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Black City Workers Tackle Systemic Racism

Nuala Sawyer Bishari

Nov 30, 2018

Even the city’s director of Human Resources says ‘it’s clear there’s a significant problem’ with racism inside city departments.

“We do not only have an issue of systemic racism, it’s an issue of a culture of anti-Blackness that this country was founded on,” says Dante King, who works in the San Francisco Department of Human Resources. “Those issues persist. The total experience of African-American people was created, maintained, controlled by white people, and that continues today. They are the ones that decide to open doors for people of color.”

All 11 of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors sat through a three-hour hearing Tuesday on racism within the ranks of city government. Dozens of African-American city employees took the stand to share their experiences of being skipped over for promotions, given lower pay than white colleagues, and kept in roles far below their abilities, sometimes for years.

Joe Bryant, vice president of the SEIU 1021, which represents thousands of people employed by the city, says that the type of racism commonly experienced by Blacks in San Francisco is subtle, which in many ways is more destructive than obvious prejudice because it’s harder to identify and call out.

“Racism in San Francisco is different than the racism we see in Mississippi,” he says. “It may be a little different than the racism we see in Alabama. But the racism is here. It’s clear, it’s present, and it’s upon us all the time. It’s a sophisticated discrimination that takes place, and in some ways, that’s almost worse.”

As the racism appears to be far more systematic and subtle than, say, using a racial slur, it’s a gargantuan task to identify and eliminate racial prejudice at every level of every department. And yet this isn’t an issue that affects a small number of people. Even as the number of Black residents drops citywide — in 2017, it was calculated to be at 5 percent, compared to 13 percent at its peak in 1970 — the City and County of San Francisco continues to be the largest local employer for African-Americans, with approximately 5,400 Black people on the payroll.

Little data is available to prove racism exists, but SEIU 1021 has dug up some. The union reviewed 277 cases of workplace violations filed by city managers in a single year; of those, 36 percent of employees cited were African-American, despite being only 15 percent of the city’s workforce. And in a study of its Black union members, SEIU 1021 found that only 3 percent held jobs in the highest tier of a given pay category. The highest average salary Black city workers earn is $67,816, less than half of white city workers’ $150,165.

Sheryl Thornton, an employee at the Potrero Hill Health Center, says she’s been trying to improve her lot in life for decades.

“I played by the rules. I acquired my necessary credentials, and sat for numerous exams, and even scored in the top five,” she says. “Yet despite my efforts to progress in my career I have held the same position since 1995.”

“We believe that stagnation of the leadership of the top of human resources is a major contributor to this problem,” says Department of Public Health employee Brenda Barros, no doubt in reference to Human Resources Director Micki Callahan’s 11-year reign. “We believe that based on the fact that all executive administration in Human Resources are white is a major contributor to the lack of accountability in issues of bias.”

On Tuesday, Callahan personally faced the anger and frustration from Black city employees and supervisors. She gracefully handled questions thrown her way by Board President Malia Cohen, citing the department’s merit-based hiring practices, implicit-bias training efforts, and openness to hiring employees with criminal records.

But some of Callahan’s statements — such as “we really don’t track bullying, because it’s kind of an amorphous claim” — drew hisses from the audience.

Nevertheless the stories appear to have hit home. Callahan says that she was “disturbed and upset” by some of the things that she heard.

“It’s clear that there’s a significant problem, and the city should do more,” she admits.

Cohen, who attended a press conference held by SEIU 1021 before the hearing, clearly sided with the workers. But she kept the hearing on track and solution-oriented.

“It seems like we need to do a better job of keeping track of numbers,” Cohen told Callahan. “It seems very ambiguous, and my concern is that the system seems very subjective. As of right now, we just don’t know, and that concerns me.”

In the end, the three-hour hearing concluded with several clear action items. Starting on Jan. 1, 2019, the Human Resources department will institute a centralized hub for managers to file disciplinary notes and performance improvement plans. This will bring added oversight into each case and will be used as a tool to quantify racist practices. The first six months of data will be released in a report to the Board of Supervisors.

In addition, the Department will hire two full-time employees to focus on diversity recruitment, and all city employees will soon be required to take biannual harassment prevention training.

“It’s a combination of policy changes, administrative tools, and training because any one of those is not enough,” Callahan says. “It’s our responsibility to try to figure out what’s going on.”

Sup. Sandra Lee Fewer is already looking ahead. “It doesn’t go far enough to just talk about the workplace,” she says. “The data is so important to collect about so many other issues. I believe that ethnic and racial diversity is something San Francisco has prided itself on, but when we see an African-American population that is less than 5 percent of our city, it is an indication that that data should have been collected years ago.”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. | @TheBestNuala

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