Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Where's That Innate Moral Sense When You Need It?

Forcing People To Act Right.

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.


  1. Hey Ben, I would like to start off by saying that I absolutely am astounded by your eloquently written blog entries. I just discovered your blog about two months ago, though I really do wish I would have done so much, much sooner.

    In relation to your article, I absolutely concur with your statements. I would like to ask you about your opinion of the significance of learned behaviors from parents and if they play a large role in shaping the way the belligerents harassed the victims. To me, since the first reports of this unfortunate incident came out, I have yet to hear about the role of parents and how they could mitigate the problem. Perhaps the parents of the belligerents may had some preexisting notions about Asians, and their children learned from them. One possibility would be their parents' knowledge of the 1992 LA Riots being a source of antipathy towards Asian-Americans and their willingness to overlook the seriousness of this incident. If the parents don't condemn this behavior or if they condone it, the belligerents have no qualms in their actions.

    Furthermore, how significant is this being in a high school environment? Say, if this occurred at a middle school or a university, would the outcome be any different? Would the racism be more dismissive if that was the case? I think that the high school environment of parochialism of trying to fit into a group help precipitate the violence. If the administrators could have fostered some dialogue between the two groups sooner, we wouldn't have this mess...

    On a further note, I wonder that in an impoverished school like South Philly there would be more division between the African-Americans and Asian-American in not only racial boundaries, but also socioeconomical boundaries. Some of the victims must have some wealth as many are recent immigrants, which immigration to the U.S. requires quite a bit of money from my experience.

    On a last note, I agree that this needs to be an impetus to create a movement of awareness. But how do we learn from this incident, and what actions need to be taken to prevent another incident from happening? Should students all throughout the country need to be taught about race relations (especially about Asian Americans, since there is so little emphasis on it) and how heterogeneous our society in school, particularly at a young age? Many do not have any opportunity to learn about race relations in an objective scope until taking a college course in it. I fear that by leaving this responsibility of educating younger generations solely to parents may lead to another South Philly incident.

    Again, thank you for the enlightening entries!

  2. Hau....

    Welcome and thank you for your extremely kind words.

    It would be impossible for me to guess to what degree parental attitudes might be influencing the behaviour of these South Philly students. As I suggested in the post, the context of interaction as defined and enacted by mainstream culture is heavily characterized by a demeaning harassment of Asian people.

    Extreme cases of anti-Asian violence lıke we see at South Philly are possible because demeaning caricatures and casual dehumanization of Asians is deeply prevalent in American culture. If your culture teaches you that denigrating Asians is the normal context of interaction with that group then it paves the way for this type of violence and even worse, it enables people (who might normally be considered moral) to go along with something that if it were to happen to a non-Asian would be an effront to their ethics.

    That is the true evil of demeaning cultural stereotypes of Asians - it doesn't necessarily make people hate us, but instead it seems to shift their moral compass to the point that they might be less likely to see anti-Asian racism as a serious moral issue. That's why harassment and mockery of Asians is so widely accepted, and the only real surprise is that people are surprised when this dehumanization turns violent.

    I think that many Asian AMerican kids experience racial harassment and even violence the day they start first grade. But, again, the context of interaction between the mainstream and Asians normalizes this process. Perhaps, the only difference between the 1st grade racist and the high school racist is in their ability to organize a group attack. Either way, it is the impunity that characterizes school racism against Asians (from grade 1 and up) that makes violence in later grades a likelihood.

    The solution seems too complıcated to fully explore in this comment post, but I will say that the first step has to be educating the educators and admins. This means that we have to hold them responsible for any propagation of anti-Asian harassment, which in turn suggests that we - the Asian minority - have to be the policeman in our schools. I might explore this theme further in a later post

    Anyways, I'm glad you like the blog and once again welcome!

  3. Thank you for the response. I understand your view that parental involvement is something that is would not be quantifiable in your position (if at all). Additionally, I agree that racism exists at the grade school level. I guess that racism can learned from the environment (ex. media) even at such a young age. I hope that our As-Am community rises up and addresses this, although I have been disappointed plenty of times. But I will spread the word, and I know you will too. Keep up with the great work, and I look forward to your future posts.

  4. I had written to a major african-american publication asking them to open a discourse on this issue. As an African, I am very unaware of what it is like to live in asociety where the colour of my skin is the defining factor of how the society sees me. However, I cannot say I am not appalled by the multiple accounts that I have come across on black-on-asian crime; none through black/ African American publications
    If the black driven media does nothing to push the issue, then it will not be a discussion in the community; there will be no awareness and thus no change.

  5. Hi Ms. Catwalq

    Welcome and thank you for your comment.

    Kudos to you for trying to open a dialogue on this issue within the black community.

    I find hard to believe that most of the black students at South Philly, and perhaps even the majority of people in the general black community, are motivated to to actively enable anti-Asian racism.

    As I mentioned in the post, at the present time the anti-Asian racism in society in general is enabled by the majority who are quite happy to just "go along" when someone exhibits a racist attitude or behaviour.

    This majority may not necessarily have a hatred towards Asians, yet seem to feel that it is morally permissable for a society to practice a culture of dehumanization and harassment of Asian people whilst drawing the line at violence, even though it is the culture itself that foments the attitudes that may lead to violence. It's almost paradoxical.

  6. Asians dont stick together. If one person speaks out he is scared there will be no wingman to back him up. Or more importantly, follow up. And this is always the case. Why? Because Asians are too scared of ruining their complacent position of being invisible . Hence your never ending circle of rhetoric in this particular article. No offense.

  7. Anon...

    The Asian students at South Philly have stood up and gotten results. So I don't really agree that Asians are scared to speak out without back-up.