STUDY: The Disinvestment of San Francisco’s Black Community 

Via Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

By Cindy Chen and Rena Abdusalam 

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Stanford Law School’s Law and Public Lab has collaborated with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission (SFHRC) to examine the history of governmental and private abuses instituted against San Francisco African Americans.

Stanford students released a report, “Disinvestment of San Francisco’s African American Community,” which will serve as a foundation for future policies and reparations.

The researchers noted that San Francisco, a city known for its picturesque landscapes and technological innovation, harbors a darker side—a long history of criminalizing homelessness.

According to the report, this practice, enforced through an array of quality-of-life policing, nuisance laws, and vagrancy ordinances, has led to a staggering 23 anti-homelessness laws currently active in the city, earning San Francisco the dubious distinction of having more such ordinances than any other city in California.

“An intangible but overarching and dominant harm is how housing disparities strain Black families, communities, and culture,” stated the authors. “This report will address how San Franciscans’ housing and land use practices and policies imposed the badges and perpetuated the incidents of White supremacy.”

The report also examines the historical context of these anti-homelessness policies, focusing on their role in perpetuating cycles of incarceration and the compounding impacts on marginalized communities, particularly Black residents.

The report’s first chapter traces the city’s history from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day and demonstrates the consequences and effects of the racist policies.

During the Gold Rush and the early arrivals of White and Black settlers throughout the 1800s, the San Francisco area was largely hostile to Black arrivals, according to the report.

“Fugitive slave laws and lack of access to the justice system combined with restrictions on employment, education, and medical care (drove) many of the first Black families of San Francisco to leave the area,” the authors commented.

“From the 1850s onward, San Francisco began to draw physical boundaries around non-White activity and access to resources,” said the report. “An area initially designated for slaughterhouses was soon identified as the only appropriate home for Chinese residents. Labor unionization policy and school segregation reflected this same drive for exclusion.”

The report remarked policies tested the “viability of legislative and executive power to restrict non-White people in parts of San Francisco,” creating drawn boundaries.

“Employment restrictions combined with a natural disaster (began) to drive more Black residents out of San Francisco,” said the report.

However, the authors wrote wartime employment during World War I began to reverse this trend and Black residents continued to organize toward political advocacy, educational equality and cultural contributions.

Nevertheless, when establishing its first official zoning code, the authors wrote that San Francisco began the formal process of excluding communities of color in the interests of White property values and homeowners’ associations explicitly forbade the sale of property to non-White residents through racially restrictive covenants.

“Federal New Deal programs reinforced these exclusions by restricting loan programs to White residents. During this time, the local San Francisco Ku Klux Klan chapter, which included 25 city police officers, terrorized Black families and drew crowds of thousands to its events,” said the authors.

During World War II, work opportunities expanded due to the city’s Black population increasing. In addition, the first public housing for Black tenants was constructed in 1943.

Black business and culture was also thriving in the Fillmore District, which was known as the “Harlem of the West,” despite ongoing problems involving San Francisco’s Black population.

“The expansion of the Black population of San Francisco during the wartime employment boom, coupled with their exclusion from nearly all public and private housing developments, (which) resulted in overcrowded conditions in the few neighborhoods in which Black residents could live,” stated the report.

The authors also commented high unemployment from deindustrialization and discriminatory hiring practices contributed to the problems of Black citizens after the war. These conditions were then used as “justification for demolishing Black homes and businesses in a federally endorsed process termed ‘urban renewal.’”

“The City’s official planning documents express the explicit intent to reduce the number of Black San Franciscans living in the city,” the authors added. “The demolition of the Fillmore (District) was one of the worst periods of anti-Black city policies in San Francisco’s history.”

The report stated the city’s redevelopment plans, causing dispossession and displacement were done in two phases. It forced families out of their homes, destroyed businesses, expelled tens of thousands of San Francsicans, and relocated them out of the city or to the polluted area of  Bayview-Hunters Point.

“Community leaders fought for a voice in the redevelopment process, securing some victories while largely remaining shut out from decision-making,” said the report.

In the 1970s, the report states  the city experienced rearrangements of deindustrialization and urban renewal projects, which developed capital growth. Policies like the Residential Rezoning Act of 1978, the 1985 Downtown Plan, and the 1986 Proposition M created Black displacement and reinforced racial segregation.

“The 1990s and 2000s saw San Francisco experience the development imperative of the dot-com boom and tech boom, transforming the city into the country’s top commercial real estate market and continuing to push out Black and low-income residents,” expressed the report.

