George Gascón, the San Francisco police chief, announced last week the emergency deployment of 32 additional beat officers to the Bayview-Visitación Valley neighborhood. Although “crime numbers have not gone up,” Chief Gascón said in an interview, he wanted to address the “tremendous amount of fear and apprehension” among Asians.
It is these historically black neighborhoods in southeast San Francisco that have undergone the sharpest demographic changes in the city in the past 20 years. Decades after Koreans transformed the Fillmore district from what it once was — the “Harlem of the West,” its blocks lined by the swaggering, smoky haunts of jazz lore — Chinese started moving to the Bayview in large numbers.
Community leaders predict that the 2010 census will show the Asian population, almost all Chinese, now making up 40 percent of the Bayview’s residents and as many as 60 percent of Visitación Valley’s.
“At one point, one group may emerge because they’ve got greater population and another group feels pushed out — feels like they don’t have any voice anymore,” said the Rev. A. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church. “It involves a kind of power shift. That, of course, creates some of the tension.”
The rapidly deteriorating climate has alarmed local leaders. The president of the Board of Supervisors, David Chiu, noted that on Wednesday, hundreds of Chinese lined up at a board meeting to tell stories of assaults and intimidation, sometimes without clear motivation, by young African-Americans.
Two days later, a young black man, Amanze Emenike, 21, said he was 12 when he heard older boys talking about why they singled out Asian and Latino immigrants: they would not report the crime and had no gangs to back them up. On Friday morning, on a Hunters Point hilltop with a breathtaking view of the Bay, Mr. Emenike and his sister, Sherry Blunt, 22, recounted their “spree” of crime against Asian and Latino immigrants several years ago.
By the time he was 15, Mr. Emenike said, he and his brother, Armani Bolmer, would get up at 5 a.m. to rob Mexican day laborers who got off the 23 Monterey bus from the Mission district.
They began to single out Chinese, he said, because they had more money. In 2006, they stalked a Chinese man at the last Muni stop, robbed him, and were arrested hours later.
But at these Chinese rallies and vigils, beneath the megaphone-amplified din of positive rhetoric, there are worrying murmurs about revenge, said Henry Der, who was the executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, an influential Chinatown organization, for more than two decades.
“I’m getting e-mails saying, ‘We need to retaliate, it’s time we pick up arms,’ ”Mr. Der said. “And these are from grown, supposedly responsible adults.”
At such a fraught time, leaders like Ms. Tan say they must tread a narrow path between irresponsibly amplifying racial tensions and dishonestly ignoring them.
Part of the frustration, some say, is fueled precisely by the reluctance — both among Chinese and among San Franciscans generally — to discuss such issues.
“Because San Francisco sees itself as very progressive, people just don’t want to talk about these issues,” Mr. Der said. “But that’s how people feel about it. You can’t argue it away.”
Mr. Emenike and his sister, Ms. Blunt, said the teenagers involved in the recent attacks were following in his footsteps, as he had followed older boys.
“It’s not ‘this is an Asian person let’s get him,’ ” Mr. Emenike said. “It’s we thinking, ‘this Asian person is probably carrying a large amount of money. And this is our neighborhood, this is our home, why not?’ ”
But if the motivations were largely strategic, and not out of unadulterated racial hatred, they were also influenced by complex emotions and a wariness of change.
“I wake up and I’m hungry, my stomach growling,” Ms. Blunt said. “Why am I just getting by when there’s this Asian walking out of the house with a laptop going to the cafe?”
There is also the frustration at perceived prejudice by Asians. Ms. Blunt still recalls a Chinese classmate in junior high ignoring her requests to borrow a pencil.
“You approach them, and they just keep giving you the cold shoulder,” Ms. Blunt said.
Emenike and Blunt are both to be commended for their candor. At the same time, it is counterproductive for both sides to downplay the role that historical racial tensions have played. In any case, Emenike's essay can be found here.