Imagine this. It’s six in the morning and, like the other couple thousand kids in the city, you hit the snooze button a couple of times instinctively before finding yourself on the verge of being late to your first class. You get up and get ready for school, groggily nibble a slice of stale toast, and head out the door to your seven o’clock French class. Backpack pressed tightly against your school sweatshirt with lunch bag in hand, you stride quickly down the street, careful not to bump into anyone while overtaking the early-morning dog-walker. You know it will be a long day, but you also know that one day it will all pay off. You know that, if you work hard enough, anything is possible.
On the way to school, you encounter a gang of students—all bigger than you. You think about turning around, and, just as you do, one of the students elbows you in the face until your nose starts to bleed. Another punches you in the eye until it’s so swollen that you can’t see out of it anymore. You feel a knee to your stomach, a hard blow to your back. Soon enough, you are being kicked and stampeded on by a group of students, and all you can think about is why you had to get up that morning, but the thought doesn’t last long. Upon trying to open your eyes, you get a glimpse at the splattered blood, now seeping into the cracked pavement tiles. You try to yell for help, but nobody can hear your cries. All you can do is suffer and wait. All you can do is hope that it will be over so you don’t get a detention for being late to your seven o’clock French class. You mumble to yourself: pourquoi est-ce qui m'arrive?
Sound like the plot to the latest blockbuster movie? Maybe, but you would be wrong. In fact, the story just recounted became the norm for an unfortunate group of students at South Philadelphia High School. Sadly, on December 3, 2009, a gang of students viciously attacked twenty-six of their classmates over the course of a single school day. No arrests were made; only ten students were suspended. No formal charges were filed. The victims were all of Asian descent.
Within the past couple of weeks, the Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School decided that they have had enough, and began to work proactively towards ensuring the safety of themselves and their peers. The students, many of whom having come to the United States in order to seek access to a better education, have had their dream of a improved lifestyle horrendously crushed by students who believe that attacking other students may be the only way to ameliorate their own problems. The students, due to no fault of their own, became the victims of violent, race-based hate crimes. Today, these students refuse to be the victims of an unforgiving circumstance any longer—they have taken their fate into their own hands.
Had it not been for the courage of a group of Asian American students to fight for their right to learn in a safe environment, we would have never known about these brutal attacks. We would never know that these racially charged beatings were not merely a single incident, but rather just one attack out of a string of horrendous hate crimes that have galvanized the community throughout the past year. We would have never known that these attacks did not happen in a single school, but have become a systematic problem throughout the entire school district. And, perhaps, worst of all, we would have never known that these Asian American students, and students to come, would have to fear for their safety each and everyday upon going to school—a right that many of us take for granted much too often. Simply, we would have never known.
But, the fact of the matter is, that we do now know, and, as Asian Americans, we cannot afford to sit idly by as fellow members of the Asian American community suffer and subsist in an environment of racial discrimination and pernicious hatred. As members of the Asian American community, our histories share a common thread, and their future is inexorably intertwined with our own. We cannot regress to a time when race becomes a justification for violence—when we are forced to live a life of fear and dread. Ultimately, each and every one of us has a stake in their success.
Although students have rallied the school administration and the district school board to make the necessary changes to ensure their safety, their demands have been met with disregard, disrespect, and inaction. The vice-principal of the school fell asleep during a city-hall style meeting organized by the students to express their concerns; the school district went so far as to call the attacks “racially unmotivated,” although all of the students attacked “happened” to be Asian American.
The East Coast Asian American Student Union fully and wholeheartedly supports the students in their endeavor to ensure their wellbeing in a safe, learning environment. We believe in their right to an education, as it is not only the great equalizer, but also the great enabler, allowing students to create for themselves a better and brighter future. When the school setting becomes plagued with violence, students are forced to subsist in a life of fear and anxiety, and cannot live to achieve their full and highest potential. Thus, any attempt to constrain this fundamental right ought to be met with protest and outcry.
Based on these premises, we strongly believe in and advocate for:
- The expulsion of the students responsible for the attacks, in accordance with the district’s procedures;
- Charges filed against the individuals who perpetrated the acts of violence; and
- The suspension and the subsequent review of all school and school district administrators who compromised the integrity of the school system by failing to act to protect students against acts of violence, whether they believe them to be racially motivated or not.
Ultimately, after system-wide student walkouts, the school board has finally agreed to enhance security in the schools, but it will be important to keep pressure on the school system to prevent acts like this from happening in the future. While the latest meeting with the school board was, in some ways, a success, this is only the beginning of a long process to ensure the safety of all students from racially motivated hate crimes.
After the election of President Obama, we have been constantly inundated with notions of a post-racial society and an environment where race is no longer an issue. However, from our founding to this very moment, race has played and continues to play an integral, albeit often overlooked, part of this nation’s social fabric. I urge you to reconsider: what does being apart of one of the greatest nations of the world truly mean to you if students are raised into believing that racial hatred and violence can become the convention? With all the rhetoric of “hope” and “change,” what does a brighter future truly mean?
As former President Bill Clinton once stated in a State of the Union address:
“The divide of race has been America's constant curse. Prejudice and contempt… are no different. They have nearly destroyed us in the past. They plague us still. They fuel the fanaticism of terror. They torment the lives of millions… [they are] obsessions [that] cripple both those who are hated and, of course, those who hate, robbing both of what they might become.”
Fundamentally, it is important to understand that these racially motivated attacks shape and are shaped by our changing “historical moment.” It is impossible to understand the nature of these attacks without first understanding the underlying environment that gave rise to them. Perhaps only by understanding what motivated these attacks can we truly take the first steps towards being able to prevent them from happening in the future. Much work remains to be done.