If It Can Happen in San Francisco, It Can Happen Anywhere

The deep-blue city seems to have grown weary of the more radical elements of the new racial-justice movement.

Two students walk down steps past a historical mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco.
Yalonda M. James / San Francisco Chronicle / AP

The San Francisco School Board recently returned the admissions policy at Lowell, the city’s most prestigious public high school, to the merit-based system that it had used for more than a century. Thus ended a short-lived lottery introduced in the name of racial equity. The board also abandoned a campaign to erase “The Life of Washington,” a WPA-era mural at George Washington High School by the artist Victor Arnautoff. Arnautoff was a Communist, and his mural, which depicts slaves picking cotton at Mount Vernon, was intentionally subversive. But an earlier incarnation of the board had voted first to destroy it, then to cover it up, saying that removing it from view was a form of “reparations.” The board member Alison Collins had said, “This mural is not historic. It is a relic.”

These two decisions, both 4–3 votes, represent a double rejection by the current board of the hypersensitive poses adopted by its predecessor. When you factor in the 2021 collapse of the infamous school-renaming campaign, it’s a trifecta. Our deep-blue city seems to have grown weary of the more radical elements of the new racial-justice movement. And although this story is specific to San Francisco, if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

The current board’s decisions to restore Lowell’s grade-and-test-based admissions policy and leave Arnautoff’s mural alone were not in the least bit surprising. In February, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly voted to recall three progressive board members, including Collins, giving moderate Mayor London Breed the opportunity to appoint their replacements. (More recently, in another indication of shifting politics, voters here recalled the city’s progressive district attorney.) It was virtually a foregone conclusion that the new members would restore the status quo ante, particularly with the Lowell issue.

For decades, Lowell has been a heavily Asian (mostly Chinese American) school. Chinese parents see getting their kids into Lowell as a golden ticket, and they’re not wrong: The big high school in the city’s Sunset neighborhood is the largest feeder school into the coveted UC college system. Lowell has long been one of the San Francisco Unified School District’s shining success stories. But it has also historically had very few Black students. SFUSD’s efforts to raise Black academic achievement throughout the city, and to diversify Lowell, have consistently failed over the past 50 years—and at various times they have also pitted the city’s large Chinese population against its small, and shrinking, African American one, on issues including busing, school choice, and admissions policies.

San Francisco’s Chinese community has traditionally punched below its demographic weight. Still, because Chinese people make up about a third of San Francisco’s population, and Black people about 5 percent, it isn’t surprising that Lowell retained its anomalous, and possibly illegal, merit-based admissions policy. (State law prohibits any schools except those that offer special “gifted and talented” programs from admitting students on the basis of academic or athletic performance.) Lowell seemed destined to remain a bastion of straight-A, UC Berkeley–bound, mostly Asian and white students, with a small number of Latino and an even smaller number of Black students. (In 2020, Lowell’s total enrollment of 2,700 included just 45 Black students.)

In 2021, with the public schools closed and in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests that had raged across the country, the school board abruptly changed Lowell’s admissions policy, claiming the move was a response to “pervasive systemic racism” at the school and was part of the national racial “reckoning.”

At the time, the board had the political wind at its back. It had already launched its school-renaming and anti-mural crusades without significant opposition. Indeed, the city itself had begun purifying its public-art collection in 2018, when arts bureaucrats removed what they claimed was an offensive 1894 statue called Early Days from the Pioneer Monument in Civic Center. During the Floyd protests, city officials also quietly removed a massive statue of Christopher Columbus from near Coit Tower, and did not replace statues of Junipero Serra, Francis Scott Key, and President Ulysses S. Grant after they were toppled by protesters. Neither the local media nor many individuals spoke out against these actions.

Then the great racial-rectitude campaign fell apart. The fact that the board was busying itself with a historically illiterate push to cancel the likes of John Muir and Abraham Lincoln when the schools were closed did not sit well with many parents. The city’s Chinese community was outraged by the change in Lowell’s admissions policies, and got politically involved. Hence the recall and subsequent dismantling of progressive reforms.

Let me underscore the fact that San Franciscans are famously liberal—only 10 percent of registered voters here are Republican—and many are staunch progressives. In 50 years of living and working here, as a taxi driver and journalist, I’ve been struck by how overwhelmingly tolerant my fellow citizens are. Until recently, a remarkably high percentage of buildings throughout the city displayed Black Lives Matter signs in their windows. Most San Franciscans paid lip service to and to some degree supported the national soul-searching that followed Floyd’s murder.

But their support was not endless. They grew weary of foolishly gestural racial politics, as manifested in the school renaming and anti-mural campaigns. And when the causes they were asked to support both violated their principles and were detrimental to their self-interest, perceived or real, like changing Lowell’s admissions policies, they rebelled.

Contrary to the claims made by some progressives, this is not evidence of a recrudescence of racism, but of a deep-seated belief in the color-blind philosophy of the old civil-rights movement. The modish demand for equity of outcome, as opposed to equality of opportunity, proved to be a bridge that many San Franciscans were unwilling to cross. Drawing any sweeping conclusions from this episode would be inadvisable. If I were in national politics, however, I would pay attention.