The solidarity among San Francisco’s political class in calling for school board vice president Alison Collins to resign is stunning in its damn-near unanimity. Absent some feel-good bond measures, it’s hard to recall a municipal shield wall quite this tight.
Everyone can easily be for funding parks and playgrounds and kiddies and sea walls. Here, everyone is against Collins. That’s different.
In 2019, every San Francisco politico and their Uncle Steve lined up against vape-juice titan Juul’s attempt to undo city law and write its own regulations. In 2006, every last vestige of the City Family lined up to decry newsman Pete Wilson’s harangue regarding gay supervisor Bevan Dufty and his lesbian friend Rebecca Goldfader having a child.
This is neither good nor pleasant company for Collins to find herself in. The next Board of Education meeting is slated for 3 p.m. today, and it remains to be seen how good and pleasant that will be.
The Board of Education has been in the headlines a bit even prior to the pandemic, and these were not flattering headlines. There was the polarizing decision to paint over murals at George Washington High School depicting our founding father as the slave-owner and Indian-fighter he was. There was the vote to rename 44 schools despite provably shoddy historical research, an arbitrary and sloppy process from the renaming committee — and despite the fact all the schools are closed. There was the vote to remove the merit-based entrance system at Lowell High School. And there is the ongoing misery regarding the city’s shuttered schools, spaced-out Zoom students, declining enrollment and the school board’s deliberate decision to not hire a consultant to form pandemic plans.
The school district and Board of Education are presently staving off a lawsuit filed by the City Attorney regarding those sclerotic reopening plans. These are not good and pleasant times.
Add to all this a series of incendiary 2016 Collins tweets describing anti-Blackness among Asian Americans, last week unearthed by online partisans opposed to altering Lowell’s admission plans and pushing a recall effort for Collins and two other commissioners.
This material was quickly seeded into the mainstream media, where headlines simply and unambiguously described Collins’ tweets as “racist.” Calls for her ouster grew deafening — and, separate and apart from the content of those tweets, a city leader’s decision on what to say about Collins soon became a political calculation.
It’s never an ideal situation when extreme partisans call the tune and make everybody dance. And that definitely happened here.
But Collins’ protestations that her comments were being taken “out of context” befuddled the Asian Americans who subsequently reached out to her (as did her apology — not for what she said, but for how it was received). A tweetstorm is not a Dostoevsky novel; it doesn’t take that much time to read and re-read it. If you’re complaining people missed nuance and context, maybe it wasn’t there to start with.
The tweets say what they say — and say what they say regardless of who’s publicizing them. And when.
Collins is now in the difficult position she’s in not just because of what she wrote in 2016, but how she handled matters when confronted on it in 2021.
Nobody is coming out of this looking good. And it didn’t have to be this way.
“Hey Twitter!” began Collins’ Dec. 4, 2016 tweetstorm. “Does anyone know about any news stories highlighting hate speech or bullying of Asian students? Please send them my way.”
The next tweet continues “I’m looking to combat anti-black racism in the Asian community at at (sic) my daughters’ mostly Asian Am school.”
Collins is the only Black woman on the school board (though these tweets were written two years before her election). And it warrants mentioning — and unambiguously mentioning: It is not racist for a Black woman to call out anti-Blackness. Collins, in her tweets, recounts her own lived experience and that of her daughters.
These tweets continued, however. And they veered into places that many Asian Americans I spoke to felt were, if not racist, still harmful — playing into longstanding stereotypes about Asian Americans in a casually broad and reckless way.
“Many Asian Am. believe they benefit from the ‘model minority’ BS.” Collins continued in 2016. “In fact many Asian American[s] actively promote these myths. They use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead’.”
Collins also wrote “Where are the vocal Asians speaking up against Trump? Don’t Asian Americans know they are on his list as well?”
And, for her crescendo, she tweeted, “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.’”
Jenny Lam, the only Chinese American school board member in San Francisco’s heavily Asian school district, told me she felt the tweets played into generalizations that “for a group of people, Asian Americans, if you want to get ahead, you’re supporting white supremacy.”
Norman Yee, a former president of both the Board of Supervisors and Board of Education, felt that Collins’ call-out of Asians for not being vocal played into longstanding stereotypes of Asians as docile and passive. “None of us spoke out against Trump? This is bullshit.”
