Earlier this month a settlement was finally reached between the Justice Department and the School District of Philadelphia which amounts to an acknowledgement that the district and school administrators overlooked racially biased harassment and violence directed at Asian children at South Philly High School. As part of the agreement it is required that........
"...the district hire a consultant focused on preventing harassment and discrimination, will serve as a nationwide standard for school systems trying to prevent bullying........[and] Philadelphia schools to develop a plan for preventing bullying; conduct training to increase multicultural awareness; and maintain records of harassment..."A combination of indifference, alleged participation in harassment by school adminstrators as well as accusations of mishandling written reports of abuse (that is, many reports were simply thrown away), all demonstrate that school admins and the District engaged in a cynical effort to hide evidence of their own abdication of responsibility as well as their evasions in addressing racially biased abuse perpetrated by elements of the student body and staff. All of this demonstrates that racist attitudes towards Asians amongst both staff and students were allowed to foment eventually manifesting as acts of physical violence - you are what you do.
Of course, this type of black/Asian conflict isn't new both in American schools and beyond. Remember Lafayette High School? The situation there bears some eerie similarities to the South Philly conflict. It is this dynamic of minority on minority prejudice that gives this situation and others like it such a complex and almost untouchable character. By tradition it is the well documented and acknowledged oppression of Africans that has defined the dialogue on race in America and so, for many people, instances where the oppressor has African features are difficult to compute. Consequently, obvious anti-Asian racism amongst elements in the black community is dismissed for a variety of reasons - sometimes even by Asian-Americans themselves.
A common refrain is that these apparent race crimes against Asians are an unwelcome but natural consequence of economic hardship and poverty. Others suggest that the experience of racism itself leads to acts of racism. Still others will dismiss black on Asian racism on the grounds that overall African-Americans experience more oppression (both past and present) than anyone ever and are therefore excused by some unspecified logical mechanism from practising tolerance. Then there are some who assert that black on Asian violence is justified because Asians are racist.
The problem is that much white racism is fuelled by a sense of disenfranchisement resulting from poverty. Many recruits to white supremacist groups come from poor working class backgrounds. Would anyone dare to justify white racism on these grounds? Maybe we can accept that poor black students at South Philly have few hopes for a bright future and are thus able to understand (somewhat) their aggression, but what of the staff and District - what's their excuse? College educated and paid a decent salary (and in the case of the District, paid handsomely), these people should know better. You would have to do some amazing logical backflips to tie economic hardship into their racism. Furthermore, how much racism and oppression is required before your own qualifies as justifiable? Of course, if Asian racism justifies black racism then surely Asian racism is justified because there is black racism? The mind boggles.
Of course, as many Asian-Americans might agree, the issue of racial harassment of Asian children in American schools goes way beyond the ghetto and is one of the phenomena that unites all of us in a common experience. The degree may vary from racial baiting to violence, yet the intent is clear. The marginalization process for many Asian-Americans begins in school and as an experience it is perhaps the most overlooked amongst the Asian minority - the result of which is an apparent dearth of pro-active advocacy. Yet as the Asian student activists at South Philly have learned, it is by standing up and fighting back, that you gain allies. By doing this, they have empowered other black students to stand with them and hopefully improve conditions for everyone. The natural by-product of pro-active advocacy is that others become empowered to not go along with your oppression.
This is an important point because I maintain that anti-Asian racism is propagated not by extremism but by apathy and indifference. As the extreme (yet, apparently not uncommon) example of South Philly demonstrates, racism against Asians is fuelled by a willingness of others to "go along" with it, either by inaction or by dismissal of the significance of racist attitudes. Asians are harassed in the culture of the mainstream and this serves as the model of behaviour towards us. How then can harassment of Asian students in South Philly be condemned without condemning mainstream culture? It is this harassment model of behaviour as put forward by American culture that allows people to go along with anti-Asian bias up to and sometimes including the point of violence. It's no coincidence that harassment precedes anti-Asian violence in American schools.
On a final note it is important to highlight this.......
"Justice Department officials signaled that the agreement with the School District of Philadelphia, which............will serve as a nationwide standard for school systems trying to prevent bullying."
The measures against bullying that the District is being required to take will serve as the nationwide standard. To me, this is our cue. As a community we have to set the standard for what we allow as acceptable behaviour towards our children in American schools. This is our opportunity.