Seeking refuge from school violence
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’s a human thing,” Anderson continues. “It could be Asians who get jumped. It could be blacks. It could be white, Italian, Jewish, whatever, if you know what I mean. This is not unique to blacks and Asians.”
One Chinese immigrant student began experiencing prejudice in 2002 when he entered the third grade at Society Hill’s McCall Elementary School.
“Kids get in your face and say racial stuff, throw stuff at you, push you in the halls,” says the 15-year-old student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Sometimes I can’t take it and I fight back. Then I get in trouble.”
He’s been suspended numerous times for fighting.
“Every year, I’m at the limit,” he says. “Like, one more fight and I’ll get kicked out.”
Despite the McCall student population being around 55 percent Asian, the abuses were steady—from white students as well as black, says the student who will begin high school next week.
“Some of my friends quit school and get jobs,” he says. “Sometimes younger than me.”
Another Asian McCall alum adds, “I have friends who see no future in school so they fight back, and keep changing schools.”
The two students say that McCall administrators brought in peer mediators after a series of incidents. Students of different backgrounds were forced to eat meals together, watch television and converse. Following the mandatory bonding, tensions decreased.
In May 2008, Xiao Hang Pu, 17, was walking away from South Philadelphia’s Furness High School with friends when another student punched one of his friends in the face. When Pu and his friends did not retaliate, they were taunted by bystanders. A mob formed and a rumble broke out. One of Pu’s friends was hospitalized with a facial fracture.
“After that, school police stayed with us at the bus stop after school,” Pu says.
Furness’ principal was released after that year. Under a new principal, Timothy McKenna, there were no major racial incidents last school year.
South Philly High students are cautiously optimistic that a regime change there will offer similar relief.
During his first year at South Philly High, Wei Chen witnessed the racial tension and violence first-hand, but he didn’t say anything. Having been raised in Communist China, he feared talking about safety officers’ and administrators’ disregard for the violence.
“In Chinese culture, you can’t tell about problems,” he explains. “If you tell about problems, you are a bad student. You’re not allowed to question authority.”
Plus, the racial differences were played out everywhere. One teacher called on him in class by saying, “Yo Chinese!”
Now, Chen champions the fight to end violence. He’s organized community action, he’s met with school administrators and he’s become a leader to his fellow Asian students throughout the district.
Asian students from South Philly High marched to school district headquarters Wednesday to protest recent violence at their school. PW's Joel Mathis was there to capture the scene.
Racial tensions have been escalating at South Philadelphia High School, and peaked when 30 Asian students were the target of a violent attack. But one group of diverse students have resisted the divisive racial tensions by breakdancing.
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