The Meaning of San Francisco’s School-Board Recall

Even voters in one of the most liberal cities in the country have had it with symbolic racial politics.

Supporters of the San Francisco School Board recall gather at Carl Larsen Park during a rally in the Sunset District of San Francisco.
Stephen Lam / The San Francisco Chronicle / Getty

By large margins, San Francisco voters on Tuesday recalled three members of the city’s school board, including board president Gabriela López (with about 74 percent supporting recall), Alison Collins (78 percent), and Faauuga Moliga (71 percent). The recall effort was directed at the entire board: These three were targeted because they were the only members who had served long enough to be eligible for recall. It was the city’s first recall election since 1983, and the first successful one anyone can remember.

San Francisco’s recall campaign drew national attention because it was seen as a trial of racialized left-wing politics. What does it mean that voters in one of the most liberal cities in the country decisively repudiated a board that last academic year marched proudly under the banner of racial equity and social justice, while making no effort to open its schools?

Not surprisingly, interpretation of the results has depended on politics. Conservatives including Mike Pence, Bill Kristol, and the chair of the California Republican Party have claimed that the vote was another piece of evidence, on top of the Virginia gubernatorial race, that the Democratic Party is out of step not just with Republicans, but with its own constituents. Progressives rejected such conclusions, insisting that the recall was simply about competence and was driven by an only-in-San-Francisco set of circumstances.

The truth lies somewhere in between, but closer to the conservative view. At a minimum, the recall demonstrates that “woke” racial politics have their limits, even in one of the wokest cities in the country.

Some context is necessary to understand the controversy. The San Francisco school board had been flaunting its symbolic racial politics, albeit in singularly inane ways, well before the George Floyd protests made such gestures common across the country. In June 2019, it voted to conceal WPA-era murals in the city’s George Washington High School because they were supposedly racially insensitive. (In fact, the murals, by the Communist artist Victor Arnautoff, were a subversive commentary on patriotic American mythology.) And starting in 2018, it began searching for city public schools with objectionable names, a lengthy and historically illiterate process that culminated in January 2021 when it announced plans to rename 44 schools, including ones named after such retrograde figures as Abraham Lincoln and John Muir.

Crucially, the board’s school-renaming campaign was initially supported by San Francisco’s leaders, including Mayor London Breed, a moderate who is reviled by progressives here. Indeed, city officials themselves engaged in similar symbolic gestures of racial rectification. In 2018, bureaucrats removed a 19th-century statue they deemed offensive from the Civic Center, and following the Floyd protests, officials removed, or did not replace after they were toppled, more supposedly offensive statuary, including those depicting Christopher Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant, Junípero Serra, and Francis Scott Key. To what degree San Franciscans agreed with these actions is not clear, because they were never given an opportunity to voice their opinion.

The recall election gave them that chance—but in a complicated way, one that’s hard to parse, because it was driven not just by San Franciscans’ outrage over the board’s symbolic excesses, but by their outrage over its failure to reopen schools. In 2020, even as the board was wasting its time searching for schools named after bad dead white men, kids were out of the classroom. Of course, the teachers’ union, not the board, was chiefly responsible for closures: It took a maximalist shutdown line that enraged many parents who believed (with good reason) that it was not based on empirical evidence. However, there was no mailing address for the union, so the angry missives were sent to its ally, the school board. (The union opposed the recall.)

Yet one more factor in the recall was the board’s decision to change the formerly merit-based admissions policy at the city’s most prestigious and academically rigorous high school, Lowell, to ensure that more Black and Latino students were accepted. Like many merit-based high schools in New York and elsewhere, Lowell has been majority Asian and white for decades. Chinese American parents, many of them working-class, have long seen Lowell as a launching pad for their children, and they were enraged by the board’s move to a lottery admissions system.

They were even more outraged when the board’s then–vice president, Alison Collins, who is Black, was found to have sent out a series of tweets in 2016 saying, among other things, “Many [Asian Americans] believe they benefit from the ‘model minority’ BS. In fact, many Asian American [teachers, students, and parents] actively promote these myths. They use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead’ … Where are the vocal Asians speaking up against Trump? … Do they think they won’t be deported? profiled? beaten? Being a house n****r is still being a n****r. You’re still considered ‘the help.’”

Collins’s insistence that Asian American parents who want their kids to get good grades and “get ahead” are “house n****s” using “white supremacist thinking” did not go over well in the Asian American (in San Francisco, mostly Chinese American) community. That community has typically punched politically far below its demographic weight, but during this election, neighborhoods with large Chinese American populations came out in force.

Other demographic groups were evidently incensed as well: Because San Francisco is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic, the sheer total of pro-recall votes indicates that significant numbers of white liberals also voted to oust Collins and her colleagues. (Precinct data show that majorities in most neighborhoods in the city, including its most progressive bastions, supported the recall.)

Notably, although Collins’s tweets were intemperate, the ideology they expressed, and the board’s justification for ending merit-based admissions, are not all that different from so-called anti-racist notions in wide circulation here—such as those promoted by the activist-writer Ibram X. Kendi. (Kendi, an Atlantic contributor, has argued that any policy that produces racially unequal outcomes is itself racist.) Collins and the board may have believed that any accusations of racism they made, no matter how inflammatory, would be protected under the rubric of the sacrosanct “reckoning.” Not this time.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that a lot of San Franciscans have climbed off the woke bandwagon—or were never wholeheartedly on it. Again, voters’ evident rejection of the board’s incessant braying about racism, white privilege, and the rest is inextricably entangled with their anger over the fact that schools remained closed for so long. But school closures nationwide are associated with Democrats, so that’s hardly cause for progressive relief.

The recall should nudge the city’s leaders to question the depth of liberals’ commitment to the post–George Floyd ethos, especially when more is at stake than symbolic gestures of rectitude, and to recalibrate. Instead, they are minimizing the significance of the election result, or accusing recall supporters of being right-wing bigots.

The teachers’ union has pointed an accusatory finger at the “billionaires and wealthy venture capitalists” who poured $2 million into the pro-recall campaign, but 78 percent of voters cannot be conjured up by mailers and media buys. San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton claimed that the recall was driven by “closet Republicans and most certainly folks with conservative values in San Francisco, even if they weren’t registered Republicans,” telling the San Francisco Chronicle that “Trump’s election and bold prejudice brought a lot of that out, even in our Democratic and liberal city. There are a lot of people who do not want people of color making decisions in leadership.” Never mind that a lot of the people who supposedly did not want people of color making decisions in leadership were people of color, that the city’s mayor is a person of color, and that wanting schools open and supporting merit-based admissions are not evidence of conservative values, let alone being a “closet Republican.”

If the city’s progressives continue to make such facile accusations of racism while ignoring the actual issues that matter to the city’s voters, they may face the same fate as Collins and her colleagues.