Conservative SF PAC Edited This Racist Headpiece on a City Supervisor

There’s a reason why we don’t see dunce caps used anymore in popular media — the sheer shape of them connotes racism, hate crimes, and shame.

Keeping up with GrowSF’s Twitter account is an exercise in neural deterioration. Aside from the elementary-grade social copy, their account, which scrolls 916 tweets as of publishing, revels in twisted factoids and graphics that were clearly designed with no tasteful queer person in the room.

The conservative YIMBY political group was founded by former tech bros Steven Buss — of Twitter fame for blocking thousands upon thousands of accounts — and Sachin Agarwal — who’s an adamant supporter of in-office work models and SF’s status as a guinea pig for self-driving automobiles — and has come under fire for a number of faux paus as of late. When tech executive and founder Bob Lee was killed after being stabbed on the 400 block of Main Street around 2:30 a.m. on April 4th, GrowSF immediately took to social media, using Lee’s death as a vehicle to drive their own pro-police agenda. Multiple times. 

In fact, Buss shared a social media update shortly after that push, saying how “grateful” he was for the donations the group received.

No, you’re not reading the overhead statement wrong: GrowSF pedaled the death of 43-year-old Lee as a sideways glance to raise funds and support their own plans. Later, however, San Francisco police arrested Nima Momeni, a fellow tech worker — he and Lee were apparently familiar with one another — in relation to the stabbing. Momeni has since pleaded “not guilty” to the charges brought against him in the murder of Lee and could face between 26 years to life if convicted.

Mind you: It was not some arbitrary, drug-ridden, dangerous, perhaps unhoused individual that GrowSF allegedly implied was responsible for Lee’s death. No. It was one of their own, per se.

Want to know how many authored tweets, how many shares, and how many posts that development garnered across their social media? Zero. I’m assuming those donations given under the pretense of the unsafe street conditions that presumably led to Lee’s death weren’t returned, either.

After acquiring The Bold Italic, a beloved SF publication known for its counterculture takes on the city, from Medium in 2022, GrowSF promised the publication would remain apolitical and exist separate from the organization. They’ve since broken that promise countless times, specifically in publishing an op-ed that supported the renovation of The Castro — a contentious initiative GrowSF supports — while failing to publish a counter piece to balance out any bias; The Bold Italic’s newsletter on Substack now directs subscribers to peruse GrowSF for its insights on local news; GrowSF will often promote The Bold Italic on the PAC’s social media accounts — blurring those lines of sound, ethical journalism further.

GrowSF filled its official political action committee against District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston called “Coalition to Grow San Francisco — GrowSF PAC Opposing Preston for Supervisor 2024” in November of last year. You might remember this bit of news; the San Francisco Examiner included it in a front-page story that placed a literal bulls-eye on Preston, who is openly Jewish, during a particularly heated time when antisemitic remarks were rife in popular culture. GrowSF did not denounce the imposed bulls-eye.

Well, the oft-maligned PAC recently did a shockingly similar blunder by photo-editing a dunce cap on Preston as part of its “Dump Dean” campaign.

If you’re like us, seeing Preston — again, an openly Jewish City supervisor — crowned with the white cone headpiece was immediately jarring. (Even if you couldn’t outright connect the dots, odds are something intangible about the image didn’t sit right with you.)

The etymology behind “dunce” is nuanced and layered. It’s a synonym of “dullard,” which is, ironically enough, derived from the name of John Duns Scotus, who was considered a brilliant mind in the Middle Ages. He conceived of the idea cap, which symbolized an inverted funnel for knowledge, and it remained a mark of intellect until the 1500s.

But by the turn of the 16th century, many of his adherents became conservative elements in English universities, resisting his new-age humanism as Protestantism grew in popularity. Critics of Scotus’s thinking began using the term “dunsman” and later shortened it to duns — the spelling we have today — evolving into a scornful term conveying “sophist” or “pedant.” As it was modernized, “dunce” became interchange with “slow-witted,” “stupid,” and “slow learner.”

Fast forward to the 1800s and mid-1900s, dunce caps became commonplace in classrooms and learning institutions across the United States and Europe being used as a disciplinary tool founded on shame. By the 1950s, however, the use of dunce caps as learning punishment was largely banned in the United States as classroom etiquette changed, moving away from shame-focused discipline to less traumatizing correction. This is also why their appearance in media largely disappeared after the 1950s.

(A less-known utilization of dunce caps appeared in China’s Culture Revolution under former President of the People’s Republic Mao Zedong. From 1966 to 1976, those who opposed Zedong’s communist regime were forced to wear dunce caps with the “crimes” they had committed and were publically humiliated or disgraced in front of private military gatherings; it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of people died during China’s Cultural Revolution, some of whom were forced to wear these caps moments before their death.)

Perhaps the most searing and visceral reason why we wince seeing Preston in a dunce cap is the headpiece’s shape in connection with the Ku Klux Klan — the “KKK.”

From its founding in 1866, it was believed that the Ku Klux Klan co-opted Scotus’ original headpiece for its understood symbol of intelligence. The shape became particularly haunting and synonymous with the group during the Jim Crow era when the infamous The Birth of a Nation film was released in 1915.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the pointed hoods weren’t part of typical KKK attire until the film depicted Klan members wearing them. Director D.W. Griffith had borrowed costumes from another film, and the hoods then became synonymous with the KKk, which had originally been used as Spanish capirotes.

Although no member of the organization has ever confirmed or denied the relationship to Scotus’ wizard-like adornment, people continued to make the association well into the 20th century. And the pointed hood remains part of the group, however, as does the hate, to this day — which includes its hostility toward Jewish people, the hate group adopting Neo-Nazi views into their ideologies after World War II.

As of publishing, GrowSF noted over 100 grassroots donors had contributed to the campaign, and the PAC hopes to double that figure by the end of July, raising more than $100,000 in funds. We hope prospective donors will find this article and think twice about surrendering their funds to GrowSF, regardless of their feelings toward Preston.

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