Combining the redevelopment of Bayview-Hunters Point and raised housing prices, the racial geography of San Francisco reshaped and continued to exclude Black people, according to the authors

“After decades of disinvestment, state abandonment, displacement, and gentrification, most Black San Franciscans have been pushed out of the city entirely, and those who do remain are largely confined to low-wage employment and segregated neighborhoods. Black residents (also) experience high rates of houselessness as well,” the report said.

“This brief history has only begun to capture the vast network of policies and partnerships

producing unequal outcomes for Black San Franciscans for which the City itself is squarely responsible,” remarked the report’s authors.

Chapter two of the report presents a study of Black disenfranchisement in San Francisco’s Fillmore District through the relocated Jimbo’s Bop City building, a jazz club that was known as “the center of the Fillmore music scene.”

“The Jimbo’s Bop City building represents a microcosm of Black disenfranchisement across the generations from the Great Migration to the present day,” read the report.

“The property was hemmed into a racialized ghetto as a jazz mecca starting in the 1940s, targeted for demolition during redevelopment but rescued and reopened as a Black bookstore in 1981, then subject to foreclosure after a subprime loan–induced bankruptcy in 2014,” explained the authors.

According to the report, the would-be present-day value “appropriated from the Fillmore District during redevelopment ranges from $3.27 billion to more than $4 billion.”

“Moreover, the economic and cultural harm of racial discrimination far exceeds the value of appropriated real property,” added the authors.

Chapter three of the report uncovers the Black-white wealth gap, describing the relationship between housing discrimination and wealth deprivation.

“Like all Black Americans, Black San Franciscans pay a substantial Black tax as a direct result of racial discrimination,” explained the report.

The report states Black Americans continue to pay a steep tax for less financially secure family members. In addition, federal, state, and local governments have cooperated to destroy and appropriate Black wealth and build White wealth.

“San Francisco remains highly segregated as a consequence of government sponsored segregation,” continued the authors. “Racially discriminatory housing subsidies and the massive economic harm associated with racial segregation are major causes of the Black-White wealth gap and account for its intergenerational nature.”

The Black-White wealth gap remains the same as it was in 1950 and in San Francisco, it exceeds the national average, said the authors of the report.

The report also declares that the wealth gap is a prime, reliable, and quantitative measure of financial harm caused by racial discrimination.

“In a world without racism, Black San Franciscans would be similarly situated in terms of wealth and prosperity as their White counterparts are,” said the report.

“Quantitative and legal methodologies designed to assess and measure damages can be used to conservatively estimate the amount of wealth stolen from Black San Franciscans at more than $42 billion,” voiced the authors.

Chapter four of the report explores the compounding harms of the Black-White educational gap disparity, showing the constraint of opportunities Black San Franciscans are tied to due to unequal academic outcomes.

“Today, the Bay Area is one of the most educated regions in the country, but Black San Franciscans are much less likely to graduate high school and/or receive a college degree than their non-Black peers,” announced the report.

The authors stated racially restrictive covenants, displacement, and other discriminatory housing policies “also served to exclude Black children from San Francisco public schools,” in addition to driving away Black residents from White communities.

“Although the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling held that public schools could no longer be racially segregated, in practice public education in the San Francisco Unified School District remains divided by race,” mentioned the report.

In addition to division, SFUSD schools with a majority of a Black student population receive less funding and resources from the city, according to the report. Black SFUSD are also subject to “disproportionate punishment and racist stereotyping.”

“SFUSD’s unequal education system impairs Black students’ academic progress as well as their well-being,” added the authors.

Authors mention several challenges faced by Black residents, including gentrification, a high cost of living, and persistent residential segregation. These factors make it difficult for Black residents to fully participate in and benefit from the city’s economic advancements.

“As the growth imperative has transformed San Francisco’s workforce, the Black residents whose contributions facilitated the city’s development into an international tech hub have historically not reaped the benefits of these economic advancements,” the authors added.

Additionally, San Francisco’s skyrocketing housing rates have made living in the city unattainable for many Black residents. The article went on to detail the concept of spacial mismatch, or the gap between where workers live and where jobs are located, which “is exacerbated in San Francisco by conditions such as employment discrimination, gentrification, and inadequate public transportation system.”

San Francisco’s highly segregated neighborhoods, coupled with the city’s policies, have “(contributed) to (the) entrenched cycles of poverty” facing Black residents today.

Authors highlight racialized residential segregation as a means to exclude San Francisco’s Black population from property wealth and economic gains. This segregation, the article states, “became a justification for disinvesting from entire communities, producing environmental sacrifice zones and health inequities.”

