Published: January 2007
By Christine Joy Ferrer
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, a group of children, between the ages of 5 and 11 years old, consisting of eight African Americans, one Salvadorian, and one Samoan, scurry into dance class at the Boys and Girls Club on Sunnydale Avenue. They laugh, they joke. Some poplock (or at least try), tumble and jump in excitement, while others sit wryly on the chairs that line the wall.
A group of five Chinese boys also scurry into dance class, but they stick close together and move closer to the right side of the room away from the other children. They laugh, they joke. They may not poplock, but they tumble and jump in excitement. The obvious picture: Although, the Salvadorian boy and Samoan boy intermingled with the other African American children, the children have racially segregated themselves.
“I was told that the Asian children are paying around $300 a year to get their children to stay at an Chinese after school program that uses the Boys and Girls Club facilities, so that they can do their homework, while some of the African American children’s parents are reluctant to pay just $10 for their children to be part of the Boys and Girls Club,” said Albirda Rose PhD., who has developed dance classes and other programs in Visitacion Valley and the Bayview for the last several years.
Every year, Children from the Visitacion Valley and Bayview districts perform in the New Moves Children’s Dance Concert that’s held at San Francisco State University. Dance classes are held at the Visitacion Valley Community Center, the Boys and Girls Club in Visitacion Valley, St. Paul’s Baptist Church, and John McClaren.
The Chinese children are allowed to come to dance class, a program through the Boys and Girls Club, only after they’ve finished they’re homework. “I think the two groups should work together, because that alone is perpetuating stereotypes and setting up racial tension,” Rose said. “But the Children don’t understand.”
Rose, within her children’s dance class, has witnessed how racial and cultural stereotypes divide the African Americans and Asians within this community. The segregation has become part of everyday actions and reactions towards the other, she says. The segregation found in the center is but a microcosm of what happens in the neighborhood as a whole. And it also mirrors a larger phenomenon citywide, despite San Francisco’s reputation for diversity, where racial and ethnic groups often socialize amongst themselves and keep to certain neighborhoods.
As a whole, Visitacion Valley is made-up of African Americans, Whites, Asians, Pacific Islanders, but now it’s roughly 52 percent Asian from a neighborhood that used to be predominantly African American. The racial and ethnic breakdown of children taught at Visitacion Valley Community Center is 90 percent Asian, 10 percent black, 10 percent Latino; John McClaren is 80 percent black, 20 percent Asian; St. Paul is 100 percent black; Boys and Girls Club on Sunnydale is 90 percent black, 10 percent Asian.
The factors that affect the thriving racial tension in Visitacion Valley are many. The neighborhood has no activity related to San Francisco as a whole, no tourism; they’re at the tail end of industrialization. The many residents believe the city has neglected the neighborhood. If it’s ever on the news or brought to media’s attention, the story is usually about someone who’s been murdered or hurt.
Ethnic groups tend to keep to their own. Many community organizations cater to different ethnic and racial groups, helping them navigate within society. However, these organizations don’t always work together or communicate with other communities.
“It’s hard to bridge gaps when people isolate themselves…there are quiet Asian groups,” said Roel Blanco, who has worked in the neighborhood at the Visitacion Valley Community Beacon for four years. “The Chinese are quick to work with their communities, but not with others. The Latino population is also within themselves, there are language barriers.”
Class divisions further stratify the neighborhood. Part of the tension also rests on economic resources that vary from one group to the next, from one class to the next and gentrification has also played a role as Asian groups have had more opportunity to develop over the others, said Blanco. Multi-generational families in one unit can better provide for themselves than a single-parent family raising a couple children.
“There’s growth potential down [in the Valley] where people are striving to pay rent and hold down jobs,” said Blanco. “The government has tried to develop the area, bringing in the Third Street light rail, the neighborhood wants jobs, businesses, like any other area in San Francisco, but then money for projects ran out,” said Blanco.
And due to lack of funds, when city hall or other agencies offer grants or loans, it becomes a battle between community-based organizations for financial resources, rather than organizations focusing on working with each other for the benefit of the community, he said.
“Oooo, more money. I respect what Coleman Advocates, Haus Foundation, Weed and Seed, has done for this community…but money is willingly pumped only into certain organizations in the Vis, making people like Michael Bennett’s job harder when he has to think of “here’s an opportunity to get more money for my agency,” Blanco said.
Budgets are tight when everyone is trying to set up their teams. The Visitacion Valley Violence Prevention Collaboration almost shut down after three years of trying to establish itself. As the cost of resources and services goes up, the rhetorical question asked by the city government is “how much more are we going to put in the area if it’s not going to be effective?” he said.
Many of those who live up hill in the Sunnydale housing projects are African American. While many Asians own their homes, down below in the Valley. Asian families tend to be more economically stable because a multi-generational family lives in one house, and are able help support each other. However, that is not always the case within African American communities.
“The Black women [in Vis Valley] bear the brunt of criminality,” said Sharen Hewitt, director of Community Leadership Academy Emergency Response, a community-based organization that supports victims of violence. “Their men are missing and this is an economic hardship for them. If their boys go to jail, they pay for the bills, they have to visit them, but if after they’re out and then they got shot, their mothers are the ones who have to bury them,” Hewitt said.
This all adds an extra level of polarization, on top of the violence that already polarizes the community, she said. Tension between races intensifies into generalizations that project how “the blacks are bad; the killers must go” and that the “Asians are good so they must stay.” But, she adds, no one ever asks, “What has drove African Americans to this point?”
As an educator in Visitacion Valley, the answers for that same question have become more and more apparent to Rose. “So much pain is also being inflicted by our government (and) economic system. People in this community are not given what’s needed to maintain themselves financially, education is not there. People are stripped of self-esteem, no affordable housing, or food for their children, but people don’t talk about this issue because they’re scared…scared that they’ll have to do something. The more you know…the more you have to do better,” Rose said.
“Explain to me how when there’s two groups of people, one group scores higher than another group in their CATs (California Standardized Testing). That’s evidence of institutionalized racism right there…then there’s internalized racism, where the blacks perpetuate white racism on their own community. How can a black man shoot another black man?” she asked.
The racism, cultural barriers and stereotypes are so frequent within the community that people may not even recognize them anymore. “It all goes back to racism and our own bias that we have to get passed,” Rose said. Maybe a storeowner won’t hire a black man because his pants are hanging too low off his butt. I just don’t know how to fix this. It’s just one of those things I don’t understand. Can I move people to think differently?”
To overcome these social constructs, it must start at home, at schools, at jobs, and be more inclusive to all children. The city should invest more in its community, instead of stripping necessities, Rose said, adding that a platform should be raised for people to talk about these issues.
“Because if we could communicate, we can begin to breakdown the barriers of ignorance… We all suffer, we all die. Underneath the color, we have the same heart, the same veins pumping blood in the same way. We may have different genes, but our DNA is still human.”