the school board. Eric Mar adamantly disagreed with Ackerman over how to improve ghetto schools and lambasted her for focusing on test scores, which he and school board allies deemed an example of closed-minded institutional thinking.
In 2006, "progressives" like Mar succeeded in hounding Ackerman out of office; she resigned, citing a compatibility clause in her contract that allowed her to leave if she was unable to work with the school board. African-American civic leaders were livid that a nationally prominent black administrator would find her Waterloo in San Francisco's contorted left-wing politics.
But by the time this widely covered battle was over, the once-obscure Mar had become a progressive hero. While the final city election results are still being tabulated, it appears he will be the newly elected supervisor representing the Richmond neighborhood.
On the night of Nov. 4, San Francisco took to the streets to celebrate a revolution in American race relations. Now that we've all stepped back indoors, it's worth thinking about ways to bring that battle home.