Black city workers attending an April Democratic Party meeting, who were asking the party for help to achieve racial justice, were instead treated to a barrage of racial epithets by a former mayoral candidate.
Angela Alioto let fly the N-word six times during the meeting.
And to add a sprinkle of ironic “No way!” to that “WTF?!” cake, Alioto repeated that most-heinous of words while lecturing the black attendees on her civil rights trial experience defending people against discrimination in the workplace.
“The context of what she was trying to relay was solidarity,” said Tyra Fennell, an attendee that night. But “what she represented with her comments was the same aggressive, tone-deaf hostility African Americans experience every day and what the testimony that night was all about. Total irony.”
Alioto, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and long-time mayoral hopeful, defended her use of the word to me.
She told me it was used only by way of explanation, not insult, and that it’s mostly online “non-black people who seem to be upset … they need to examine their guilt.”
Sorry Angela, but that’s not true.
Three black women told me they wish to see Alioto step down, or removed from the Democratic County Central Committee: Gloria Berry, Phelicia Jones and Fennell, who all told me Alioto’s remarkers were traumatizing.
And while Alioto’s is a storied name in San Francisco politics, these women are leaders in their own right.
Jones is an SEIU 1021 member who started the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition; Berry ran for District 10 supervisor and has her own group, Berry Powerful Ladies, that connects young Black girls to Bay Area cultural events; and Fennell founded Imprint. City, which “activates” underutilized industrial spaces as art projects to spur community development. Berry and Fennel are also state assembly district delegates.
To say they aren’t happy with Alioto is probably an understatement.
“I just really couldn’t believe it,” Jones said. That word carries so many undertones that rise up in her mind no matter how it’s used.
“What comes with that word? ‘Not good enough. Suspicious. Animalistic.’” said Jones. “It’s PTSD. It’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Why wouldn’t it affect us?”
The DCCC, the board Alioto is a member of and where she spoke from that night, governs the local democratic party and is responsible for making key endorsements during elections, as well as recruiting new Democrats and voting for the party’s guiding principles.
At the April 24 meeting in question, a number of black SEIU 1021 members and other community members came to discuss the racism they have encountered working for San Francisco city government.
One woman told the board that she had heard the N-word at work, which was traumatizing. Jones then spoke, expanding on that experience with her own.
That’s when Alioto proceeded to give her advice to the two black women.
“Full disclosure, I’m a civil rights trial lawyer,” Alioto told the crowd. “Literally dozens of them (cases). It’s what I do.”
Alioto explained, “It’s more egregious than even you are understanding. … the word N— is not in the workplace, that is absolutely not the law, they’re making fun of you by just telling you that. It’s the law that the word N— in the workplace is racial harassment and racial animus. It’s a direct animus.”
(That’s two uses so far).
“I always have to pull the intent out of the mind of people,” Alioto explained, referring to prosecuting. “You very rarely have direct evidence of discrimination. You very rarely have, ‘I’m not going to work with this N— I’m not going to work with that N—.’”
She then recalled a case she tried against Wonderbread, “in the heart of San Francisco,” where a book found in its cafeteria was called “How To Kill A N—,” which she repeated, twice.
At this sixth usage, someone in the crowd finally shouted.
“Angela! Angela! … Please stop saying that word. You never heard of PTSD?”
Alioto started to respond, it’s inaudible in the meeting recording.
“SO QUIT SAYIN’ IT!” someone shouts at Alioto.
San Francisco Democratic Party Chair David Campos then told Alioto, in the meeting, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to say the word. As a person of color, if anyone actually said a word that’s derogatory to my kind, I think hearing it has a certain effect.”
Indeed, Berry told me the very same woman who complained to the Democratic Party of discrimination began to cry. Berry comforted her.
Berry told me that hearing the N-word used so casually resembled her tour of duty with the Navy in the 1990s. At one point, serving in Naples, Italy, Petty Officer 2nd Class Berry worked alongside mostly southern white women.
“They wouldn’t talk to me, train me. They would belittle me,” Berry told me.
Alioto’s use of the N-word, Berry told me “reminded me a lot of those experiences I had being the only black person in my unit.”
In an email circulated throughout San Francisco’s Democratic Party leadership, Berry asked that Alioto write a formal apology to the woman Alioto “re-victimized,” apologize to the party, apologize to the black community, rescind an offer made to work on the party’s “black agenda” and “show your sincerity by taking a course involving cultural competence.”
Campos told me that by the party’s bylaws, Alioto could be removed with a two-thirds vote of DCCC board members. He plans to put the matter to his party board members at their next meeting.
“I found the use of the word offensive and repulsive,” Campos said. “This is very serious.”
When asked for comment, Alioto said “80 percent” of her clients are black.
“It’s non-black people who sugar coat it and call it the ‘N-word.’ I am one of the most successful racial discrimination trial lawyers in the nation because I understand the power of the words and the effect on the person. To whitewash, candy coat it is indeed a type of racism.”
However prominent civil rights attorney John Burris said having used that epithet in the court of law is no defense.
“I would be offended if I was there,” he said.
And though he credits Alioto’s work for defending the black community in court, even going as far to call her one of the “best” civil rights attorneys in the Bay Area, he said, it doesn’t give her a pass.
“I get it, she’s done the work in the past,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean African Americans shouldn’t be offended. It was certainly in poor taste. I have great respect for Angela. But it’s not something I would do, nor would I sanction it.”
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.