What Happens When Angry Asian American Parents Get Organized
Our anxiety over the upcoming midterm and presidential elections has turned every vote, however local and peculiar, into a referendum on the future of the nation. Take last November’s governor’s race in Virginia. After the results came in for the Republican, Glenn Youngkin, hundreds of column inches were dedicated to how the result reflected a growing discontent among normally liberal voters about Covid school closures and critical race theory being taught in schools. This may have been the story of that particular election, but so many people seemed convinced that it was conclusive proof that Democrats had turned against their own party for good and would be summarily be sweeping progressives out of office in 2022 and 2024.
I am not immune to this style of political fortune telling, but what’s more interesting to me is what actually drives these predictions of doom for Democrats. Two assumptions seem to be lurking somewhere underneath the surface.
The first: School closures irreparably harmed the Democratic Party.
The second: There is a backlash against diversity and equity measures, many of which were established after the nationwide George Floyd protests.
So on Tuesday, when the deep blue city of San Francisco recalled three ultraprogressive, equity-focused members of the school board, ousting them in stunning three-to-one votes, what are we to make of it? Is it a harbinger of coming catastrophe for Democrats? Or are we dealing with a local election with local concerns?
Was the recall the result of parents who were frustrated by the extended closures of schools even when the city had low coronavirus positivity and death rates? At times, the board members had seemed more concerned with renaming schools, including one named after Abraham Lincoln, than with figuring out a plan to reopen.
Should the blame be placed on the board’s decision to change the admission policy at the elite Lowell High School from merit-based to lottery?
Or is Alison Collins, the most controversial of the three school board officials who were forced out, the reason for it all? The wife of a wealthy real estate developer, she was responsible for much-publicized and seemingly anti-Asian tweets, followed by an absurd $87 million lawsuit against the city, the school district and her fellow school board members.
If you connect any one of these factors with the landslide results, you can construct various narratives about the failure of the Democratic Party — overzealous Covid restrictions, out-of-control wokeness or being oblivious to an angry class of parents who just want their kids to be able to work hard and succeed.
The school board vote reflects all of these things, of course, but not in equal proportion. Parents may have been impatient with the length of the school closures, and many may point to the strangeness of the board’s obsession with renaming schools while students were sitting at home, but the Bay Area shut down earlier than most parts of the country, and many residents here are proud of the region’s relatively low Covid toll. Attitudes about closures have changed, but this isn’t a city that’s exactly bursting with anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown sentiment.
That hasn’t stopped some pundits from declaring that the recall signals the end of all progressive politics, especially in places that had extended school closures. A Republican lawmaker on Fox News declared that the results signaled a coming “red wave” in the midterms. This doesn’t mean that the shuttering of schools had no effect on the vote — I’m quite certain it had a large role — but it doesn’t seem to have been the catalyst. A recall requires people to go out and get signatures, file motions and keep up a lengthy campaign. Do we really believe that San Francisco, of all places, became so radicalized against school closures that they triggered the recall in the early months of 2021?
What’s far more likely — and supported by the voting data — is that the recall was mostly brought about by a coalition of parents who were mad about the changes at Lowell. On Feb. 2, 2021, members of the school board put forth a resolution to end test-based admissions at the school permanently and to use instead the district’s standard lottery system as a way to diversify the mostly white and Asian student body. On Feb. 9 the school board voted 5 to 2 to adopt the resolution. Ten days later, two parents began the campaign to recall the three school board members.
The vote capped a year of organizing by a mostly Asian American bloc of parents and citizens. Investors provided much of the campaign’s funding. The large amount — over $2 million in total — has raised questions about whether the effort was just an attempt by Silicon Valley and Wall Street to beat back equity efforts in public schools.
But this sort of dismissal belies the actual organizing that went into the effort and the work of hundreds of volunteers who collected signatures for the recall election throughout the city. It also ignores relatively high turnout rates in Asian neighborhoods and the overwhelming majority of those residents who voted to recall.
As a resident of the Bay Area, I first came across these activists last year while waiting in line outside H Mart, a Korean grocery chain whose San Francisco location is in the southern part of the city. I go to H Mart quite regularly, and for months, nearly every time I went, I would see the same people — mostly elderly Chinese American men and women — standing out front with their fliers and petitions. Asian Americans who normally might not have been involved in the political process started standing in front of restaurants and on corners to collect signatures. This was true in Asian and even non-Asian neighborhoods throughout the city.
They reminded me of the efforts of Richard Close, who, before his recent death, was the president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association in Los Angeles. I wrote about his grass-roots successes in an earlier edition of the newsletter. He was behind monumental changes to California’s landscape, including Proposition 13, the landmark property tax bill, which may very well be the most consequential law on the state books.
Throughout his career, progressives dismissed Close’s activism and his remarkable organizing skills. Instead, they pointed to the fact that he represented a largely wealthy and white constituency and suggested that he had somehow used his power and influence to get undemocratic results. This may have been true, but he had a talent for collecting converts in grocery store parking lots and strip malls, building voting blocs that showed up to every seemingly unimportant election.
The activists behind the recall effort in San Francisco may not have known who Close was, but they seem to have followed his playbook of organizing within neighborhoods, flexing voting power in low-turnout elections and putting together a platform based entirely on self-interest.
Along the way, they picked up important political endorsements — Mayor London Breed and State Senator Scott Wiener supported the recall (Wiener announced his support the day after Youngkin won in Virginia) — and built connections with existing community groups. Before long, they had a full-fledged political coalition that took down three members of a local school board.
If you want another example of what a group like this can do, consider the leaders of the Asian American organizations that allied with the conservative legal activist Edward Blum to sue Harvard over affirmative action. The case, now before the Supreme Court, will likely bring about an end to race-based college admissions throughout the country. The origins of this group don’t lie in Republican dark money or disinformation campaigns. Instead, they first organized in 2013 because they wanted to protest what they felt was a racist sketch on the Jimmy Kimmel show. They got Kimmel to apologize and moved on to fight affirmative action in California before turning their attention to Harvard and the Supreme Court.
When all the narratives about the recall of the three board members and what it means for Democrats wind to their end, that foundation of organized Asian Americans will still be there. In San Francisco they provided a glimpse of reality amid all the theorizing on wokeness, Covid fatigue and red waves in the midterms and beyond. It’s hard to imagine that any result in a blue city within a blue state will tell us all that much about what’s coming in 2022 or 2024; not all politics take place on such grand, national stages. A lot of times, it’s just angry citizens organizing out of pure self-interest — in this case in opposition to equity efforts at a magnet school — and then drawing in others who might be mad at the same people about Covid closures, school renamings or whatever else. The San Francisco outcome should remind us that politics is still local.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”