In December 2009, we ran a story that many of our readers may have overlooked. At the time, even we didn’t think the story was front page worthy, so we tucked it away on page three.
The story was titled, “Asian students get attacked; school’s racial tensions lead to fighting.”
However, recent developments have led to an updated account, “Racial violence changes student — and school,” written by Jesse Washington and published this week by The Associated Press. This time, we saw the importance of this story and put it on the front page.
In early December, Black students attacked Asian students outside of South Philadelphia High School.
The first story we ran had conflicting accounts. Asian students said that several of their peers sought treatment at a hospital. Xu Lin of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. said the Asian community was outraged. However, James Golden, then the school district’s chief safety executive, said the fight involved a “small group of students.” He said that it was a minor incident and that there were no injuries or arrests.
This week, Washington’s updated account shows that though there had been years of strife between Black and Asian students, which school administrators tured a blind eye to, after the December attack, tensions reached a breaking point.
“A group of students roamed the halls searching for Asian victims until one was attacked in a classroom,” Washington reported. “Later, about 70 students stormed the cafeteria, where several Asians were beaten. … After school, Asians being escorted home were attacked by a mob of youths.”
In the end, what brought about change were 50 Asian students who boycotted school for a week. Afterward, the district installed security cameras, hired more bilingual staff members, and added more diversity training.
Looking back on this, we are asking ourselves, how did we miss seeing the importance of this story the first time around? Why haven’t we already publish an editorial about this?
The answer may lie in Washington’s story. Maybe the truth we weren’t admitting to ourselves was that we, as representatives of a pan-Asian paper, were wary of instigating an uncomfortable dialogue about race — or worse, a racial conflict — in our own communities.
It’s reported that almost all the attackers at South Philadelphia High School were Black — but no one in the news reports has come out to strongly condemn the attacks as being racially motivated.
Instead, the reasons we are given are weak and nebulous. People say the attacks are based on gangster values, jealousy, and perceived preferential treatment of Asians.
Really? How is it not about race when a group of Black students attacks only Asian students?
There is a tendency to downplay racial conflicts when the conflict is between two minority groups because in such conflicts, it’s harder to define the victims and the bullies. We guiltily think, hey, aren’t they all victims, in a way?
This empathy is understandable and in some cases, commendable. This time, though, it got in the way. The attacks in Philadelphia didn’t make a big splash in mainstream news. Advocacy organizations were strangely quiet about it. We just didn’t talk about it because it was too hard to talk about. As a result, a lot of kids suffered for no good reason.
The real heroes of this story are the 50 Asian students who looked past an apathetic administration and took action. Though risky, and many parents were fearful, it ended up being the right thing to do.
It’s true that, generally, Asian Americans are reluctant to rock the boat — but it’s so important to report these crimes to the police and the school so that all the incidents are documented. In this country, numbers matter.
There are pockets of communities in Seattle similar to the one in Philadelphia. We need to look around and wonder what we aren’t seeing or what we’re refusing to see. And we need to talk, because we can’t fix problems without first exposing them and taking an honest look.
Awareness is the first step. ♦