Back in September, I wrote about a pattern of racial violence between predominantly African American and Asian American groups of students in schools in the South Philadelphia area. Unfortunately in recent weeks, the violence seems to have escalated, as described in the news video segment below:

My fellow Asian American blogger Angry Asian Man has done a nice job of covering these events and chronicling the developments that include large numbers of Asian American students boycotting classes last week and an emotional emergency meeting of students, parents, community leaders, and school officials in which students described in detail the brutal nature of such attacks.

In my previous post, I covered the sociological background of these kinds of racial violence incidents includes demographic changes taking places in many Philadelphia neighborhoods and the cultural instability that arises from having to adjust to new neighbors and a changing racial/ethnic landscape. This situation is further complicated by economic insecurity leading to scapegoating and displaced aggression on the part of the attackers.

However, there is one important point that I did not discuss in great detail in regard to these particular incidents (but did in a previous post on similar incidents of racial violence in New York City), and which the Asian American students themselves emphasized in their public testimony and descriptions. Specifically, that point is that the violence itself is bad enough. What makes it even worse is that many school officials, staff, teachers, and security personnel have repeatedly ignored the students complaints and concerns and in some cases, have even cheered on the attackers:

” ‘As soon as we open our mouths and speak, they treat us like we’re animals,’ ” Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United quoted a Vietnamese student. ” ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Hey, Chinese.’ ‘Yo Dragon Ball.’ ‘Are you Bruce Lee?’ ‘Speak English!’ ” Somekawa said the students are told.

Those aren’t the words of the students who harass Asians, she said. “They are the words of the adult staff at South Philadelphia High. So stop blaming the children and start owning the responsibility.” . . . The protesters carried signs, some reading: “Stop School Violence,” “It’s Not a Question of Who Beat Whom, but WHO LET IT HAPPEN” and “Grown-ups Let Us Down.” . . .

Over and over again, Asian community leaders said the real problem is “not just a bunch of bad kids,” but the school’s leadership.

Xu Lin, community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said community members were upset during a meeting with school officials last Friday “to see the principal playing with her cell phone when the students and their parents were giving statements about the violence that had occurred the day before. We were even more offended to see the safety manager . . . sleeping during the meeting in front of the whole community.”

A number of Asian students pointed out that they have African-American friends who have helped them with their English and have been nice to them. . . At one point, a multiracial contingent of South Philadelphia High students asked the Asian students to come back to school.

It is truly sad to see that those whose job it is to promote a positive learning environment and racial tolerance are actually a big part of the problem and make such racial tensions worse. In order to effectively address this situation, we need to find those responsible for such attacks, regardless of what racial/ethnic background they are, and deal with them in a way that punishes their actions without criminalizing them and turning them into “repeat racists.”

But just as important, the school officials, teachers, staff, and security personnel who failed in their jobs to protect these students need to be disciplined as well, including being fired if necessary. I personally have no tolerance for officials who shirk their paid responsibilities and in some cases, apparently misuse their authority and actually contribute to the bullying taking place.

In the same way that we chastise and clamor for the termination of government officials who fail to do their jobs and in fact engage in various forms of misuse of power or malfeasance, these school officials and other adults involved have failed miserably in their professional duties and moral obligations and can no longer be trusted and therefore deserve to be fired.

Sometimes, it is only when you “clear house” and start from scratch that true change and healing can begin. I wish everyone involved, especially the Asian American students, the best success in resolving these differences and healing their physical and emotional wounds.

It is an unfortunate reality in contemporary American society that from time to time, an economic recession occurs, such as the one we’re in right now. As sociologists have documented over and over again, when people experience financial difficulties, many also begin to feel insecure, threatened, and defensive. In such times, it is also common for people to lash out at those around them who they see as a threat to their security or at least someone who contributes to the larger economic difficulties that they are experiencing.

Many have argued that it is this climate of social insecurity that is responsible for the overheated and often viscous arguments taking place all around the U.S. these days around issues such as health care reform. As another example and as described in a recent article from the Philadelphia Weekly, this is exactly what seems to be happening in and around neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, where there have been numerous physical attacks and assaults committed against Asian American students:

Dozens of the alleged incidents are relatively minor—name-calling, verbal threats, petty robberies, random punches in the head while walking down stairwells, and general intimidation. But according to [student Wei] Chen, at least six times last school year those minor incidents escalated into massive rumbles where outnumbered Asian students were pummeled by packs of teens, sending several of the victims to hospitals. . . .

