Black success begins at City College of San Francisco

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by Lance Burton, Planet Fillmore Communications

At one time, San Francisco was a fairly quiet town. Aside from the bustle of longshoreman, ships and trains, Fisherman’s Wharf seemed but a little fishing village. That was long before throngs of visitors, coming to gaze out at Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge or take a ride down Lombard Street, made San Francisco a tourism mecca.

Computer-class-City-College-Southeast-Campus-by-Lance-Burton-Planet-Fillmore-Communications-300x200, Black success begins at City College of San Francisco, Local News & Views
The future is bright for students in the computer classes at City College’s Southeast Campus, 1800 Oakdale Ave., in Bayview Hunters Point. Register now! – Photo: Lance Burton, Planet Fillmore Communications

Back then, most of the City’s music and entertainment scene complemented tourism and was contained mostly in North Beach, the Tenderloin, Fillmore and a few small clubs along Third Street. Blacks were an integral part of that music and entertainment scene, which had begun as early as the late 1800s. The era made riches for many Black people.

Today, there’s music, entertainment and tourism everywhere you turn. But now, Blacks play a very limited role within that entertainment “scene.” What happened?

Founded in 1935, just before the 1942 mass migration of African Americans arrived in San Francisco, City College of San Francisco had been established as a way to get ahead in business, health care and hospitality. That was long before the great construction boom produced the highrises where much of today’s business and technology workforce is employed today.

Those were the days when the world knew little about portable phones and music beats in one’s pocket. During those early years of post WWII, City College of San Francisco was open to all without charge. Many African Americans took full advantage of this virtually free pathway toward a degree leading to social and economic success – a pathway that had been largely unavailable to Blacks in the South, where most new arrivals to San Francisco had started out.

By the late 1940s, after the war, virtually every young Black youth in San Francisco had a chance to attend City College, for free. We now need another generation of K-12 Black students to gain that chance. Now, the challenge for an entire community of Black people is how to ignite the interest of young Blacks to compete for the education they need – as Malcolm X once stated, “by any means necessary.”

Aaron is one of those young students. At his grandma’s house, there was always an energetic discussion at the kitchen table over whether young Black people should move on to higher education or move into a trade just after leaving high school. Which was the better option?

The discussion would come up because there hadn’t been much success within the family with getting into college during previous generations. The family had come from the South during the era when Blacks were moving out of sharecropping and into the industries of the North and Midwest.

Good jobs had been plentiful in the Midwest auto industry during the ‘40s through ‘60s. All the relatives back there seemed to be doing very well. Some were involved with technology connected with the automotive industry. Many got by without degrees.

By the late 1940s, after the war, virtually every young Black youth in San Francisco had a chance to attend City College, for free. We now need another generation of K-12 Black students to gain that chance.

So is there a need for a degree? “Not everyone is cut out for a degree” is the way one argument went. Aaron’s grandmother disagreed. “We fought and spilled blood to gain these opportunities!” she exclaimed. “Don’t mess it up!”

It’s 2014. Grandma’s kitchen table discussion is now focused on the threat of being pushed out of the neighborhood as college degreed technologists and technology money have cut a wide swath across the Bay Area landscape. In San Francisco, the firms are hiring everyone from everywhere except Black Americans from Hunters Point, Bayview and the Fillmore.

Aaron is the fifth generation eighth grade San Franciscan sitting at his grandma’s table, listening. Grandma tells how Aaron’s paternal great-great-granddad had been discharged from the Navy at Mare Island near San Francisco after World War II. He had had a great life and done financially well as the war made San Francisco a center of military activity and action during the ‘40s and ‘50s.

He’d found work as a skycap at the growing San Francisco Airport. She went on to explain how Aaron’s great granddad had gone back South during the ‘60s to work as a truck driver since work on the San Francisco waterfront had dried up once the City’s port system shut down.

The years passed and saw the 1970s through ‘80s rise with jobs in the construction trades. Grandma went on to share how many men, including his granddad, did very well as the San Francisco construction industry blossomed with the phasing in of new highrise corporate structures – 54 stories for Bank of America, a pyramid tower for TransAmerica, a jukebox-style skyscraper for the Marriott Corp.

