I. What the hell is/are Identity Politics?
“Identity politics” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in political or social contexts. And like similar phrases that float through the zeitgeist (think: cultural appropriation, neoliberalism, etc.), it can be tough to grasp the effects without a firm handle on the meaning. So before we explore how London Breed weaponizes the concept of identity politics (to the benefit of her political career and the hopes and dreams of her financial backers), we need to get into the definition of the concept.
Identity politics is the name used for the practice of appealing to voters based on demographic characteristics (e.g. race, religion, sex, class, education, etc.). On a superficial level, this may seem like a fairly innocuous thing, but when deployed by politicians and special interest groups, the strategy becomes a weapon that is used to help voters, often those in marginalized communities or constituencies, cast votes for candidates who will eventually enact policies that hurt them (for a deep dive into how this strategy can be deployed, one that explores the example of Kamala Harris, check out this article).
Here in San Francisco, the best example of the worst kind of identity politics is Board of Supervisors President and mayoral candidate London Breed. She has transformed the compelling narrative of her personal history into a powerful tool that masks how her actual politics and actions wreak havoc on the most vulnerable communities in San Francisco.
II. London Breed’s use of Identity Politics
London Breed draws heavily on her identity as (1) black, (2) a woman, and (3) someone with a background rooted in poverty. These are all undisputed aspects of her personal history and Breed would be remiss not to mention them in efforts to connect with voters. We absolutely need diverse candidates in political office, particularly those who possess empathy for marginalized communities. But our city needs more than leaders who merely understand or empathize with those communities. We need politicians who actually represent those communities’ best interest, not those whose policies actually hurt those communities.
We have no need for politicians who, like Breed, use their race or gender or socioeconomic status to hoodwink voters. “Vote for me, I am a woman” has the unsaid promise of “And I will work to advance the rights and causes of women when I am in office.” Similarly, “Vote for me, I am black” holds the hope that “I will work on issues (e.g. police violence, homelessness, displacement) that disproportionately affect the black community in San Francisco.” London Breed has used her personal history to win votes from these communities and they should be able to depend on her to be their champion. And they can’t depend on her, because her positions on police reform, housing issues, and tenant’s rights, along with her willingness to accept money from pro-gentrification and pro-eviction/displacement individuals, make it clear that London Breed is no champion of those she claims to represent.
III. London Breed’s Politics
Midtown: How Breed Fails her Constituents
The Midtown Park Apartments, a set of six buildings owned by the city since 1968, currently houses over a hundred long-term residents. Many Midtown residents are are black, elderly, and — through the city’s negligence — are now facing increased rents, temporary (3+ years) displacement, along with the eventual demolition of the only homes they have known for decades.
Before her mayoral campaign, in 2014 Breed centered herself as a champion for the Midtown tenants, arguing that because she grew up in similar circumstances, she had a vested interest in ensuring that the tenants could remain in their homes amid a legal battle to determine the future of the housing project after years of neglect. However, since then, Breed has all but abandoned the Midtown residents for whom she claims to care so deeply. Residents have repeatedly said that when they attend community meetings with the Mayor’s Office of Housing, meetings at which they get the chance to make their voices heard for the right to stay in their homes, Breed is conspicuously absent.
Breed also fell silent when the new property manager of Midtown, Mercy Housing, mandated higher rents for many tenants and pushed new, restrictive lease agreements. And where was Breed in 2016 when a longtime resident, Jose LaCrosby, was essentially evicted by disability when he was denied access to an accessible apartment unless he agreed to pay higher, market rate rent? LaCrosby died in a VA hospital, without having been able to return to Midtown. Remember him when Breed tells you no one has been evicted from Midtown.
Breed’s treatment of the Midtown residents comes in contrast to how she wines and dines with some of her biggest supporters, who just happen to be serial evictors, the kind of landlords who thrive off of forcing people out of their homes. One of her loudest backers is Bonnie Spindler, a real estate agent and serial evicter who has a history of flipping units, buying up low-cost properties, evicting tenants under the guise of “remodeling” and reselling them to the highest bidder for many times more than what it was originally worth.
Police Injustice, Brutality, and Breed’s Continued Support
The SFPD — like the majority of U.S. police departments — is no stranger to injustice. The scope of SFPD scandals ranges from police brutality to officers sending one another racist and homophobic texts about suspects. Back in 2016, at the height of the scandal involving the racist and homophobic cops, how did Breed respond when communities of color were shouting for the removal of former police chief Greg Suhr? By saying nothing.
In a more recent example of how Breed betrays her supposedly progressive beliefs and those she claims to represent, Breed also supports the SFPD’s diabolical initiative to arm its officers with Tasers. This particular stance, Breed claims, is part of her “evolving” political platform. This evolution means that Breed supports the use by police of a lethal weapon that would disproportionately be used on black and brown residents of San Francisco. And not only that, but Breed supports the idea that the police themselves should determine when and how to use these weapons. A large contingent of San Francisco residents — including fellow Supervisor Hillary Ronen and many community groups interviewed as part of the Taser approval process — do not want Tasers, a fact which Breed pointedly ignores. When her critics are fellow people of color, Breed’s silence is deafening.
IV. Don’t Fall for the Identity Politics Scam; Don’t Vote for London Breed
Identity politics can reduce candidates to simplistic characteristics without nuance or variation; this is why the strategy is so easy to weaponize. Don’t fall for it. Yes, London Breed is a black woman who grew up in public housing, but she is also a career politician who happens to be pro-Taser, against the right to counsel to prevent tenant evictions, supports gentrification-inducing housing policy, receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from billionaires, and has enjoyed funding and support from those who evict and displace her constituents. Cast your votes somewhere else.
Lia Russell grew up in San Francisco and is a member of DSA’s Discourse and Justice Committees; Rashmi Joshi grew up in the Bay Area and is a Co-Chair of DSA SF’s Discourse Committee