I’ve begun to worry that San Francisco is slipping back into the past.
If you’re not from here, you might not notice it amid the sparkle of new office towers, the pageant of initial public offerings and the people wearing glasses that can also make phone calls and tell you the euro-dollar exchange rate.
But there’s a current in this city, pushing backwards. It’s in front of my local supermarket, where someone has stenciled, “Yuppie Scum F--- Off.” It’s in the posters near my office that juxtapose Google and Twitter logos with the words “Invasive Species,” “Tech Is Not Culture” and “Invasion, Colonization, Innovation.” It’s in the voice of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, our civic poet, mourning the arrival of a “soulless group of people” who threaten to trample our local culture underfoot.
This rhetoric has a historical ring. Growing up in San Francisco as a third-generation Chinese-American, I learned about the city’s uneasy relationship with new arrivals. In school, we studied the Chinese Exclusion Act and the violent protests against Chinese communities. I remember textbook examples of anti-immigrant propaganda, with their language of invasion and culture-at-stake.
But as schoolchildren, we learned that this history was behind us. If the past was about exclusion and distrust, then the present was about coexistence and community. Our nativist history was a lesson that taught us to be better citizens today — people who recognize newcomers as heroes in our civic narrative and as fundamental contributors to our community. We were taught that San Francisco is a great city because it does not turn people away.
This idealized narrative meant a lot to me, because my family’s immigrant experience largely bears it out. When my great grandfather emigrated from China a century ago, racist laws kept him from owning the Central Valley farmland he cultivated. Decades later, my grandfather bought a house in a white neighborhood at San Francisco’s southern edge, where my father was terrorized by schoolyard bullies who threw punches and slurs.
But by the time I went to school, my classmates were Chinese, Guatemalan and Lebanese. It was easy to believe that we had realized the ideals of tolerance and pluralism, and that our commitment to those virtues was unshakable.
Today, I’m not so sure. At the software company where I work, I see immigrants every day. My colleagues come from Canada, Singapore, Venezuela and across the United States. Yet the posture of many San Franciscans toward them and others like them has been hostile. The spray-painted sidewalks are hard to miss. Attacks against Google’s commuter shuttles — smashed windows and slashed tires — have made national news. More recently, protesters have targeted the homes of technology employees themselves.
The violence and rhetoric feels regressive, like a step back into our city’s history that clashes with our contemporary ideals of civic inclusiveness. It’s true that the immigrants of the technology community are richer, whiter and better educated than those who came before, but inclusiveness, by its terms, requires us to resist the urge to choose which newcomers to admit based on their backgrounds.
By now, San Francisco’s inclusive ideals have pride of place in my identity, so I can’t help but wonder why my city is turning against our latest population of recent arrivals: What are the protests against technology workers actually about?