Attacking Racism: Black-Asian Solidarity After the Violence at South Philly High

Judas Lee

A fast-growing spirit of cross-racial solidarity is taking root in the Philadelphia public schools in response to the December 3rd attacks on 26 Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School.

On the Monday following the attacks, 50 students refused to attend classes, kicking off a highly publicized boycott that lasted eight school days. At the School Reform Commission Meeting held that week, students and numerous community advocates gave public statements expressing outrage over the gross failures of teachers and administrators to intervene and stop the attacks. Despite the fact that the attackers were primarily African American and the school has seen long-standing tensions between the racial groups, students carried signs of protest that read, “It’s not a question of who beat whom, but who let it happen.”

Indeed, activists have been calling attention to the school district’s repeated negligence in addressing a history of racial incidents at the school.

The dodging response from the district as well as the coverage by mass media has tended to create the wrongful impression that tension and violence between African Americans and Asian Americans is somehow natural and inevitable. School District Superintendent Dr. Arlene Ackerman wrote in a Jan 11th editorial for The Philadelphia Inquirer, “All too often, students bring racial intolerance from their homes and communities into school. When these prejudices exist in cultures and neighborhoods where violence can be a way of life, it’s no surprise that tempers explode and learning becomes impossible.” Mainstream media coverage has tended to portray Asians in South Philly as the latest immigrant newcomers in a changing neighborhood who are understandably met with resentment and abuse because of their differences in language and culture.

Many students are refusing to perpetuate this narrative by forging cross-racial alliances as a response of solidarity to the Asian students’ demands upon the district to improve school safety for all of its students, irrespective of race. Rather than accepting the simplistic and condescending explanation of culture as the source of blame, students are showing that they can and must work together across racial lines to address the root causes of interracial violence.

Although solidarity between Blacks and Asians is nothing new, it is important to nourish it by remembering and reclaiming the legacies of Black-Asian cooperation that are often missing in popular accounts of the historical struggles against racism. This knowledge enables us to understand lessons from the past that are still useful to us now, as well as to grasp the reasons why solidarity is experiencing a resurgence at this historical moment.

Black Power, Yellow Power

In the late 1960s, the struggles in education were largely characterized by people of color working closely together for the common cause of radical liberation.

At San Francisco State University in 1969, Black, Asian, Chicano, and indigenous student groups came together to form the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF). Calling themselves “Third World peoples,” they recognized that although they had vastly different histories, people of color shared positions of subordination relative to whites in the social system. As students, they fought the perpetuation of racism in higher education by demanding sweeping changes, including increased admissions for students of color, increased hiring of faculty of color, and the dismantling of a curriculum predicated upon a white American historical perspective and cultural values.

The Black Panthers had a similar view towards changing education. In their original party platform, they stated, “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.” The Panthers are often portrayed today as militant separatists, but in fact, Huey P. Newton and other leaders maintained a vital interest in the connected struggles of other people of color. The Black Panther Party included several Asian Americans, including a Japanese American named Richard Aoki, who was a personal friend to Newton. In fact, Aoki was a founding member of the Panthers and served as a field marshall in the organization.

Both the TWLF and the Panthers sought to transform education from a bastion of racial and economic privilege to a means of empowerment for all peoples of color who had been dispossessed by histories of slavery, colonization, and coercive labor importation.

A pervasive spirit of cross-racial cooperation and solidarity extended to other arenas of social struggle beyond education. The activist Yuri Kochiyama became involved in the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Harlem, when she befriended Malcolm X. According to Kochiyama, Malcolm was very interested in the cause of the survivors of Japanese American internment. Kochiyama was present at the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm was assassinated and held him in her arms as he died. Famously, the boxer Muhammad Ali made a conscientious objection to fighting in Vietnam. He expressed his refusal as an African American to be recruited in the service of American imperialism and its inherent racism: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me nigger.”

During the 70s and 80s, the strength of solidarity movements and activism began to fade. Mass media and policy makers neutralized the energies of the previous decade by creating success stories about hard-working Asian immigrants and accusing African Americans of relying on state entitlements. By pitting racial groups against one another, capitalism replaces cooperation with competition, and different people of color began to view themselves as competing for grades and admissions into exclusive schools.

Increasingly, people of color no longer viewed education as a means of empowerment for all, but rather, a way to compete for a piece of the pie.

The 1996 Los Angeles riots were arguably the most visible and tragic culmination of the mounting tension from this divide-and-conquer strategy. In the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, Korean Americans and African Americans murdered one another as a way of expressing frustration at the continuing racial injustices of the legal system. Meanwhile, the police safely barricaded Beverly Hills. Who let this happen?

Racial Solidarity and the Return to Empowerment

The recent economic crises have made it easier for students, teachers, parents, and activists to recognize that, despite improvements, people of color remain a subordinate class in American society. With jobs scarce, unemployment among African Americans is higher than among other racial groups, and the idea that non-white immigrants, including Asians, should be prevented from “taking our jobs” has been gaining in popularity. The need for cross-racial solidarity and cooperation is more important than ever.
In the Winter newsletter of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), Dan Jones and Azeem Hill question the desirability of American education preparing workers for the global economy: “Should we simply become part of the system, or should we be critically engaging it to make it truly work for us, instead of us for it?” Instead of accepting the terms of competition in the game of globalization that produces increasing economic inequity both at home and abroad, Jones and Hill call for education to become a place where students should instead learn to innovate new forms of social cooperation.

Student activists are themselves already beginning to practice such cooperation. A week after the student attacks, the PSU quickly mobilized to create a forum for discussion, establishing points of meaningful dialogue and connection between African American and Asian American students at the school. Following the end of the student boycott, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a ceremony recognizing the Asian students as part of a continuing legacy of civil rights struggle.

On Martin Luther King Jr Day, numerous organizations, including the PSU, Asian Americans United, the Chinese American Student Association at South Philadelphia High, Boat People SOS, and the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia came together to hold a rally against school violence. Instead of the token gestures typically made in celebration of King, many speakers made renewed appeals for purposeful  solidarity. Student Azeem Hill quoted King as saying “We all came here on different ships but we’re all in the same boat now.” Hosting the program, PSU president Khalif Dobson expressed the need “for the people who are oppressed to stick together.”

At the heart of this growing spirit is a return to the ideal of empowerment in education. Shanee Garner, a teacher at Bartram High School, remarked in a speech at the rally, “For my students to succeed in this world, they need to know how the [social] systems were designed to work against them.” It is with this knowledge, she said, that “they are able to counteract them.” When education teaches students to diagnose the concentration of wealth and power in society, they can better understand interracial conflict as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy to maintain social inequality. Moreover, they come to embrace the necessity of working together to create more just alternatives.

Empowerment means that frustrated and angry people are once again seizing control of institutions to force them to meet real human needs instead of the demands of the market. To date, Superintendent Ackerman’s response has merely been to mandate better “diversity training” for staff to handle student conflicts. In the face of the school district’s inability to create fundamental change, community groups and advocacy organizations are increasingly choosing to work together across racial lines to push for genuine transformation in education.

Such efforts indicate a growing awareness of the strategies necessary for combating racial injustice today. Commenting on Martin Luther King Jr’s shift towards human rights towards the end of his life, Savina Martin of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary urged the crowd at the MLK rally to think about what racism and inequity look like in our current historical moment. “It’s not about ‘black’,” she said. “It’s about every single race in the country today.”