No decent person is defending mayoral school board appointee Ann Hsu’s comments on race. So, don’t feel the need. She certainly doesn’t; she’s apologized, and her supporters claim she’s off on a grand apology tour.
It has, thus far, been the Ford Pinto of apology tours; the NAACP, on July 22, met with Hsu in person and then proceeded to vote, 105-0, to call on her to resign from the school board. Last week, the local Democratic Party followed suit.
Hsu did not return our many calls to multiple phone numbers.
Ethically, if not always strategically, it’s good to apologize after you’ve said or done something indefensible. But the act of apologizing, in and of itself, does not earn one absolution. The NAACP members I spoke with appreciated Hsu’s acknowledgement of wrongdoing and her pledge to improve herself. But they would appreciate her doing this while not serving on the oversight board of a school district that is plurality Black and Latinx.
So, that’s where we are.
But first, the specifics. Question No. 5 on a San Francisco Parent Action form for Board of Education candidates running in November’s election asked “How can SFUSD increase academic outcomes for the most marginalized students?” Hsu answered:
From my very limited exposure in the past four months to the challenges of educating marginalized students especially in the black and brown community, I see one of the biggest challenges as being the lack of family support for those students. Unstable family environments caused by housing and food insecurity along with lack of parental encouragement to focus on learning cause children to not be able to focus on or value learning.
It warrants mentioning that this is not some sort of gotcha question, and San Francisco Parent Action is not an adversarial entity. Nobody is taking Hsu’s response out of context. And that response — which Hsu either penned or allowed to be penned in her name — was deliberative. It was written out and submitted.
So, we can all acknowledge the longstanding statistical measures outlining disparate outcomes for this city’s white and Asian public school students and their Black and Latinx counterparts. But it’s a hell of a thing to, unprompted, say the “biggest challenges” for Black and brown children are “lack of family support” and “lack of parental encouragement to focus on learning.”
In essence, this is pinning Black and Latinx students’ poorer outcomes on bad parenting. This is putting the onus back on the students and their families. This is stating that Black and Latinx parents don’t care about their children.
Politics runs in the water in San Francisco like fluoride. Fluoride, in minute quantities, keeps your teeth from rotting. Too much, however, is poison — and kinda melts your face. That feels like San Francisco. In L’affaire Hsu, the moral and the political are crashing headlong into one another. And, of course, the political is given deference.
Regardless of Hsu’s suitability for the post, or the school board’s ability to handle issues of race and equity with her on it, it would not be a good look for Mayor London Breed to — for the second time — call for the ouster of one of her own recent Board of Education appointees. It is not a good look that Breed’s ostensibly vetted recent appointee, Hsu, thinks these things, let alone says these things, let alone writes these things down. And it was out-and-out political malpractice for Hsu’s candidate statement to either go unread by a consultant/mayoral minder — or slip past one.
So, Breed has no desire to alienate Hsu’s vocal supporters. That would be Asian Americans, but not just Asian Americans: There is a sizable contingent of San Franciscans who, if informed that a nuclear missile was headed our way that would reduce the city to a glowing pile of rubble, would exclaim, “How will this affect the re-institution of merit-based admissions at Lowell?”
The mayor, apparently, would rather have them with her than against her.
Those voters, in February, overwhelmingly recalled commissioners Alison Collins, Gabriela López and (Breed appointee) Faauuga Moliga. They were incensed about the Board of Education opting to strip the names of figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Paul Revere off schools that were locked and devoid of students, and undoing Lowell High School’s admissions policy in a process so clumsy it violated open meeting laws.
But, perhaps most damaging of all was the unearthing of years-old tweets in which Collins accused “many Asian-Americans” of “using white supremacist thinking to get ahead … 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 refused to show any contrition for these statements, and rebuffed the entreaties of her Asian American allies and endorsers. She also rebuffed calls from virtually every political figure in San Francisco to resign, and instead filed a surreal lawsuit against the district and her Board of Education colleagues for $87 million. She did not win. She did not place or show, either. She instead served as the catalyst for the recall movement. And Ann Hsu was a major player in that movement.
