The city of San Francisco recently made history. It has elected its first Black woman mayor, London Breed. She won in a special election called after the late Mayor Ed Lee died suddenly of a heart attack late in 2017.
Breed’s historic win is considered remarkable for a few reasons. San Francisco has a large Asian population and is considered a “minority-majority” city, with people of color representing 59% of the community while White residents represent the other 41%. However, the Black population has declined from 13.4% in 1970 to 5.4% today, mainly due to surging housing prices. And in a city with a dwindling Black community, Breed’s victory signifies that the predominantly wealthy electorate of San Francisco was ready to elect a vibrant supporter of the city’s most vulnerable populations.
Mayor London Breed was sworn into office yesterday. But despite the progress made by her election, it is clear that we are living in fraught times. Our country is increasingly divided by racial issues; and, according to a Washington Post poll, most Americans feel that race relations are deteriorating. Racial tensions are exemplified by a growing number of incidents in which White Americans summon the police because of trivial matters involving Black Americans.
For example, in San Francisco’s neighboring city of Oakland, a White woman (nicknamed “Barbecue Becky” by social media pundits) complained to the police that a Black man, Kenzie Smith, was using a charcoal grill in a park area designated only for non-charcoal grills. And, most recently—in San Francisco proper—another White woman (dubbed “Permit Patty” on Twitter) appeared to call the police to complain that a young Black girl was selling water without a permit. (The woman later said that she was “pretending” to call the police.) The eight-year-old was raising money for a trip to Disneyland. (Read more about police being called over trivial matters once White residents move into a neighborhood.)
In both instances, the women’s acts of calling the police escalated the situations. Political commentator Jason Johnson noted that when White residents call the police on Black residents about trivial matters, it is “the epitome of escalation, and calling the police on Black people for non-crimes is a step away from asking for a tax-funded beat down, if not an execution,” given that Black people are much more likely to be killed than White people are in police confrontations.
Yet, on a positive note, the surrounding communities supported the targets of the complaints. In Oakland, police ultimately recognized the triviality of the complaint in the “Barbecue Becky” episode, and Smith was recognized by the city for his track record of public service. In San Francisco, the woman who lodged the complaint resigned as CEO of a small cannabis company after several dispensaries declined to do business with the company, and musician Jonathon Brannon apparently donated money for the girl and her family to go to Disneyland.
There are also glimmers of optimism regarding the desire for inclusivity in communities throughout the United States—including notable achievements in the public sphere—affirming that Breed is not alone in her election success. Other rays of hope include Stacey Abrams being the first Black woman to win the Georgia Democratic Primary for Governor, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina, unseating a long-time incumbent in the primary race for New York’s 14th Congressional District.
On the larger political stage, Kamala Harris, of South Asian and African American ancestry, is the first Black woman to be elected District Attorney and the first woman and Black person ever to be elected as Attorney General in the state of California. She achieved prominence as a California senator in the Democratic Party, and has been mentioned as a possible Presidential candidate in 2020.
When Black women and other women of color have held elected office, they have often shone in their performance, working hard to represent all constituents. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968, not only co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus, but also sponsored increases in federal funding to extend the hours of daycare facilities, defended federal assistance for education, and served as a primary backer of a national school lunch bill, overriding a presidential veto.
The organization Higher Heights, which champions Black women for elected office, notes that despite an increasing electoral and economic presence, the United States’ 23 million Black women have not held as many elected offices as their power might suggest. Without an adequate number of Black women holding elected office, they have not been able to meaningfully influence policies related to “civil rights, economic justice, and reproductive justice.”
Research demonstrates that inclusion drives innovation. A multiplicity of opinions and voices need to be heard to influence critical issues, and in this country’s social climate, women of color add meaningful experiences and insights. As more and more of the electorate recognize their strengths and talents, we will be further along the road—despite setbacks—in creating a more inclusive country that offers opportunity to all.
Photo Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen / Wikimedia Commons – cc-by-sa-4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en