Activists assail San Francisco's dwindling black population
by Heather Cassell
San Francisco prides itself on diversity and being a beacon of freedom of expression and independence that attracts people through its golden gate, but the reality is much harsher, according to African Americans living in the city.
Black people – mostly middle and upper class – are decamping from the city by the bay. Many black youth native to the city – straight and queer – are also leaving at the first sign of opportunity elsewhere.
"I'm upset," N'Tanya Lee, a panelist at a recent discussion about out-migration of African Americans hosted by the University of San Francisco, told a room of nearly 100 audience members, "because we are not upset enough."
Leaders of the city's African American community are beginning to tackle the issue, which was the topic of a 2009 report from the Mayor's Task Force on African American Out-Migration. The task force was formed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom to find out what was happening to the city's African American community.
Four decades have seen San Francisco's African American population decline from a high of 88,000 in the 1970s to an estimated 46,779 by 2005, the most recent figures available. According to census projections the city is trending toward an attrition of its black community to an estimated 32,200 African Americans residing in the city by 2050.
The loss of blacks means that the city's African American gay community is even smaller. Many LGBT African Americans joke that they can count themselves on one hand and often are the only black face in a room in San Francisco.
But it isn't a laughing matter and LGBT African Americans know it, with many expressing anger and distress over the situation even as they express a profound love for San Francisco.
"It doesn't make any damn sense if you are an African American gay person, why would you be in San Francisco?" asked Lee in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter after the panel discussion. Lee said that sometimes, she and her wife sit down together and say, "Now wait a minute, it's really depressing being black and raising a family in San Francisco."
Departing Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, an advocacy agency, a few weeks ago, Lee, 42, is volunteering for John Avalos's mayoral campaign and doing grassroots consulting before beginning her academic career at USF in January, she said. She's also enjoying spending more time with the couple's 4-year-old son.
The problem is complex and multilayered, from African American homeowners who took advantage of their houses being valued at millions of dollars during a once hot housing market to housing prices and rents that continue to tick upwards for renters trying to stay in the city. Employment increasingly is a challenge, especially through the ongoing economic crisis, and is only compounded by miseducation of generations of the city's black youth and crime and violence in the neighborhoods, said black community leaders.
"The situation facing black San Franciscans is really quite a state of emergency," Lee told the audience, backed by the six other panelists.
Lee pointed to education as a measurement of how the city and the African American community are failing its black community and itself with a 50 percent dropout rate and two out of 10 black students not prepared for college.
"You can go to any of the schools and see brilliant, brilliant creative black children being told to be quiet, being talked down to, and being disrespected, not loved," said Lee.
For the city and its black and LGBT communities it means losing a crop of talented young queer activists and civic leaders.
Lee's experience is that queer black youth in "disproportionate" numbers have been the "most willing to step up and organize in their community" around the many issues impacting the African American community, she said.
Black queer youth are out and actively participating in the community, said Lee, who has worked for 30 years in both the African American and LGBT communities. Unlike previous generations, the new generation finds that they don't have to leave their community to be who they are. In that sense, the gay mecca has given the youth "a little social capital," buffering them a bit from racism and homophobia, she said.
Still black LGBT youth, like their straight counterparts, aren't enticed to stay in San Francisco.
"Young black people – queer or not queer – they do not want to stay here," said Lee, because they can't afford to, nor are there many black cultural institutions or things for black youths to do. "Community liveliness – it's not here."
The way forward
Lee believes that the way forward for the African American community and other communities of color in the city are movements led by the people for the people.
"We need more political work that is driven by the people most directly impacted," said Lee. "Folks from the 'hood have the right to speak for themselves, come up with policy solutions for themselves, and build power for themselves."
Addressing a variety of key factors from affordable housing, education and employment opportunities, and cultural and safe neighborhoods, is the only way for the city to retain a healthy and vibrant African American community, according to the community leaders citing their findings and recommendations in the report.
All of these issues are not only black issues, but queer issues, Lee said, pointing out that the city's middle class is actually the working poor due to the cost of living in San Francisco.
There are few well-to-do black LGBT people, especially women, said community leaders.
Most black lesbians are "working class or moderate income people" who are often raising their own and extended families' children, said Lee.
"It's in our interest to organize multiracially with people whose basic concerns are living wage jobs, affordable housing – that aren't necessarily 'queer agenda,' but it's the agenda that is going to make it possible for working people to stay in the city," Lee continued.
Andrea Shorter, who until recently was the marriage coalition director for Equality California, agreed.
"No movement works in isolation" movements are in "conversation with each other" and "stem from the civil rights movement," she said.
With the November 8 election around the corner, San Francisco's African American community is carefully scrutinizing the mayoral candidates.
Retaining a vibrant African American community touches on a higher value held close to San Francisco's heart, according openly gay mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty and Shorter, who is supporting Dufty's campaign because of his black agenda, she said.
Shorter questioned if the city that prides itself on "widely held principles of leading human rights" is managing the displacement of African Americans from its borders through economics and policies.
It comes down to the city's "perceived public value of having a thriving African American population," said Shorter, who celebrates her 20th anniversary living in the city this month. "In San Francisco, we aspire to be what we say we are: A city about fairness, equal opportunity, justice, humanity and dignity."
Being raised after school in Harlem's community agencies and anti-poverty programs where Dufty's mother worked, shaped his beliefs and black agenda, a cornerstone of his campaign, he said. Dufty's black agenda touches on the task force's recommendations, but takes it further addressing health, LGBT, and other issues (http://www.bevandufty.com/content/black-agenda-san-francisco).
Dufty isn't the only politician paying attention to the African American community. Avalos's campaign addresses issues affecting communities of color through its community platform (http://avalosformayor.org/issues/communities/).
To read the mayor's office's report, visit http://www.sfredevelopment.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=292.