“You Must Respect Us”: How Asian Americans Contributed to the San Francisco Recall

SAN FRANCISCO – As the election day approaches, a barrage of messages flashed on the phones of the Sino-American community in San Francisco. “Remember to vote,” reads a message in Chinese from campaign organizer Selena Chu. “And throw out the commissioners who discriminate against us and disrespect our community.”

A unilateral victory in Tuesday’s revoked election, which ousted three San Francisco school board members, shook the city’s liberal establishment and sent a loud signal of parental anger over how the public school system was coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

Parents of different nationalities and income levels who came together last year while San Francisco schools remained closed – they remained closed much longer than in other major cities – organized themselves through Facebook groups and vowed to oust members of the Education Council for what they saw as incompetence. They kept their promise: three commissioners were fired by as many as 79% of voters, which was a clear refusal in a city famous for capricious politics.

For many Asian Americans in the city, especially for the large Chinese-American community, the results were a testament to the electoral ability of the group, which was held with a high degree of organization, turnout, and intensity that had not been seen for many years. In the election, in which each registered voter received a ballot, the overall turnout was relatively low at 26%; turnout among the 30,000 people who requested Chinese-language newsletters was much higher at 37%.

In a predominantly liberal city, Asian American voters have sided with Democrats for decades. But in recent years, an increasing number of Chinese people, many of them born in mainland China, have become a moderate political force. Most Chinese residents in the city are registered as independent, and as Tuesday’s election showed, they are not afraid to oppose some of the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party. This is a model that has emerged in other cities, such as New York, that are largely democratic with a significant population of Asian America.

“They’re absolutely ready,” David Lee, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said of Asian American voters in the city.

In Tuesday’s election, Chinese voters were particularly motivated by two issues. The Board of Education voted to introduce a lottery admission system at Lowell High-Turnover High School, replacing the admission process, which primarily selected students with the highest marks and test scores. Lowell, whose long list of famous alumni includes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breer, has for decades represented what one member of the community called “the gateway to the American dream.” The introduction of the lottery system reduced the number of Asian and white ninth-graders in Lowell by about a quarter and increased black and Latin American ninth-graders by more than 40%.

Chinese voters were also upset by tweets from Alison Collins, one of the recalled school board members, that were found during the campaign. Collins said Americans of Asian descent used white-minded thinking to assimilate and “move forward.” She compared Americans of Asian descent to slaves who preferred to work in a slave owner’s home instead of doing more grueling work in the field using asterisks. to disguise the anti-black racial insult. The tweets have heightened the sentiment of many Chinese voters that they are being taken for granted, underrepresented and insulted, said people involved in the recall campaign.

Asian American voters also said they were motivated by issues not covered by the council: the number of high-profile attacks on Asian Americans, many of them older, traumatized society. And many Chinese-owned businesses have been affected by the closure of the pandemic, especially in Chinatown.

“We are losing faith in the government,” said Bayard Fong, president of the Sino-American Democratic Club.

Asians make up about 36% of San Francisco’s population, one of the largest such communities in the big city, but they are an incredibly diverse group that includes Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese and Thais and are diverse in economic, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. . Americans of Chinese descent are the largest group of Asians, making up 23% of San Francisco’s population. 40% of the population are white, 15% Hispanic and 6% black.

The removal of three members of the board will lead to the presidency of the only American member of China out of seven. And that puts London Mayor Breed in the delicate position of appointing three replacement members who will be acceptable to parents who are now closely monitoring the process. It will be recalled that the participants of the campaign say that they hope that more Asian Americans will be appointed to the council.

Autumn Looizhen, who along with her partner Siva Raj organized a collection of signatures and initiated a recall campaign, described the Chinese American community as crucial to the success of the recall.

“They were the basis of our volunteer efforts,” Luien said. “They really strengthened this campaign from the beginning.”

During the campaign, organizers used WeChat, a Chinese-language messaging program, to offer everything from detailed instructions on filling out the ballot to organizing a volunteer placement in Chinatown, where lion dances and drums encouraged residents to vote.

“We will no longer remain silent,” reads a leaflet in English and Chinese distributed to the Sino-American Democratic Club.

Parents who campaigned for the recall described the awakening in the Sino-American community as people who had hitherto been largely apolitical.

Chu, who sent a message to WeChat urging her to vote, said she grew up with parents who advised her to remain silent when she felt she was being treated unfairly. According to her, many first-generation immigrants still feel this way.

Now a mother of two in the San Francisco public school system, Chu felt for the first time the need to take an active part in the election. She said her hands ache from the messages at WeChat during the campaign.

She was motivated by a sense of punishment and condemnation for hard work and aspiration.

“This year, many parents are telling me,‘ We’re done being scapegoats, ’” Chu said.

“We are still seen as foreigners,” she said. “We are Americans. You have to respect us. “

She called the recall election an important milestone for the Asian American community.

“They finally understand the power of their vote,” she said.

Crucial to the organizational effort was Ann Hsu, a Beijing-based entrepreneur with a decade of experience in setting up and running companies in both China and the United States.

Xu used her management experience to organize volunteers and develop company strategies. She ignored the English-language media and focused on Chinese-language newspapers, YouTube channels and advertising. She and her volunteers handed out thousands of yellow shopping bags with recall inscriptions and handed them out to elderly Chinese residents. She set up a task force that registered 560 residents to vote, almost all Americans of Asian descent.

Using WeChat to organize her activities had the added advantage that she dismantled the language barrier: she spoke Mandarin and other residents were more comfortable in Cantonese. Written messages could be understood by all.

Hsu’s voice was filled with emotion as she discussed Lowell’s problem, which she said was the main motivation for the leap in politics.

“When you came to Lowell, you came to Asians,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “We’ll get up and say no more, no!”

The future process of admission to Lowell remains unclear – the lottery system will remain for students entering in the fall, but the council has not decided on admission after next year.

Xu said Lowell is not directly personal to her. Her two teenage boys are attending another school in San Francisco Public School County.

But she saw in the council’s decisions a deep sense that the aspirations of Asian Americans are being ignored.

The debate over admission to elite public high schools has prompted Asian parents in other cities, particularly New York. In both San Francisco and New York, the problem is tearing apart liberal voters, torn between a desire to maintain a system that has traditionally benefited high-achieving students from poor, often immigrant, but at the same time left behind black and Latin American students. .

In New York City, where black and Latin American students are disproportionately underrepresented in elite public high schools, the problem of school segregation came to the fore during last year’s New York City mayoral election. Left-wing candidates called for a fundamental revision of admission standards, while centrist candidates called for them to be maintained. Among those who promised to keep the test was Eric Adams, the current mayor.

Collins, a board member criticized for her tweets, said during the campaign that she had “desegregated” Lovell.

In connection with the unilateral recall, political scientists are considering whether the energy and passion of the campaign will be transferred to other elections in the city and in the country.

Mike Chen, a board member of Edwin M. Lee’s Asia-Pacific Democratic Club, said the results were excellent – “no one in the city can agree 80% on anything.” But he said he would be “very cautious” in making predictions about other campaigns based on single elections with relatively low turnout. He said San Francisco had a very special set of challenges that pushed parents across the edge.

“People were trying to extrapolate: what does this mean for school board elections in Ohio or Virginia?” he said.

“We had this particular case,” he continued. “We have had very clear examples of incompetence, mismanagement and abuse. Most people could objectively observe the decisions made last year and think, “This is really not the case.”

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