Racial violence at South Philadelphia High School has been at the center of a month long discussion/struggle for Asian American students’ safety at the school. According to students, the situation began over two weeks ago when 30 API students were attacked at South Philadelphia High School sparking an 8 day boycott of classes.
According to members of the Asian American community who are helping students heal and organize, the December 3rd attack was actually day two of the violence. They believe the same African-American students, 14 in total, attacked a lone Vietnamese student off school grounds on December 2nd and then brought the violence into the school the following day. (see Philly.com)
What was initially reported as widescale violence against Asian American students by African-American students may have begun with an attack on a differently-abled African American student off campus. According to school officials, some API students harassed and subsequently beat up a lone African-American student off school grounds sparking racial tension inside the school. That tension erupted on Dec. 3 when 30 API students were brutally attacked in the cafeteria and the hallways of the school by a multi-racial group of assailants, many of whom were African-American.
Several of the attacked students had to go to the hospital and many API students were too scared to return the following day for fear of being targeted again. Their parents worried that the violence was not over and that it was becoming all too common. While advocates warned that the language barrier many of the students targeted experienced in the school meant that they could not or would not accurately report everything that had happened to them; they also pointed out this is an ongoing problem in getting clear documentation of violence against API students in the school.
Very little is known about the differently-abled African American student because the school chose not to disclose this information in the initial days of reporting on the Anti-Asian violence within its walls. The failure to address this student’s rights and the combination of ableism and racially motivated unilateral violence from the API community has made it that much harder to address the increasing racially faultlines in a school run by an African American principal.
A History of Anti-Asian Sentiment
However, the idea that South Philly High would have been safe for API students if it hadn’t been for the off campus incident is inaccurate at best. Regardless of what sparked the incident, several things have become clear in its aftermath:
- According to students, there is a consistent pattern of anti-Asian discrimination at South Philly High
- API students were targeted on Dec. 3 regardless of their involvement in the incident against the differently-abled African American student, ie they were targeted for being Asian
- newly arrived first generation immigrant students bore the brunt of the Anti-Asian violence
According to Ellen Somekawa, Executive Director of Asian Americans United, students at South Philly High reported several racist comments against them by school teachers and administrators. These comments included references to speaking English, derogatory analogies to Asian American characters in the media, and a general sense that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not “real Americans” or perpetually foreign. (You can see some of the comments here.) The fact that these comments were allegedly made by teachers and administrators is not only reprehensible, it also helped to create a climate in which targeting of API students would seem acceptable.
That climate seems to be coming from the top. While school Principal La Greta Brown is new to South Philadelphia High, she has already gotten into trouble with various racial and ethnic groups at the school according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A Jewish teacher says he was harassed by Brown for asking for a religious holiday off and Allan Wong from the Mayor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs says he tried to schedule a meeting with Brown to discuss last year’s anti-Asian school violence but got nowhere. Other members of the API community said Brown had appeared open to discussing the problems in the school, even setting up a community meeting schedule, but when it came time for the meetings themselves Brown appeared to have forgotten about them and after keeping the attendees waiting for 40 minutes had failed to schedule additional meetings. (see Philadelphia Inquirer, link above, for full story) While Brown has not commented on these complaints, she vehemently denied Somekawa’s accusations at the meeting where the two discussed the Dec. 3 attack with the rest of community leaders.
If both the principal and teachers are accused of being anti-Asian and/or minimizing anti-Asian behavior amongst their peers than will they really stand up against students who are also Anti-Asian?
According to both students and community leaders, the answer is: No.
According to Xu Lin, a community member who helped students recovering from PTS related to the attack, violence against Asian American students has been a regular part of the school day since he was a student at South Philly High. He reported being beaten up in what was implied as racially motivated incidents himself.
Current student, Wei Chen, Founder of the Chinese American Student’s Association at the school, also reported ongoing violence. In fact, he started CASA after racially motivated violence in the school last year (see NBC Philadelphia). Those incidents were supposed to have sparked improvements in the school to ensure that anti-Asian violence did not erupt again. Despite violence, school officials claim that the violence agaisnt Asian American students is down 50% (see NBC Philadelphia)
Given the failure to ensure students’ safety from last year until now, the question of what tone the administration had set was at the forefront of some 50 API students who boycotted the school in the hopes of getting concrete lasting reform and an end to racism in the school.
What started as 5 students being scared to return to classes the following day after the violence(Philly.com), swelled to 50 students on an 8 day boycott of the school and active community involvement demanding the school be made safe. API students and community leaders asked that the school:
- install more cameras
- hire more security guards
- report racially motivated violence as hate crimes
- implement stricter punishments for students involved in violence against other students on or off school grounds
In a rally and march against anti-Asian violence in the school, API students from South Philly High also made it clear that they were less interested in racial narratives about the incident on December 3rd as much as they were invested in a radical paradigm shift amongst the administration. In other words, unlike the media that was reporting the incident as unilateral violence between Asian Americans and African Americans, the students felt the issue was a failure of the school itself. Many of them carried signs that said “It’s not a question of who beat who, it’s who let it happen” and, as pictured at the top of this post, “Grown Ups Let Us Down!”