Areas designated as redlined, often inhabited by Black communities due to affordability and access to cheap labor, were disproportionately burdened with “pollution-producing industrial

projects, such as manufacturing facilities, power and sewage plants, and highways.”

Efforts to remediate and clean up these pollution-producing projects often neglected to address remaining contaminants and rising sea levels. Regulatory bodies, in some instances, failed to intervene appropriately and even granted permits to polluting entities despite environmental violations.

Ultimately, though, ostensibly race neutral, this resulted in “disproportionate rates of asthma, cancer, preterm births, infant mortality, and other health complications in the Black population of San Francisco.”

Beyond the physical health impacts, authors emphasize the psychosocial impacts on the affected communities.

“Illness in itself is often damaging to one’s sense of agency and autonomy, but that effect is compounded when residents lack control over the circumstances of their illness and know that it was preventable by the City,” the article states.

In areas such as Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, advocates have continued to protest the slow and incomplete nature of cleanup efforts.

Local organizer Arieann Harrison told reporters, “We’re tired of begging for our lives,” and UC Berkeley professor Maya Carrasquillo added, “We need to make sure that people are not at the risk of death, if we really say that their lives matter.”

Generational impacts on the mental and physical health of Black San Franciscans have occurred due to structural racism, leading to reduced access to healthcare and related services.

The article references the 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment, a report published every three years to evaluate the health of San Franciscans.

According to the authors, this report noted a strong correlation between poverty and health, stating, “the remaining Black/African American population is more likely to have poor health than the previous, more mixed-income population.”

Additionally, the report briefly discusses the 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment, which focuses on COVID-19 responses. It notes: “Black residents have an average life expectancy of 73.1 years, 9.9 years less than the general city population.”

“Likewise, the population of Black people who reside in San Francisco has dropped 43% over the past three decades,” the article states.

Ultimately, this information highlights a disconcerting trend between decreasing Black population in San Francisco and increased poverty among those who remained. A trend which, if continued, will likely result in worse health outcomes for the remaining Black residents.

Residential housing has direct consequences for how Black San Franciscans are perceived and treated by the police and the criminal justice system.

According to a study by sociologist Daanika Gordon, which examines the effects of residential segregation on police behavior, “the police drew upon symbolic ideas that emphasized the violence of black neighborhoods and the economic value of white neighborhoods in developing local strategies.” These practices reinforce disparities in the provision of services and social control, further solidifying the existing segregation and inequality.

Additionally, the authors examine how residential segregation reinforces the association of crime with Blackness, leading to increased police violence and justifying the spatial boundaries of housing segregation. Sociologist David James is quoted as describing this as a “vicious circle” where prejudice, discrimination, poverty, and segregation feed into each other.

Policing practices are often influenced by conceptions of Black criminality, and there is a pervasive rhetoric that Black communities are more dangerous and need heavier policing.

This rhetoric, the authors argue, is “often reinscribed by research and statistics that seemingly demonstrate that Black people are more likely to commit crimes, despite the fact that the over-policing of these communities often accounts for the skews.”

The idea of the “Negro criminal” allowed white Americans to employ these statistics to defend discriminatory policies while reinforcing the perception of Black individuals as intrinsically criminal, consequently “(justifying) the use of strict penalties and relentless police supervision.”

“This trend remains true in San Francisco: although the city has one of the state’s lowest prison incarceration rates, statistics vary greatly by neighborhood, hinting at the legacy of discriminatory housing policies,” the article adds.

The article acknowledges that the history of urban renewal in the Fillmore District and the subsequent harm inflicted on Black San Franciscans has been well-documented.

The authors state: “Various aspects of the dismantling of the Fillmore District, including the City’s reliance on discursive language and racial tropes, reflected an ultimate disdain for and othering of Black San Franciscans and thereby perpetuated the ideology of White supremacy.”

It emphasizes that the harms caused by these choices, although not easily quantifiable or tangible, are still impactful and damaging.

Even after Black residents of the Fillmore were placed in a defined area, the City reminded them of their vulnerability to forced removal and asset seizure, “as if they were slaves sold down the river and with just as little consequence to those who had caused their harm and profited from it.”

“The harms, though again not always tangible or amenable to quantification, will be shown to be so systemic that innumerable aspects and incidents of metropolitan life have been impacted in interconnected, self-perpetuating forms ranging from the process of gentrification to aspects of family, civic, and cultural life,” added the authors.

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