Racially Divisive Press Mars Discussion of South Philadelphia High School

by Latoya Peterson

south philadelphia high

I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop in the matter of South Philadelphia High School. And it did.

Reader Carleandria points us to an article in The American (the American Enterprise Institute’s Journal) which wastes no time with the headline: “Are Some Races More Equal Than Others?

Readers, if my eyes rolled any harder, they would be stuck permanently at the top of my brow.

Abigail Thernstrom and Tim Fay feel like they understand the real reason why South Philadelphia High School isn’t getting any play from the press:

Will the Obama administration act aggressively to ensure Asian rights to a public education free of intimidation and actual violence—surely a basic civil right? Or will such action be taken only when blacks are the victims rather than the perpetrators? If the administration acts in the interest of the Asians, black students will be singled out as racially hostile troublemakers—a conclusion that neither the Department of Education nor the DOJ will welcome, if Duncan’s announcement means what it says. [...]

The anti-Asian attacks at SPHS began in October 2008, and prompted Asian advocacy groups to beg for help from the Philadelphia school administration. None was forthcoming, according to AALEF. Three months ago, in early December, tensions came to a head. Trouble started on December 2, and the next day, black students reportedly began to hunt for Asians, checking classrooms were they might be found. A group of apparently organized black students reportedly rushed the stairwells to the second floor where many Asian students were located. Security camera footage from the lunchroom showed a group of 60 to 70 students—most of them black—surging forward with a smaller faction attacking a small group of Asian students.

The AALDEF complaint describes a complete breakdown of adult leadership. One Asian student has charged the lunch staff with “cheering happily,” and others have described security officers as looking the other way. In truth, those charges have been disputed, and other facts are equally hard to pin down. Police and volunteers did try to contain the mounting violence, and at some point the school was “locked down.” School officials later decided to have classrooms dismissed one-by-one, and contacted police to provide extra protection outside the school. The ranks of the police thinned, however, when some had to respond to another emergency, and by the time a group of Asians were heading home they were insufficiently protected. Escorted out of the school by the principal (perhaps only for a short way—another disputed fact), the Asian students spotted blacks lying in wait; they made a futile attempt to run from trouble. In the ensuing attack, one Asian student’s nose was broken, and as many as 13 ended up needing treatment at the local hospital.

While Thernstrom and Fay make token references to not blaming blacks for these issues, the undertone of their article is clear – this group of low income black students are being unfairly preferenced in the press and in the school system, leading to this situation. They pulled quotes from Asian American students but seemingly forgot any discussion of who was targeted (mostly children of immigrants), student responses to this type of race-baiting (which is to focus on the issue and culpability of the administration) and any cross cultural organizing (like the multiracial group of students who came to the striking students and asked them to return to class).

And their article ignores the most obvious reason why South Philadelphia High isn’t getting more publicity: The mainstream media doesn’t care about South Philadelphia High School because the situation doesn’t involve white people.

Let me say that again.

The mainstream media does not find this story compelling because it is the story of the brown, the story of the poor, the story of generation 1 and generation 1.5, the story of kids with accents, the story of violence between two groups no one wants to talk about anyway.

The media wants relateable characters and xenophobic and racist sentiments held by media creators and consumers create no winners in this narrative.

And, most of all, no one cares about poor kids, housed in what my friend Elizabeth Mendez Berry would call “schools of last resort” based on her work with gangs and school penetration. The demographic shift at South Philly High tells the story. The percentage of low-income kids tells the story. Unless the narrative being told about these kids serves in some way to prop up the idea of the American Dream, no one wants to hear it.

No one wants to talk about the struggle, only the triumph.

What’s most infuriating about articles like Fay and Thernstrom’s is that it effectively takes the focus from South Philadelphia High and places it on reinforcing racist beliefs. Articles like this rob the kids of their agency, their organizing, and courage, and instead ask “What’s the matter with black people?” – which, in this situation, is really the wrong thing to ask.*

The picture illustrating this post is the same one illustrating Angry Asian Man’s post from yesterday, for a reason: because these kids need answers, not racist bullshit.

They need accountability.

They need community support.

They need a safe school to attend, even if none of their parents can afford to wave around money or privilege to make it so.

What they do not need are some fuckers trying to piggyback on their suffering to justify racist beliefs.

*I also find it fascinating in an article about the situation at South Philadelphia High School, the statistics offered for consumption aren’t on Asian Americans being bullied at school, or instances of violence toward APIA kids in the communities they call home, or the specific targeting of new immigrants to the US, but discussions on black suspension rates and how to read that metric.

Earlier: How Do We Solve a Problem Like South Philadelphia High?
South Philly High Asian Students Testify On Assaults