Joseph Blue has lived in San Francisco for 20 years and toughed out the drastic decline in its black population, a phenomenon that persists despite being recognized for decades as a problem.
Neighborhoods that once thrived with African American culture and black-owned businesses have all but disappeared.
“San Francisco no longer has a viable black community,” said Blue, an African American who lives in the Western Addition. “The middle class is gone, and what we have left is underprivileged, uneducated, poor black folks.”
San Francisco officials are now calling the thousands of black people who have moved away “the African American diaspora,” and the mayor’s office is putting together a task force to figure out what can be done to preserve the remaining black population and cultivate new residents.
San Francisco’s black population has dropped from 96,000or 13.4 percent of the cityin 1970 to an estimated 47,000 in 2005, about 6.5 percent of city residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. African Americans make up about 12.1 percent of the nation’s population overall.
“The decline is phenomenal,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California.
San Francisco is not alone. From 1995 to 2000, Oakland and neighborhoods of Los Angeles lost tens of thousands of black residents. Not one West Coast city made a list of the nation’s top cities for African Americans compiled last year by Black Enterprise magazine based on income potential, the cost of living, proximity to employers and housing costs. Most are in the South and mostcoincidentally or nothave black mayors.
“We don’t even have any black leaders,” said Blue, who unsuccessfully ran for supervisor in 2004. “When I moved here, there was a vibrant and enthusiastic black culture that brought its own ethnic mix and vitality. Now, the culture and the political influence have evaporated. The population is so low that it is beyond saving.”
But Seattle and San Diego, which have reputations for being predominately white, had higher percentages of African Americans than San Francisco in 2005, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In fact, San Francisco has the lowest proportion of black residents of any large city in the United States.
Though San Francisco is still often seen as diverse, it was 53 percent white and 33.5 percent Asian in 2005, with Chinese Americans accounting for about two-thirds of Asian residents.
Oakland and other older cities have seen similar shifts. Oakland’s population went from 46.9 percent black in 1980when its proportion of African American residents peakedto 35.7 percent in 2000, according to census counts. The Census Bureau estimates that black people made up between 29 percent and 33.2 percent of Oakland residents in mid-2005.
Johnson, the demographer, said many African Americans leave San Francisco for outlying suburbs when they have the means, just like members of other racial groups, in search of more of the trappings of middle-class life. Although it is virtually impossible to track where people go, he said it is safe to say that Bay Area cities with growing black populations are seeing those gains because of San Francisco’s loss.
Most are in the East Bay and North Bay. Vallejo’s black population has doubled since 1980 to 26.8 percent. In Pittsburg, the number of African Americans jumped to 19 percent in 2005. Suisun City is 19.3 percent black, and San Leandro’s black population went from 1 percent in 1980 to 12.2 percent in 2005 as the small East Bay city grew 21.3 percent overall.
“This is a concern because this city values having a diverse population,” said Greg Wagner, a program director at SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “But even if you can identify the causes, it is hard to know what you would do to stop it. It is economics combined with cultural things that are tough to sort out. There are restrictions in this state about what you can do that is racially based.”