Reach for the sky seemed the mission in the growing little port city of San Francisco. However, the blue collar labor world was changing to a global formula, which meant jobs were moving overseas to find less expensive labor and, indeed, more obedient labor. Something called digital technology turned the idea of computers and robotics taking people’s jobs into reality.

Robots don’t talk back, get sick, ask for raises or need employee benefits. Over time, the robots and computers would pencil out to be less expensive to support than minimum wage workers. Never mind these men and women had fought hard to get good wages and benefits as members of unions over many decades.

Aaron’s dad had earned a BA degree and was having some success at working in the technology arena. He was a proponent of W.E.B. DuBois’ argument for Black leadership – calling himself part of the “talented tenth,” having gained a degree. He emphasized DuBois’ notion that leadership requires not only “higher learning” but also agitating for others to achieve social and economic success.

Aaron’s dad knew that as a Black man in San Francisco, it is important to challenge this current system. Our conditions call for new approaches, new solutions and different ways of thinking to succeed in this global marketplace: more knowledge, more understanding, more collaboration, more education.

Seventy years earlier, WWII provided many Black men with experience that could be considered a higher education. Later, the Vietnam War would qualify many young Black men for a college degree paid by the GI Bill. Between the two wars, the Civil Rights struggle and the call for equal rights highlighted the need for an education.

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City College Southeast Campus, 1800 Oakdale

The short-lived affirmative action policies in college admissions gave Black people a new chance at upward mobility. One might have thought adding well educated Black people to the new U.S. industrial complex would do wonders for the strength and character of the country. But the ‘80s saw a downturn in middle class opportunities and the ‘90s the demise of many labor jobs. Now, all too often, a poor education leads to a term in the prison industrial complex.

At the turn of the 21st century, startup technologies began to change industry, but the Black community was left behind in what’s called the “digital divide.” All the while, Black enrollment has dropped at educational institutions around the country.

Here in San Francisco, the writing on the wall reflects fewer Black high school graduates and rapidly falling admission rates of Blacks into colleges and universities. Two generations of young African Americans have lost ground despite the sizzling hot job market created by digital media and the startup technologies that support them.

Now, more than 100 years after the DuBois vs. Booker T. Washington great debate over how Black people could rescue themselves from overwhelming poverty and inequitable social and economic opportunities, comes the question, what do we do next? A new generation of young people must find a way to break the cycle of exclusion from the current wealth transfer, which has left many Black families struggling to build or rebuild wealth and feel included in an America Black people helped create.

Maybe it doesn’t seem clear to most African Americans that somehow science, technology, energy and mathematics must be embraced. These disciplines must be embraced by young African Americans as a way to keep up with where the global economy is headed.

The questions looms: What wisdom would DuBois or Washington use to create massive opportunity in San Francisco’s changing employment climate for Black people? How would Malcolm X encourage the African American community to regain an economic foothold that sustains their health, wealth, housing and children’s opportunity for the future?

There is a need for smarter men and women to program and control the new digital instruments and tools. African Americans are not unfamiliar with new technology. A bit of research shows that many of the roots of technology come from the work of Black people. Today, one needs only a degree from a certified institution to leap right into this new, burgeoning industry.

However, since the ‘90s, the cost and requirements to gain this degree have risen dramatically year after year, causing some parents of this “Baby on Board” generation to fear poverty if they can’t get their children into and out of college with a quality degree.

City College of San Francisco has long attempted to provide advanced educational exposure to all San Franciscans. In Bayview Hunters Point, it is clear that if this current and future generation of Black youth is to gain parity with those who’ve been chosen to participate in the digital industries, then they must take advantage of the City College campuses at 1800 Oakdale Ave. and Evans Street.

If this current and future generation of Black youth is to gain parity with those who’ve been chosen to participate in the digital industries, then they must take advantage of the City College campuses at 1800 Oakdale Ave. and Evans Street.

There’s no turning back this march toward technology. It’s certain, DuBois and Washington would agree, we must get connected with this movement – both as tradesmen and as talented technicians. As Malcolm might suggest, whatever it takes, Aaron must graduate from high school.

The good news is there is a need for men and women to sell and market these tech tools and products. Many of these jobs require only a two-year degree or certificate. We can afford that.

Lance Burton was an instructor at City College for 10 years in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, spent the following 33 years in the media and technology industries, and is now bringing his knowledge back to the community with Planet Fillmore Communications. He can be reached at