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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It was the best of metaphors, it was the worst of metaphors: what we can learn from “1858 Black Exodus Commemoration Week”

Posted By on Tue, Apr 15, 2008 at 3:21 PM


San Francisco waves bye-bye to black people for a second time.

by Benjamin Wachs

In 1858, 800 black San Franciscans were fed up with life in the United States and moved … en masse … to Victoria, British Columbia, where the governor had issued them a personal invitation. Once there, according to many accounts, they lived much better lives.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about the 1858 exodus over the next few weeks. April 20 – 26 is going to be declared “1858 Black Exodus Commemoration Week” in San Francisco. On April 20 there will be an ecumenical service in memorial for it at the African American Art and Culture complex. On April 22 there will be a “symbolic launching of the Commodore” – the ship that carried the expatriates to their new lives, as well as presentations and receptions at the Port of San Francisco and Ferry Building. Still more events will follow. The full schedule is here, if you’re inclined to go.

At today’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting Sophie Maxwell will introduce a resolution “expressing profound regret for the 1858 exodus of hundreds of Black residents of San Francisco to Victoria, British Columbia because of the legalized brutality and injustices that were visited upon them.”

The Supes are sure to pass it, because that’s what they do. We are, to be clear about this, really, really, really sorry.

Most attempts by the city Supervisors to apologize for things that happened 150 years ago end in farce. But there’s a poignant quality to this apology, because the more things change the more they stay the same; and it could be argued … in fact, Maxwell is arguing … that being black in 1858 and 2008 San Francisco have far too much in common.

For one thing, there is still an exodus. They may not be going to British Columbia, but it’s well known that San Francisco is one of the few major cities in America to be losing African-American residents. A report prepared for the city last year suggests there were just under 100,000 African-Americans in San Francisco in 1990 – and there are less than 50,000 today. They’ve gone from 13% of the population in 1970 to 6% now.

More disturbingly is Maxwell’s suggestion that a system of “legalized brutality and injustice” is still pretty much in place.

“(San Francisco) hasn’t always been a friendly city to African Americans, and that holds true today,” she told me. “We have only six percent of the children’s population, but nearly 50 percent of the children in foster care are African American. Black men die in San Francisco today at the rate white men died here in 1941. We have the highest rates of illness, violence, infant mortality … there are so many things that show this city is not a healthy place for African Americans.”

It’s not even an issue of poverty: these disturbing trends hold across income levels.

That’s why “Those that can get out, get out. People who want a better life are out of here,” Maxwell said.


The apology for the 1858 migration is meant to focus attention on these problems, and do something about it.

But that’s where the system breaks down.

There are proposals on the table: a task force last year made numerous recommendations for ways to punch up housing and education and public safety issues for African-Americans … but they were the usual hodge-podge band of left-wing recommendations. Improve public housing, better gun control, better coordination among agencies, strengthen mental health services: the stuff activists in San Francisco would be pushing for anyway. On the other end of the spectrum, a fund established last year to “ameliorate the legacy of slavery” has netted $0 – perhaps because no one knows exactly what it’s supposed to do. Even Maxwell has said she isn’t sure: only that it needs to be accountable.

However “aware” we are of the problem, we’re drawing a blank on solutions. Truthfully, we’re not even sure exactly why the problem is so bad.

Maxwell thinks she knows: systemic racism in San Francisco.

“It’s not about poverty: Latino families are poorer than we are,” Maxwell said. “Many Asian families don’t speak the language, so it’s not about education. But it’s our kids not being educated: that’s systemic. When you look at foster care and high rates of recidivism for kids in foster care, that’s systemic. The racism is deep.”

Maybe. But there’s another possibility – one which the comparison to the 1858 migration accidently evokes.

The reasons sited for the brave 800’s departure were atrocious and harsh laws: blacks couldn’t testify in court against whites; they had to wear collars around their necks; California was a virtual slave state.

But that’s the point: it was California – not San Francisco. San Francisco didn’t pass any of these laws. It didn’t encourage them. In fact, many of the 800 had come from around California to assemble in San Francisco.

So, um, what is San Francisco apologizing for … exactly? Existing? Being part of California?

If the migration of the 800 in 1858 is meant to symbolize conditions today, that metaphor might go all the way down: it would be one thing if African-Americans were only having a tough time in San Francisco. But the problem is much, much worse.

The black population of California as a whole declined 9% from 2000 – 2006. And an article in this month’s “Atlantic” notes that nationally:

Blacks are 13 percent of the population, yet black men account for 49 percent of America’s murder victims and 41 percent of the prison population. The teen birth rate for blacks is 63 per 1,000, more than double the rate for whites. In 2005, black families had the lowest median income of any ethnic group measured by the Census, making only 61 percent of the median income of white families.

Most troubling is a recent study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which concluded that the rate at which blacks born into the middle class in the 1960s backslid into poverty or near-poverty (45 percent) was three times that of whites—suggesting that the advances of even some of the most successful cohorts of black America remain tenuous at best.”

The problem for blacks in 1858 wasn’t that they lived in San Francisco: it was that they lived in California, and the U.S..

The problem for blacks in 2008 might be the same. And that might be why we’re having such a hard time doing something about it: it’s not actually “our” problem. Much as the San Francisco police can’t be expected to stop a nationwide rise in homicides that hits our neighborhoods, however much we improve our systems (and we should) the exodus of blacks from San Francisco may be part of a national problem that San Francisco’s just not equipped to address.

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Benjamin Wachs


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