Could San Francisco, capital of anti-Blackness, become a sanctuary city for Black lives?

Dr.-Zea-Malawa, Could San Francisco, capital of anti-Blackness, become a sanctuary city for Black lives?, Culture Currents
Dr. Zea Malawa

by Zea Malawa, MD, MPH

Dear San Francisco, 

I write to you as your Black daughter, one who is three generations rooted in this city, and one who had all but given up on you. Today, however, in the spirit of Juneteenth, I am thinking I can feel the fresh breath of something new in the air. Is it hope? Should I trust it? I want to.

But, San Francisco, you have near broken me with the profundity of your anti-Black racism. You have excluded us completely from the richness that has become emblematic of our city. Your police department has been abusing us for decades, as has your justice system, your health care systems, and your school district. And even though this abuse literally robs years from our lives, you don’t feel you owe us anything, not even an apology. 

You have all but cheered our disappearance from your neighborhoods over these last decades; it’s like you can’t even see what you have lost. Hardest of all, perhaps, is seeing how you treat Black children. I am a pediatrician and a mother – and the racism I have to watch our children endure steals my breath. San Francisco, do you even know how you are tearing our babies apart? 

Despite everything, San Francisco, I don’t want to give up on you. I am a City girl after all and have been claiming San Francisco all my life. 

I went to the San Francisco Solidarity Protest at Mission High not long ago. Based on past experiences with Black Lives Matter marches in SF, I went expecting to find the usual anemic crowd: the last few Black activists living in The City and a handful of our longtime allies. 

Instead, I was joined by an ocean of people. I found throngs of people stripped raw of the disconnected, dispassionate politeness that usually smothers our city. I was joined by masses of mostly non-Black folks who were experiencing all of their own intersecting oppressions but still coming together to say they will fight for Black lives. And within this blanket of neighbors, I felt the faintest crackle of possibility on the wind. 

Should I trust you with something precious, SF? (I guess I already trusted you enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with you, 10,000 people deep, and share your air, masked of course). Can I trust you with a dream?

I would need San Francisco to step up because you recognize and honor our humanity as Black people and because you will no longer tolerate the structural asphyxiation that has been strangling us for decades.

I have a fantasy that I can stay in San Francisco and finish raising my son here. As it stands now, I cannot, because in order for me to raise a happy, healthy, self-actualized Black child here, Black lives would have to really matter here. Not just in the wake an unimaginably atrocious act of state violence. Not just because the issue feels too stark in these moments after George Floyd’s murder. Not just because all the cool kids are out marching (although the kids who led the march last Wednesday are clearly some of the coolest). 

I would need San Francisco to step up because you recognize and honor our humanity as Black people and because you will no longer tolerate the structural asphyxiation that has been strangling us for decades.

Neighbors, do I tell you more? In this dream of mine, SF-based corporations that, in the past, wielded their political influence to get untenable tax breaks, would instead demand police accountability. They would create political pressure for transparent data from SFPD and funding for reparations and community-based police alternatives. 

I dream that privileged San Francisco parents would fight for adequate funding and staffing in schools serving Black and Brown children, and would do it with the same energy and doggedness they use to ensure high quality education for their own children. San Francisco, did you even know your schools have the lowest African-American achievement rates in the state? And that was pre-COVID.

When I daydream, I see us organizing together to demand COVID hazard pay for all low-wage frontline workers in our city, many of whom are Black or other people of color. And, instead of one-time donations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I see our businesses making long-term economic commitments to the Black community in the form of high quality jobs and financial sponsorship of Black-led business and non-profits.

How magical would it be, San Francisco, if we not only halted the dispersal of our Black families, but reversed it? If we demanded affordable housing, so Black parents would not have to choose between homelessness and exodus? 

I love to fantasize about all the wealthy homeowners of the city coming together to underwrite a homeownership landtrust for Black San Francisco so we could rebuild our lost Black middle class.

Can you imagine how much fun it would be to become a city rich with Black restaurants, and Black artists, and Black music, and Black barbers again. You remember, right? We used to be the Harlem of the West before our Black middle class was throttled by redlining and urban renewal. You want to become an epicenter for Black culture again San Francisco, don’t you?

Vision with me for a minute, San Francisco. What would a sanctuary city for Black people look like? Can you imagine a city full of people who have learned to be anti-racist? Can you imagine a San Francisco full of people who respond to Black skin with compassion instead of fear? People who make repair for racism instead of denying its reality? 

Breathe it in, San Francisco. Can you feel the potential?

Zea Malawa, MD, MPH, is a Black woman who was born and raised in San Francisco. She runs Expecting Justice, a San Francisco-based initiative working to deliver justice to Black and Pacific Islander pregnant people. She is also a mother, pediatrician, First 5 Commissioner and liberation enthusiast. She can be reached at