Many Asian students continued living in fear for the remainder of the school year . . . In a cry for help, scared students signed petitions, wrote letters, held meetings, staged a walkout and pleaded with school administrators to do something about the attacks.
 But the violence at South Philly High, listed among the state’s “persistently dangerous schools” for the third consecutive year, continued.


Male and female Asian students—especially those new to the country, who speak little or fractured English—have been targeted over the past few years, in schools from the Northeast to South Philly, in elementary and high schools. Students and activists say that Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Pakistani and other Asian youth have been singled out, assaulted in cafeterias, hallways, on city streets, school buses and everywhere in between. 


Kids say the violence has often been dismissed by school safety officers as well as administrators. “This is a cultural problem,” Wei Chen claims the former principal at South Philly told Asian students on the day after the subway rumble.
 District officials acknowledge that some situations weren’t handled well.


The article goes on to note that there have been some efforts at addressing the problem through school and community forums and informal mentoring programs to assist newly-arrived immigrant students adjust to their new schools, and that such efforts seem to have had some initial success in reducing the number of physical attacks. However, as the new school year starts, many students are still very tense and apprehensive about whether the situation has actually changed.

The article also acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of attacks have been perpetrated by African American students, who collectively make up 62% of all students in the school district. Does this mean that African Americans are inherently racist and prone to violence? Or are there some community and institutional-level factors that operate in the background and contribute to tense relations between African Americans and Asians? The article offers one potential insight:

As of 2008, Asians accounted for 5.7 percent of the city’s population, up from 4.4 percent in 2000—an increase of 15,000 Asians. Many of the new arrivals move to areas populated by fellow countrymen, often in neighborhoods adjacent to longtime African-American enclaves.
 “The school may be thought of as black turf by some black students,” says Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson, a renowned expert on black urban living.

“The outsiders—the Asians who are making inroads—can then be called into account for any moves they make within that situation. You have race prejudice developing as a sense of group position, a proprietary claim on certain areas of the home turf.” Anderson, who taught at Penn for 32 years and frequently uses Philadelphians in his research, believes that the school tensions are likely about dominance.


It goes without saying that such acts of violence can be devastating for the victims, not just physically and academically but emotionally, and can lead to depression, mental health problems, and even suicide. Being targeted also leads many Asian Americans to join a gang, initially to help protect each other from physical attacks but all too often leading to a downward spiral into criminal activity.

Professor Anderson’s explanation about demographic changes leading to neighborhood instability helps us to begin understanding the larger social forces that contribute to the problem. On top of that, once we add the effects of the recession and feelings of economic insecurity, we begin to see more clearly what sociologists have argued all along — the highest levels of prejudice occur not between groups at the very top and those at the very bottom, but between groups that are directly adjacent to each other on the socioeconomic hierarchy.

This is because groups that are right next to each other on the socioeconomic ladder are competing for the same resources — political, economic, and educational (or at least they perceive themselves to be in competition). And sadly, when groups compete with each other, racial/ethnic tensions, hostility, and violence become almost inevitable. Whether this occurs between Whites and Blacks, Whites and Latinos, Blacks and Asians, this scenario has played itself out over and over and over again throughout American history.

The situation in Philadelphia is the perfect and latest example of this pattern — African Americans have traditionally been marginalized institutionally, then begin to feel further besieged and threatened when newcomers (Asian immigrants) move into “their” neighborhoods and schools, and accuse them to to be “taking over.” Having very little collective political or economic power, African Americans scapegoat and lash out at the Asian immigrant newcomers, likely seeing them easy targets due to their lack of English fluency and familiarity with American society.

This is not to excuse or condone the perpetrators of such attacks — I feel that they need to be stopped and appropriately disciplined, regardless of their race or ethnicity. What I am saying however, is that such attacks are not entirely due to individual motives or prejudices. Instead, we need to recognize that there is an wide range of sociological factors that have directly and indirectly lead to and fueled such inter-racial tensions.

