San Francisco’s reputation for being a progressive city rings true for only a portion of its population. If you’re Black, it’s harder to find work, get a loan to buy a house, and escape the racially charged clutches of the criminal justice system. City Hall hearings and news articles have mentioned the dwindling African-American population as an aside for years, but thus far, most efforts to remedy issues of implicit racism against Black people have been folded into other, larger pieces of legislation — such as creating a small neighborhood-preference policy for affordable-housing units in an attempt to keep people in the districts where they grew up.
Members of SEIU Local 1021, a union that represents thousands of public service workers in San Francisco, are demanding that the city do better. On Tuesday, June 19, also known as Juneteenth — the day when word reached Texas that the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished — SEIU 1021 held a press conference on the steps of City Hall to announce that a hearing to examine workplace discrimination will be held next month.
“In the last 30 years, the Black population has been cut more than in half, so we make up only 4 or 5 percent of the city. We have the highest disparity of unemployment for African-Americans in the country,” said SEIU 1021 Vice President Joseph Bryant. “African-Americans continually face systemic discrimination in the city of San Francisco.”
Workers from the Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Public Health, and smaller, city-funded organizations took the mic to tell their tales of being hired last, fired first, and demoted after speaking out against racial bias.
Sheryl Thornton, an employee at the Potrero Hill Health Center, told the crowd how after acting as a whistleblower in her workplace she was “unlawfully demoted” and stripped of her managerial duties.
“On March 6 of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled the infamous Dred Scott decision that African-Americans were not citizens. … Today, I hardly see much difference,” Thornton said. “The Fifth Amendment clearly says that no one will be ‘deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.’ When my duties were unlawfully stripped from me, my due process was violated.”
SEIU 1021 reached out to Supervisor Jane Kim two weeks ago for help combating workplace discrimination. She subsequently scheduled a hearing for the Government Audit and Oversight Committee for July 18. The department heads of S.F.’s major city employers — the Department of Public Health, Public Works, and the SFMTA, to name a few — will be required to collect and present data on the hiring, firing, and promotions of their African-American employees.
“Most of the information we’re getting is anecdotal, but we want to investigate and inquire whether there’s something more systematic at the city level,” Kim tells SF Weekly. “We’re hoping it will lead to some potential solutions, whether that’s a budget request, an ordinance, or an executive directive from the mayor.”
The press conference on City Hall’s steps was powerful, and the upcoming hearing will finally turn the mic over to the Black community to express their frustration with displacement and prejudice. But sadly, there is nothing new about either of these issues, so why now?
Brenda Barros, an SEIU 1021 chapter president who works at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, says the problems are only increasing for people of color employed by the city.
“I know some things are being done at San Francisco General, but it’s too slow, and in the meantime many of us are suffering,” she says. “As the chapter president, people are coming up to me every day. It’s never been this bad. I’ve been with the city 38 years, and it’s never been worse than it is today.
“I worked hard to get London Breed elected mayor, but I just want to send a message to London too that you can’t forget about the Black folks,” she added.
Breed was notably missing from the press conference, despite being invited to attend.
When asked why she agreed to hold a hearing now, Kim says she believes the tone of inclusivity at City Hall has been changing.
“I think as we talk more about race and government — and this certainly came out during the last five months in the mayor’s race — there was perhaps a greater interest in how race was treated up and down through the system,” she says.
The struggles voiced on the steps of City Hall on Juneteenth were genuine, but whether a hearing will lead to any policy that could make a dent in breaking down systematic racism remains to be seen.
Reverend Amos Brown, who took the mic despite suffering a small stroke a few days ago, said it’s time to get serious — and threatened to go to Baltimore and hire lawyers to sue the city of San Francisco.
“This is no time for rhetoric. This is a time for results,” he said. “This is no time for investigation and analysis, this is a time for action. We have lived a lie for far too long that we are supposedly a liberal, progressive town.”
The hearing on racial discrimination in San Francisco takes place at 10 a.m. on July 18 in City Hall.