This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High raise difficult questions about the role of racism in our schools, our city, and our country. Arlene Ackerman, addressing students, parents, and community members at the SRC meeting, called it the "elephant in the room."
Unfortunately in her remarks before and after the meeting, Ackerman has fallen short in providing the leadership to help us understand what happened, and how we can move forward. But others, fortunately, have taken up the slack.
The facts, as related by the students and community leaders who have been working to improve the climate at the school, paint a disturbing picture in which Asian immigrants have been ridiculed, harassed, and subjected to violence by other students with the complicity of many of the adults, particularly security staff. District leadership has failed to aggressively address this problem in spite of clear warning signs.
Given the strong currents in our culture that stereotype young African American men as violent and serve to justify repressive laws and policies that target the Black community, the way the attacks are characterized is important. Many, particularly those on the political right, see incidents like the attacks at South Philadelphia High as confirmation of their view that urban violence is an expression of the moral and political shortcomings of African Americans.
As one speaker at the community forum held by Asian Americans United to support the students pointed out, racial violence between Latinos, Asians, and African Americans is a fact of life in South Philadelphia. No one group has a monopoly on victimhood.
But this can’t be used to sidestep the fact that there are deeply rooted prejudices toward Asians and immigrants our society. Nativist sentiment rooted in White supremacy has a long, ugly history in our country. One of the most brutal chapters in this history is the persecution and violence directed against Chinese immigrants who worked the mines and built the railroads in the West, culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II with barely a whimper of protest is further testimony to the depth of anti-Asian prejudice.
Today we see a strong movement against immigrants of color, scapegoating them for the decline in working class living standards. This movement has found its strongest popular expression among Whites of European origin who have elevated demagogues like Lou Dobbs to national prominence. But no group is immune from the steady diet of anti-immigrant sentiment that draws on deeply rooted prejudices in our culture. In our city, because immigrants of color typically are living in neighborhoods and attending schools in which African Americans are the majority, the conflict is most overt between these groups.
One of the unfortunate ironies of our history as a nation is that newly arrived immigrants have tended to assimilate the White supremacist ideology of the dominant Anglo-European majority, proving their “Americaness” by supporting discrimination and violence against Blacks who were consigned to the bottom rung in America’s caste system.
Meanwhile African Americans are encouraged to target immigrants as threats to their jobs and standard of living while the corporate elite, made up almost exclusively of White people, profits from the exploitation of both groups. As one speaker at the community forum pointed out, it’s all about divide and conquer.
To their credit, the Asian students, and the adults supporting them, have been careful to avoid racial scapegoating and stereotyping, consistently pointing out that school violence threatens all students and pointing out that the main failure here has been those adults charged with the safety of our schools. At the community rally, they did not ignore the elephant in the room, but have called it out in a way that benefits us all.
As Ellen Somekawa, executive director of AAU, said, “It is a racial issue not because of the race of the attackers…but because students were targeted for attack because they were Asian.”
AAU member Lai Har Cheung, in an emotional speech at the community forum, vented her frustration. “I’m sick of seeing African Americans villainized and Asians victimized.”
A great moment at the rally on Sunday was when, in blogger Eric Braxton’s words, ”Six African American students from the Philadelphia Student Union took the stage and spoke in support of the Asian students and in favor of schools that work for everyone. Maybe the rest of us can learn something from these students.”
Maybe we can, and maybe we can begin to forge unity based on recognizing that an injury to one is an injury to all. Let’s bring down the elephant.