To move forward positively and decisively toward addressing this situation before someone is tragically killed, we need to treat both the symptoms and by curing the fundamental disease — the feelings of political powerlessness, economic insecurity, and culture of glorified violence that leads too many students to internalize anti-Asian stereotypes, ultimately resulting in physical brutality.

So much for the Obama effect.

Many Americans seemed to think that Barack Obama’s victory to become our nation’s first non-White President represented the end of racism in America and that our society had finally moved past skin color as a marker of social hierarchy. Sadly, they were and continue to be wrong.

As many media organizations and blogs have reported and summarized in the MSNBC video below, a private club in suburban Philadelphia reneged on an arrangement to allow a group of Black and Latino children to use their swimming pool, with many White club member parents allegedly uttering racial slurs to the children:

Alethea Wright, director of Creative Steps, a summer camp for minority children, said the organization paid for weekly swim time at the pool. But during a trip there June 29 some of the children said they heard people asking what “black kids” were doing at the club, Wright said. . . .

Creative Steps, located in northeast Philadelphia, had contracted for the 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon, Wright said. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments. . . .

“Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded,” Wright said. “Only three members left their children in the pool with us.” Several days later, the club refunded the camp’s payment without explanation, said Wright. . .

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will immediately open an investigation into the actions of The Valley Club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, chairman Stephen A. Glassman said. . . . “Allegedly, this group was denied the use of a pool based on their race,” Glassman said. “If the allegations prove to be true, this is illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania.” . . .

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., issued a statement calling the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said he was looking into the matter.

My fellow blogger sociologist Jessie at RacismReview.com elaborates on some of the details of the incident and sums up the sociological context of this incident quite well:

It’s a good thing that there are laws in place that prohibit racial discrimination of this sort, and that people were outraged this happened, and that a U.S. Senator is stepping up to investigate and, at least potentially, take some action against these perpetrators of swimming pool racism.

Yet, it’s an appalling fact to realize that nearly fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, we are still grappling with the continuing significance of racism in public places. We are, apparently, still at a point where we’re having to investigate people for violating the prohibition against racial discrimination in public accommodations.

Think about these kids in Northeast Philly next time you hear someone use the phrase “post-racial.”

Seriously, this is 2009, not 1909, right?

Without doubt, the actual incident is pretty shocking and appalling — White parents pulling their children out of the pool once Black and Latino children began using it, allegedly using racial slurs against the non-White children, and then the club abruptly canceling their earlier arrangement without any apology or explanation.

These events by themselves are pretty clear violations of federal and state laws which prohibit racial and ethnic discrimination in public and private facilities and I hope the club is prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent possible. Incidents like this are completely unacceptable in American society.

But as a sociologist, I also find it interesting to observe the club’s subsequent explanation and “apology,” offered several days after the incident and only after it was bombarded with media coverage and the threat of criminal prosecution. Specifically, as the MSNBC article quoted above notes, the club’s officials denied that race was a factor in the club’s actions and rather, it was safety concerns and a lack of space.

Most recently, the club has offered to have the summer camp kids back, but only “as long as safety issues, times and terms can be agreed upon.” Nice try, but that just basically means that as long as club members have enough advance notice, they can stay away from the club on the day the summer camp kids use it. How magnanimous of them.

These club officials need to wake up and smell what they’re shoveling.

This line of thinking is an example of colorblind ignorance at its best (or would that be, at its worst?) — taking pains to deny that race was ever a factor in one’s actions and trying to pretend or convince oneself that you, your members, and your organization has any hint of racial prejudice at all. After all, that would be so 20th century and we’re living in a “post racial” society now, aren’t we?

The sad truth is, we are living in American society, one that is still highly racialized and one in which the misguided allure of colorblindness has instead blinded us to the fundamental racist sentiments that many individual Americans consciously or unconsciously still have, the social segregation that still divides us along color lines, and the institutional racial inequalities that allow such sentiments to exist.

The calendar may say it’s 2009 but apparently, the racial consciousness of many Americans is about a 100 years behind.