SAN FRANCISCO — As Election Day approached, a deluge of messages flashed over the phones of San Francisco’s Chinese-American community. “Remember to vote,” said a Chinese message from Selena Chu, an organizer of the campaign. “And throw out the commissioners who discriminate against us and disrespect our community.”
The lopsided victory in Tuesday’s recall election that ousted three members of the San Francisco school board shook the city’s liberal establishment and sounded a loud alarm of parental anger at the way the public school system is dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. pandemic avoided.
Parents of different ethnicities and income levels who banded together last year while schools in San Francisco remained closed — they’ve been closed much longer than in other major cities — organized through Facebook groups and vowed to support the members of the board of education for what they do saw pushing out as incompetence. They kept their promise: it was the three commissioners removed by up to 79 percent of votersa definite rejection in a city known for unruly politics.
For many Asian Americans in the city, particularly the large Chinese American community, the results were a validation of the group’s voting strength, which came with a level of organization, turnout, and intensity not seen in many years. In an election in which every registered voter received a ballot, overall turnout was relatively low at 26 percent; Turnout among the 30,000 people who applied for Chinese-language ballots was significantly higher at 37 percent.
In an overwhelmingly liberal city, Asian American voters have sided with the Democrats for decades. But in recent years, a growing number of Chinese residents, many of whom were born in mainland China, have become a moderating political force. Most of the city’s Chinese residents are registered as independents and, as Tuesday’s election seemed to show, they are not afraid to oppose some of the more liberal elements in the Democratic Party. It’s a pattern that has emerged in other cities, like New Yorkwhich are mostly Democratic with significant Asian American populations.
“They’re absolutely available,” said David Lee, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, of the city’s Asian American voters.
Two issues in particular motivated Chinese-American voters in Tuesday’s elections. The Board of Education voted to introduce a lottery admissions system at the highly selective Lowell High School, replacing an admissions process that primarily selects students with the best grades and test scores. For decades, Lowell, whose long list of notable alumni includes Judge Stephen G. Breyer, was what one parishioner called “the gateway to the American dream.” The introduction of the lottery system has reduced the number of Asian and white ninth graders at Lowell by about a quarter and increased the number of black and Hispanic ninth graders by more than 40 percent.
Chinese voters were also angered by tweets unearthed during the campaign from Alison Collins, one of the recalled school board members. Ms Collins said Asian Americans “use white racial thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead'”. Using asterisks to mask a racial slur against black people. The tweets fueled feelings of being taken for granted, underrepresented and offended by many Chinese voters, people involved in the recall said.
Asian American voters also said they were motivated by issues beyond the board’s actions: The number of high-profile attacks on Asian Americans, many of whom are elderly, has traumatized the community. And many Chinese-owned businesses have suffered the effects of the pandemic shutdown, particularly in Chinatown.
“We are losing faith in the government,” said Bayard Fong, president of the Chinese American Democratic Club.
Asian Americans make up about 36 percent of San Francisco’s population, one of the largest such communities in any major city, but they are an incredibly diverse group that includes Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, and Thais and come from diverse economic, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds. Chinese Americans are by far the largest Asian group, making up 23 percent of San Francisco’s population. 40 percent of the population is white, 15 percent Latino and 6 percent black.
The removal of the three board members will promote the sole Chinese-American member of the seven-member board to the position of president. And it puts Mayor London Breed in the difficult position of appointing three substitute members acceptable to parents, who are now watching the process closely. Recall campaigners hope more Asian Americans will be appointed to the board.
Autumn Looijen, who with her partner Siva Raj organized the collection of signatures and initiated the recall campaign, described the Chinese-American community as crucial to the recall’s success.
“They were the backbone of our volunteer efforts,” said Ms. Looijen. “They’ve really pushed this campaign forward from the start.”
During the campaign, organizers used WeChat, the Chinese-language messaging app, to offer everything from detailed instructions on how to fill out a ballot to organizing volunteer work in Chinatown, where lion dances and drumming encouraged residents to vote.
“We will no longer remain silent,” read a leaflet in English and Chinese distributed by the Chinese American Democratic Club.
Parents campaigning for the recall described an awakening in the Chinese American community by people who have hitherto been largely apolitical.
Ms Chu, the woman who sent the WeChat message urging people to vote, said she grew up with parents who advised her to keep calm when she felt she was being treated unfairly. Many first-generation immigrants still feel this way, she said.
As a mother of two in the San Francisco public school system, Ms. Chu felt compelled for the first time to actively participate in an election. Her hands hurt, she said, from texting so many on WeChat during the campaign.
She was motivated by a sense of being punished and pilloried for her hard work and pursuit.
“This year, a lot of parents tell me, ‘We’re tired of being scapegoats,'” Ms. Chu said.
“We’re still seen as foreigners,” she said. “We are Americans. We have to be treated with respect.”
She called the recall election a milestone for the Asian American community.
“They finally understand the power of their voice,” she said.
Central to the organizing effort was Ann Hsu, a Beijing-born entrepreneur with decades of experience founding and running companies in China and the United States.
Ms. Hsu used her management experience to organize volunteers and set campaign strategies. She ignored the English-language media and instead focused heavily on Chinese-language newspapers, YouTube channels and advertisements. She and her volunteers distributed thousands of yellow grocery bags decorated with recall messages and gave them to elderly Chinese residents. She set up a task force that registered 560 residents, almost all of whom were Asian Americans, to vote.
Using WeChat to organize her operations had the added benefit of overcoming a language barrier: She speaks Mandarin, while other residents are more comfortable with Cantonese. The written messages could be understood by everyone.
Ms. Hsu’s voice fills with emotion as she discusses the issue of Lowell, which she believes was the main motivation for jumping into politics.
“When you came for Lowell, you came for the Asians,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “We will stand up and say no more, no!”
Lowell’s future admissions process remains unclear — the lottery system will remain in place for students entering in the fall, but the board has made no decision on admissions beyond next year.
Ms. Hsu says Lowell is not directly personal to her. Her two teenage boys attend another school in the San Francisco Public School District.
But she saw in the board’s decisions a deep sense that the aspirations of Asian American residents were being ignored.
The debate over admission to elite public schools has stirred up Asian parents in other cities, particularly New York. In both San Francisco and New York, the issue is dividing liberal voters, who are torn between wanting to maintain a system that traditionally benefits high-performing students from poorer, often immigrant backgrounds while leaving black and Latino students behind.
In New York, where black and Latino students are disproportionately underrepresented in elite public high schools, the issue of school segregation came to the fore during last year’s New York mayoral election. Left-leaning candidates have called for a major overhaul of licensing standards, while centrist candidates have called for their retention. Among those who pledged to keep the test was Eric Adams, the current mayor.
Ms. Collins, the board member criticized for her tweets, said during the campaign that she had “desegregated” Lowell.
Following the unilateral recall, political analysts are weighing whether the campaign’s energy and zeal will carry over to other elections both city-wide and nationally.
Mike Chen, executive board member of the Edwin M. Lee Asian Pacific Democratic Club, said the results were remarkable — “no one in town can agree 80 percent on anything.” But he said he would “strongly caution” against making predictions about other campaigns based on a single election with relatively low turnout. San Francisco had a very particular set of issues that drove parents over the edge, he said.
“People have been trying to extrapolate: what does that mean for the school board elections in Ohio or Virginia?” he said.
“We had this very special case,” he continued. “We had very visible examples of incompetence, poor governance and wrongdoing. Most people could objectively observe the decisions that were made last year and think, ‘This really sucks.’”
Dana Rubinstein and Dan Goldstein contributed reporting.