Well, what a predicament: The African American Collins’ insults of Asian Americans in part spurred Hsu and other Asian Americans to recall her — and, once installed, Hsu has insulted African Americans.
And this is the very scenario pro-recall elements and the mayor cheerleading it pledged would not happen. This Board of Education was supposed to be focusing on education; Hsu et al. were supposed to make the school board boring again.
If Hsu declines to step down, and there is no reason to predict she’s going anywhere, no matter who asks her to resign, her divisive statements will be the overwhelming focus of attention and rancor leading up to November’s election, to the detriment of actual discussions about the quality of our schools and the role of the Board of Education (and, for that matter, honest discussions about race).
That’s why fellow mayoral appointees Lainie Motamedi and Lisa Weissman-Ward abruptly ruptured their slate campaign with Hsu. A burgeoning chorus has called for Hsu to step down: The NAACP, a growing number of elected officials and Democratic clubs, the San Francisco Democratic Party.
Hsu will have to find a way to win a citywide, high-turnout election without support from the local Democratic Party or both of this city’s LGBTQ Democratic clubs, and District 8, which includes the Castro, is the city’s most reliable high-turnout area.
This massive, unforced error has provided any nascent political opponents with a bevy of hand- and footholds to scale what was previously a sheer cliff. By focusing all of their political fire on Hsu (and perhaps ignoring Motamedi and Weissman-Ward) the teachers’ union or any other motivated foes of de-facto mayoral control of the school board can flip the balance.
They only need to win one of the three contested seats to wrest control away from Breed. That seems a lot more doable now, especially as Hsu, somewhat inexplicably, embraces polarizing political figures like Leanna Louie and Josephine Zhao. The latter has behaved as Hsu’s surrogate and accompanied her to the NAACP meeting. Multiple attendees at that meeting say Zhao talked so much that she had to be told to let Hsu speak for herself.
The Board of Education serves as something of San Francisco’s political triple-A team. Hsu is seen as a politician who could matriculate from the school board; in two years, she could give District 1 supervisor Connie Chan a run for her money in the now more moderate-friendly D1 (a district that happens to be 44.5 percent Asian and 1.6 percent Black).
Hsu said what she said, but make no mistake; much of the agitation both for and against her is driven by her potential to ascend the city’s political ladder.
This dispiriting mess is part and parcel of a mayor’s office that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis and has repeatedly allowed its appointees to be needlessly buffeted. The process for determining mayoral appointees in this town feels more akin to The Bachelor than functional government.
District 6 supervisorial appointee Matt Dorsey is an intelligent and shrewd political veteran, but the mayor’s office dropped him into a situation where he had to languish without a proper staff for weeks and weeks, and lashed him to political positions that put a target on his back from organized labor.
Hsu was allowed to, in one neat move, implode the entire strategy of running an organized slate of back-to-business, subject-matter-focused public school moms for the Board of Education.
And, even though the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin was, for months, a foregone conclusion, Brooke Jenkins was given scarcely 24 hours’ notice that the job was hers. The mayor’s office then compounded that by overtly sending a staffer into meetings alongside Jenkins at the DA’s office and micromanaging elements of the independent prosecutor’s office down to the text and layout of her business cards.
As of Friday, meanwhile, the “About us” link on the DA’s website was dead, and the careers section still stated that “our team is led by DA Chesa Boudin.” The “latest news” was Boudin suing scofflaw fishermen. Evidently nothing newsworthy transpired at the DA’s office in June or July.
When it comes to its beleaguered appointees, this mayor’s office has been remarkably hands-on where it should be hands-off, and hands-off where it should be hands-on.
It remains to be seen how voters handle all of this. Regardless, perhaps Hsu could start by telling her supporters to stop defending the indefensible. Perhaps that would be the “teachable moment” we keep hearing about.