The progressives’ black problem

These are the best of times, these are the worst of times. San Francisco voters will be making value statements when they head to the polls this November. Do we value diversity? Do we value and recognize the experiences, contributions and culture of people of color?

At a particularly ugly and contentious Board of Supervisors meeting in July, the six so-called “progressive” supervisors — John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim, Eric Mar, Aaron Peskin and Norman Yee — voted to kill a police reform ballot measure proposed by the board’s only African-American supervisors, Malia Cohen and London Breed.

The police reform measure, which ultimately survived as Proposition G on November’s ballot, was sure to win at the polls. But in an act of pure political retaliation against Supervisor Cohen, the progressives voted to kill it and roll its provisions into their Public Advocate measure, which was far less likely to pass. They jeopardized important police reforms for their petty political vendetta.

If you are willing to use police reform as a political ploy, a sacrificial pawn, it’s pretty clear you don’t care very much about the African-American community in this city — what’s left of us, that is.

Kanye West once famously said, “[George] Bush doesn’t care about black people!” I’m here to proclaim to the world today that the same can be said about the so-called San Francisco progressives. They do not care about black people.

Unfortunately, as an African American of both African and Latinx descent, it angers me when they use the lived reality of my community for political theater. I’ve learned a sad lesson after eight years in local politics: They don’t really care. The progressive political machine in San Francisco does not value black people.

When supervisors Breed and Cohen were fighting to pass neighborhood preference legislation, which prioritizes local residents for affordable housing and can help slow the displacement of African Americans from our communities, white progressive housing activists fought against it behind the scenes.

With public housing, which represents some of the last major housing for African Americans in this city, those same white, typically home-owning, progressive activists consistently ignore it altogether. Calvin Welch, the pony-tailed godfather of white paternalism in San Francisco, demeans Supervisor Breed’s work to rehabilitate public housing, saying it “added not one new unit.”

In other words, it’s OK if black people live in squalor, surrounded by rats and roaches and busted pipes, with no working heat or elevators. And anyone who dedicates themselves to fixing those issues is just wasting time.

Public housing residents are some of the most vulnerable people in The City. But the progressive Tenants Union won’t help them, and the progressive housing activists don’t even care.

Consider what the progressive political machine is doing on the issue of soda taxes right now. Soda companies disproportionately target black people, particularly black kids, for advertising. African Americans are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, 3.5 times more likely to have a lower limb amputated because of diabetes, and twice as likely to die from it. An African-American supervisor, Cohen has proposed to tax soda for its health impact, and what is the progressive machine doing?

They are taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from big soda corporations. The progressive “Affordable Housing Alliance” has so far received $180,000 from Coke and Pepsi’s lobbying arm, the American Beverage Association. The Tenants Union has taken in $70,000, and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic club is taking thousands more.

All of this soda money, earned on the backs of African Americans’ health, is funding campaign mailers for progressive supervisorial candidates and Jane Kim’s state Senate campaign against Scott Wiener, who rightly supports the tax.

In District 5, Board President Breed is running for re-election, facing a supposed progressive opponent named Dean Preston. Breed, a charismatic African-American woman who grew up in public housing, has been fighting for her community since childhood. She is the San Francisco dream: a hardworking, overachiever who made it big. Preston, on the other hand, is white, extremely wealthy — campaign filings show his millions in tech stocks — and also extremely entitled. He uses black people as political props.

In an effort, I guess, to appeal to D5’s black voters, Preston brags in his campaign literature and ballot statement about how his wife’s grandfather was African American. Really? Your grandfather-in-law? My cousin’s friend once had a roommate who knew a guy who was black. Do you have any idea how patronizing and offensive that is?

Sadly, this is what passes for political outreach to the black community from many in the progressive political machine. The San Francisco Democratic Central Committee had the opportunity to elect a very talented, truly progressive and widely adored gay African-American firefighter as chair. The “progressive” majority declined to do so. Why? Because he represented an independent voice who would truly advocate for the views and needs of diverse communities.

Being black in San Francisco can be a lonely experience. I fight for the political leaders — be they white, black, Asian, gay, straight or otherwise — who value our experiences, want to bring us together and who fight for all of us. I wish the progressive machine would occasionally do the same.

Jacquelyn Omotalade is an environmentalist who focuses her work on environmental justice, social equity and communities of color. She lives in the Mission.

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