Other Asian American San Franciscans — elected leaders, political activists, regular folks, twentysomethings, thirtysomethings, fortysomethings, seventysomethings, all politically liberal — expressed a wide array of disappointment and pain.
If the problem is white supremacy and white supremacist systems, several said, why level so much blame on Asians? Why refer to Asian Americans as if the community is monolithic? And if you’re going to use the term “house n****r” to refer to Asians — why have an Asian name in your Twitter bio?
(Collins’ Chinese name, 高勵思, is pronounced in Cantonese as “Go Lai Si.” The first character, which is an actual Chinese last name, translates as “tall” or “high.” The second translates as “to encourage.” The last means “to think.” These are all words and notions that would figure to appeal to Asian voters looking at Board of Education candidates. What’s more, casual monolingual Chinese voters would not be able to distinguish this strategically appealing, manufactured name from a Chinese candidate’s actual name. In 2019, non-Chinese candidates were barred from crafting non-phonetic translations of their names).
The atmosphere in December 2016 was not the same as it is in March 2021. Asian Americans were indeed on Trump’s list. Collins’ tweets hit the mainstream at the height of a wave of anti-Asian hate crimes, presumably fueled by use of terms such as “Kung Flu” and “Chinese Flu” by Trump and his gang.
Asian Americans in San Francisco, even those inclined to support Collins — or at least elements of her worldview — would never be a less charitable audience.
And Collins soon gave them little reason to be.
Alison Collins did not return our calls or texts. This is an experience we share with a number of prominent San Francisco leaders, including Asian Americans who had supported Collins in 2018.
Those who did speak with Collins told me the calls were one-sided and defensive — and they were confused why they had to reach out to Collins and not vice-versa. Lam says she was not inclined to advocate for Collins’ resignation until after their phone conversation ended. Lam says Collins was unapologetic and that “voices were raised.”
And this is where things went off the rails.
Left-leaning San Francisco politicians calling for Collins’ resignation — both Asian and not Asian — know the score. Web partisans unearthed some low-hanging fruit, the mainstream media picked up the story, and Collins was quickly irradiated and weaponized.
“We all got played here,” one tells me. “But how can we as Asian leaders defend her when she doesn’t give us anything? We can’t make her be contrite.”
Collins, who was a private citizen in 2016, is entitled to think what she thinks and write what she writes. But, regardless of the political intentions of the Lowell partisans and recall folks who got this ball rolling — there are plenty of awkward-at-best comments about Black people to be found on the Internet, and the married couple pushing the Board of Education recall went on race-bating conspiracy-theorist Glenn Beck’s program — the tweets say what they say.
And, regardless of newspapers blithely using the term “racist tweets” — reductively transforming a complicated situation into a simple one, applying a metaphorical scarlet letter and minimizing the very real problems of systemic anti-Blackness — the tweets say what they say.
For Collins not to acknowledge why so many Asian Americans, including former allies and endorsers, would react so strongly, for her not to pick up on the raw pain Asian Americans are feeling now — this is more than a political miscalculation. It reveals an inability to listen and a lack of judgment and empathy.
But it was also a political miscalculation. And that’s why every last vestige of San Francisco government is now calling for Collins to step down. Because even her ideological allies see where this could go: This could be the French Laundry moment for the nascent recall attempt of Collins and fellow commissioners Faauuga Moliga and Gabriela López. Failure to fall into line and call for Collins to go could be weaponized further against an elected official, as it was in the case of Ross Mirkarimi. This has become a litmus test of sorts.
Oh, the places this could go.
So, the uniformity here is not surprising. These tweets do not read well. Collins’ response may have been an even greater disaster. It’s hard to imagine any elected official or city leader expending political capital and jumping in front of a bullet in an attempt to nuance this — especially when Collins has been part of a Board of Education that has embarrassed the city and enraged many of San Francisco’s highest-propensity voters.
“So we’re doing the exact opposite of what she said we do,” said Yee, the primary author of the letter that was signed onto by much of San Francisco’s past and present Asian American (and not Asian American) leadership.
“We’re using our voices.”