After tensions rose between the school and community leaders, civil rights organizations filed suit against the school for failing to protect API students. The school district responded by holding several community and student-faculty meetings and committing to the following:
- hiring 4 new security guards including one who speaks Cantonese
- installation of 60 cameras throughout the school, especially in identified hotspots like outside the bathroom and inside the cafeteria
- transferring the already suspended students believed to have instigated the in school violence to other districts & reporting them to the police for criminal prosecution
- the creation of The Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony which will include members from the community, students, parents, and faculty
Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman also issued a statement at a community meeting on the incident, disavowing racism in the schools and the “larger community.” She pointed out that this recent round of violence began with an attach on the differently-abled African American student and ended with the violence against 30 Asian American students and was a symptom of ongoing racial tensions in Philadelphia. She said the School District is committed to addressing these racial tensions and ensuring the safety of all of the students at Philadelphia schools and pointed to how the Task Force could help schools across the district address racism both in and outside of the school system.
Like many other stories of racially motivated violence in the schools, the issues at South Philly High seems to have escalated in part due to administrative in action and a climate of oppression. A critical part of the aftermath is the public documenting of violence against API students for generations at South Philly High that mirrors complaints of oppression in the schools in other cases. What is becoming clear is that many of our schools are unsafe, if not the least safe, places for youth. While underfunded schools have glaring problems that make national news, like those of South Philly High, many of the students dying because of the intersections of racism and transphobia or racism and ableism or the individual oppressions of racism, homophobia, sexism, and transphobia are happening in private schools. While we have developed a language for discussing oppressions that language has not brought us any closer to addressing actual oppression, and in many schools that failure has had dire impact on youth.
The South Philly High example also serves to draw attention to two other problems in our so-called post-racial world. On the one hand, the myth of the model minority continues to mask racism against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in national discourse. This myth has prevented critical intervention on many levels and has encouraged people to ignore anti-Asian violence. It has also masked the ways that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also targets of anti-immigrant violence as perpetual outsiders in the U.S. The majority of the API students targeted in South Philly High were first generation, newly arrived, immigrant youth and the advocates quoted above indicated that these students were the least likely to report violence because of language barriers. It is entirely possible that lack of cultural competence amongst new immigrants and African Americans that painted both groups as offensive and potentially racist in the eyes of the other led to some of the racial tension in the school. Teachers and administrators’ own reported anti-immigrant sentiment prevented them from providing this cultural competence to students and further exacerbated institutional racism. It is equally possible that anti-immigrant discourses that paint immigrants as unfairly sucking up limited resources resonated particularly well with subsistence level African American students, transforming this conflict into a decidedly anti-immigrant one.
On the other hand, the emphasis on addressing long buried anti-Asian violence at South Philly High has nearly erased the story of what happened to that differently-abled African American student. That student’s story has yet to be told. But what has become clear is that the references to the students who instigated the anti-Asian violence in the school as “a gang” or certain parents expressing their fears about the school a long implied race lines, ie that there are a lot of black people in South Philly High therefore it is an unsafe and unruly school, belie as yet unaddressed racial tensions. And while school administrators appear to have hid behind these tensions in order to silence API students complaints, the solution is not to simply flip the script.
Finally, while it is true that API students called for increased policing at the school, I find myself concerned about the increasing presence of the prison-industrial-complex in the school system. Working class and subsistence level students of color are already over-policed as it is. The presence of increased policing in the schools has shown no real track record of decreasing violence or tensions in the schools, and in some cases has increased it. And like other policing forces, questions have arisen about the cultural competence of security guards in the school as a direct result of their involvement in racist and sexist incidents. While the school has committed to ensuring the language competence of 1 of 4 new guards there has been no similar commitment to their racial competence with either API students or African Americans (or Latinos in the school for that matter). while I agree that the youth who instigated this violence should be punished, including with applicable hate crimes laws, I don’t think an increasingly prison like school environment is an answer. Put another way, I am concerned that the answer to school violence is often to adjudicate and permanently brand children rather than to do what schools are meant to do, ie educate and provide youth with the ability to think critically about oppression. And I am not sure the false sense of security these measures will provide will do anything toward addressing the underlining issues at the school or, as the Superintendent put it, the communities these students live in.
There were many lessons that South Philly High could have learned from this incident. The one key lesson they seem to have learned was to listen to, honor, and protect the voices of the API students in their school. Given how long they have been silenced through fear, retaliation, and violence, this cannot be underestimated. But I fear the other lessons available here have been lost. And each time I write these kinds of posts, I watch the narrowing of the discourse surrounding them in the media and know that we as a nation are also losing these key opportunities as well. At least the API students of South Philly High now have an organizational structure, public presence, and finally recognized voice in the school with which to advocate for themselves in the future. It is just too bad that they had to have this instead of the school doing everything it can to make South Philly a safe place for all of its students.
image on right: Principal LaGreta Brown. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS