Model minorities versus Black (reverse) racists: Blacks, Asian Americans, & South Philadelphia High
Model minorities versus Black (reverse) racists: Blacks, Asian Americans, & South Philadelphia High
Tamara K. Nopper
December 18, 2009
As a resident of Philadelphia and an Asian American concerned with and engaged in research and writing about Black-Asian relations, I have been following Asian American students’ recent boycott of South Philadelphia High School after almost 30 of them were purportedly physically attacked by a group of Black and Asian students on December 3, 2009. The whole situation makes me sad. Yet I’m concerned with how Black people are being implicated by some of the media reporting and political support for the students. Specifically, I am concerned with how some are taking advantage of the situation to promote the all too popular and white supremacist charge of Black reverse racism, even when some of the alleged perpetrators have been identified as Asian American. In the following I explore the image of Black reverse racism and how some non-Blacks have used this to marshal support for their causes. I also consider how the Asian American students at South Philadelphia High are being depicted by some of the media and supporters as model minorities in opposition to Black criminals and reverse racists.
African Americans as the face of reverse racism and corrupt state power
Working with the Philadelphia non-profit Asian Americans United (AAU), the “progressive” Asian American organization in the city (where I also worked for two years a while back), activist and writer Helen Gym has the following post on her blog: “Targeted because we’re Asian: South Philly students speak out about racial assaults.” The article states, “There’s no doubt that any time there’s violence between and among communities of color, there needs to be careful consideration of the situation involved. I do believe, though, that the reluctance about naming race has a lot to do with the District dragging its heels in collecting all the evidence in this situation.”
Although I can only speculate, I am concerned that in the case of South Philadelphia High, the School District’s described “reluctance” may be posed or taken by some as a form of reverse racism perpetrated by an African American principal, LaGreta Brown, and an African American School District Chief, Arlene Ackerman. As someone who is critical of color-blind racist approaches to dealing with the world, I can understand why we should be vigilant about the unwillingness of individuals and institutions to deal with racial inequality. But I am concerned with the hidden transcript here, the one in which insinuations of reverse racism are being implicitly made against the District by those sympathetic to, but not necessarily working directly with, the Asian American students.
Related, charges of reverse racism are often coupled with the suggestion that African Americans are now the face of state power and will use that power in corrupt ways to punish non-Blacks. The fear of a Black take-over in which whites will be dominated has informed whites’ perceptions of Black protest before the current period. This is evident in whites’ repression, through various techniques (including immigration), of slave uprisings and the fury they unleashed in response to the modest but important political and economic gains made by Blacks during Reconstruction.
Yet in the post-civil rights era, a growing number of multiracial and multinational efforts suggest that non-Blacks of all backgrounds are increasingly misinterpreting or misrepresenting Blacks as the face of state power and specifically, the face of corrupt state power in which Blacks distribute, whether through repression, negligence, or racial solidarity, institutional forms of violence against non-Black groups. For example, Canada, in a case that had been widely criticized by Black South Africans, granted asylum to a white South African claiming he was the victim of Black racism. In other words, his white status was in need of protection. Additionally, I remember watching some Ugly Betty episodes in which the title character’s father, Ignacio, attempts to circumvent deportation to Mexico by putting up with black immigration official Constance Grady’s extremely aggressive sexual overtures. Indeed, on IDMB, the description for a 2007 episode titled “Sophie’s Choice,” literally reads: “Betty’s dad Ignacio finds he can’t get out of the demands of mean black Immigration official Constance Grady, who will get him deported even after 30 years of total integration unless he satisfies her.” And while I am not a fan of President Obama because he isn’t radical enough—partially by choice and mostly because of the dictates of running an empire—it is noticeable that studies suggest that for some Asian Americans, like whites and other non-Blacks, there was anxiety that a Black president would work against their interests, which makes me wonder how Asian American voters considered race in all of the previous elections for which we’ve been eligible to vote. Moreover, studies show that in response to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, in which Korean business owners lost almost half a billion dollars, several Koreans who had been registered Democrats crossed over to the Republican Party because they felt that the state had upheld Black interests by allowing their property to be damaged.
I’ve also heard similar concerns from Asian Americans I’ve met. For example, I remember when I taught a race course at Temple University, a young Asian American student mentioned to the class that she decided to get involved in activism in support of Asian Americans after becoming upset at footage of then mayor John Street, an African American, announce to an NAACP convention, “Let me tell you, the brothers and sisters are running the city,” a quote that was not forgotten by many non-Blacks. Not surprisingly, the Asian American student tended to align herself with a fellow white student who was one of the most racist white students I ever dealt with, despite the fact, as she announced in class on the first day in response to a Black woman’s critique of her tone toward her, that she “lies in bed with a Black man every night.” Indeed, I recall how eager the Asian American student who hated Street was to engage in a class “dialogue” about Black “reverse racism” initiated by this white woman and how she interrupted my transition to a new topic by saying she wanted to pursue this conversation. Yet for some reason, this Asian American student never seemed too moved by any of the data or studies examining systematic violence inflicted on African Americans.
While African Americans of all types are racistly and sexistly associated with corruption, it is noticeable how, as seen in the aforementioned description of the Ugly Betty episode, African American women working in the public sector are increasingly viewed as the face of power-hungry reverse racists when it comes to the administering of public goods or forms of state assistance. And given that charges about reverse racism are generally coupled with the myth of state excess on behalf of Black empowerment, it is unsurprising that Black women, who are racistly and sexistly perceived as the biological and cultural generator of dependency, are also vilified as recipients of excessive affirmative action, which purportedly, has helped make possible their presumed meteoric “rise” in spheres of influence where they then, supposedly, restrict or punish others. Speaking to this point is a 2006 sociological study which argues that opposition to affirmative action, often derided as a form of reverse racism, is stronger when Black women are considered the beneficiaries. The authors conclude:
Gender/racial prejudice towards Black women and Black men influences Whites’ opposition to affirmative action at different levels than negative attitudes towards Blacks as a group. Prejudice toward Black women has a larger effect on Whites’ policy preferences than does prejudice toward Black men or Blacks in general.
While we should always pay attention to how institutions, including the public education system and all of the other institutions involved in its operation, are managed, there are a couple of things to consider. First, many African Americans, particularly women, are in positions that require them to serve as the interface between the state and the general public, such as public education and social welfare services, with one of the reasons being that the private sector has been harder to integrate. Thus, many of the African Americans who have achieved middle-class status have done so by working in different levels of the government and public service industry in relatively unenviable positions where they are viewed as the sole controller of public resources. Second, some of the people in these jobs are working in institutions that are underfunded, highly bureaucratic, and systematically neglected because the spaces or the services offered are associated with Black people even if those in or using them are not Black. As such, while we can question some of the leadership practices of those in these institutional roles, we must also look at the conditions in which they are expected to lead. Third, we must evaluate our expectations for leadership and whether the authority figure being Black means we have greater vigilance for how they handle racial matters, which is generally the case when it comes to African American administrators. Related, we must ask if our expectations are humanly possible for one or two or three people of any race to meet. Ackerman, as reported by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, raised this point at a December 16 meeting, at which she formally apologized, an act that got wide attention in the media. The story, written by Dale Mezzacappa, states, “She said the School District ‘has now been asked to singlehandedly solve the issue of violence and racial discord’ that is deeply rooted in history, and go far beyond the schools.”
Furthermore—and this point seems to elude those supporting the Asian American students—we must consider how the de-invested conditions of public schools with majority Black enrollment exist because of anti-Black racism and that Blacks have to endure these conditions just like their non-Black peers. And they do so in a society where Black suffering is taken as a natural phenomenon instead of a political one. As such, Blacks, unlike Asian Americans and Latinos, do not have access to morally recognized tropes that highlight their suffering whereas Asian American and Latino community leaders are often able to generate more widespread support—and at times, punitive responses, at least against Blacks—by highlighting their (immigrant) status as outsiders competing against Blacks for access to rights and quality services and living, working, and educational conditions. Perhaps this is why supporters of the Asian American students at South Philadelphia High have fixated on Black perpetrators and in the process never mention the reported involvement of Asian Americans in the attacks. In other words, they need the perpetrator to be Black in order to promote the narrative of Black-on-Asian American violence that is permeating the media and internet. Further, different forms of violence (institutional, symbolic, and interpersonal) that non-Black people of color inflict on African Americans are often reduced to cultural differences (which only serves to highlight the sympathetic image of Asian Americans and Latinos as outsiders) and are generally not interpreted as a sign of the deficiencies of these groups and certainly do not receive multiracial condemnation. Although the School District is also emphasizing cultural differences, the emphasis on this trope suggests that the structural dynamics that set up the context of interracial violence can not or will not be named, although Ackerman’s mentioning of racial discord being rooted in history and violence was the closest thing I’ve seen to a structural analysis. Also, I wonder what tropes are available for Black victims of violence or institutional racism that can simultaneously highlight their vulnerability without pathologizing Blacks and actually be taken seriously. More, when violence happens to Blacks, it generally only gets attention after it can be blamed on other Blacks or universalized by being associated with the negative experiences of other racial groups—a strange reversal indeed since most non-Blacks seem only to know how to articulate racial grievances by analogizing our degraded statuses as being treated like Blacks. In the case of South Philadelphia High, school safety and violence in public schools are now viewed as a social or city problem now that the victims are not Black. And the advocacy of Asian Americans is being viewed as the intervention that is finally happening, as if Black communities haven’t attempted to address school violence before the reported attacks.
Asian American model minorities versus Black reverse racists and criminals
The idea that Blacks are not the victims of violence or state power but rather the perpetrators of it has helped to marshal support for the Asian American South Philadelphia High School students if not for Asian Americans in general. Indeed, like the racists “shocked” (and delighted) by the recent news about Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs, many are taking advantage of the situation to simply pathologize African Americans.
This pathologization simultaneously depicts Blacks as reverse racists and behaviorally and culturally deficient and promotes the model minority myth, which valorizes immigrants and Asian Americans as more disciplined, hard-working, and thus more deserving of support, material rewards, and in this case, safety, than African Americans. For example, in a news story run a day after the attacks, notably titled “Asian Students under attack at S. Phila High” (as opposed to being attacked), Dafney Tales writes:
Zhihua Tian traveled thousands of miles from his native China earlier this year to profit from the treasures of the American education system.
Unfortunately, he landed at South Philadelphia High School, where the number of violent incidents often overshadow student achievements.
In response to a news story that security measures have been increased at South Philadelphia High, “Anonymous” chimes in:
No wonder Rev Al and Jessie are no where to be found. Where is the outrage?–these werent priveleged white kids from the burbs that were victimized–they are the children of immigrants. These are people of color who, like the earlier posting observed, will acheive great things in spite of all of this because they come form a background that stresses hard work and accountability. The perps come from a “Stop Snitchin’ culture that uses every excuse in the book to explain the failures of their group. This group relishes government entitlement prgorams EXCEPT the one that can help them the most _ public education- presumably because it comes with strings attached– ya gotta show up and do some work!
It is truly sad that productive Asian students are subjected to the behavior of sissy boy ghetto thugs who are basically cowards and only attack in packs. The Asian students should be transferred to a civilized school in the suburbs and leave the thugs to rot in their own filth and so called ‘culture.’
But mainstream media and its readers are not the only ones promoting the model minoritization of the Asian American students. Such a depiction can be found on the blog of Angry Asian Man, a popular website among Asian American progressives, particularly college students. In a story about the high school, the following comment is made:
Can you blame these students for taking refuge elsewhere? Many of these students actually moved to the United States from Asia for a chance at a better education, only to find themselves under constant threat of violence. It’s absolutely ridiculous that it’s come to this, that a school cannot protect its own students.
While I understand that no one wants to experience violence or to have it be part of their educational experience, the image of the hard-working immigrant coming from Asia who challenges their violation seems to easily gain moral legitimacy if the perpetrator is identified as Black or associated with Black people. In some cases, Black perpetration overrides Black victimization, even when the latter is acknowledged. For example, in her letter to Philadelphia Daily News regarding South Philadelphia High School, run on the website philly.com under the headline: “Letters: What’s Al Sharpton doing in this story?,” Jennifer Lisacek writes:
IHAVE some questions regarding the recent article about the school police officers allegedly holding down a student and beating him:
Why is the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network and Al Sharpton getting involved?
Why is it that whenever something negative happens to a black person it is turned into a racial matter?
What about the poor Asian students who were physically and emotionally attacked by black students simply because they are Asian?
To be fair, those involved in the campaign to support the Asian American students have gone out of their way to stress that this isn’t an effort to demonize African Americans, and some, such as writer Christina Chen, who wrote a guest column for the blog “Race Wire,” sponsored by Colorlines, addresses the implications of punitive responses. She states, “Let’s be real here: South Philadelphia High is 70 percent Black and 18 percent Asian. The ‘disciplining’ of those involved in the attacks often translates into the further criminalization of youth of color.” Despite the furor that her column generated for not overtly condemning African Americans, I am glad Chen emphasized this point and that it has also been intimated among those organizing with the Asian American students. Unfortunately, there is little available evidence that Chen or others are, in their respective responses, actively working against the valorization of Asian immigrant youth and subsequent demonization of African Americans that’s generating some of the support for their cause. It appears that the one part of the myth supporters are most interested in combating is the image of Asian Americans as passive victims who don’t defend themselves. For example, regarding mainstream press coverage, Chen writes, “reports of anti-Asian violence often lapse into tired ‘model minority’ tropes. In profiling Asian students as defenseless victims of these assaults, these articles overlook the brio by which these same students speak up and fight back.” Chen goes on to quote Gym of AAU, who says, “Many of these immigrant students have become articulate and impassioned leaders for youth voices. They’ve written platforms about what they need from their principals and teachers. They need to be heard—and the recommendations they’ve made over the year taken seriously.”
I know from experience that non-Asians expect us to be passive and that responses when we’re not can range from shock and anger to shock and then liberal amusement (Margaret Cho, anyone?). And as a scholar of Asian American studies, I have read and researched enough to know how assumptions about Asian American passivity have been and continues to be damaging for us on so many levels. And I want Asian Americans to be politically cognizant, vocal, and active. Yet I am concerned that in dealing with a situation at a school that is 70 percent Black and confronting two Black women administrators or educators in the process, the aspect of the model minority myth that Chen and Gym appear to be the most concerned about is not the anti-black racism inherent in the valorization of Asian immigrants, but rather that Asian immigrants may be mistakenly perceived as politically uninspired victims. But we need to publicly challenge the demonization of African Americans that appears to guide some of the support for the Asian American students.
Perhaps School District Chief Ackerman’s unwillingness to allow for the wholesale demonization of African American students at South Philadelphia is one of the reasons why her leadership is being so strongly questioned. Whatever the case, Ackerman has been condemned for pointing out that some of the racial conflict at the school may be related to the actions of Asian Americans, albeit not necessarily the ones who were assaulted. For example, Ackerman was criticized for mentioning at a meeting held with the Asian American students, their families, and community leaders that reportedly, a few Asian American students attacked a disabled African American student on December 2, thereby suggesting the next day’s attacks may have been a form of retaliation, a point that has been dismissed but never fully explored. Overall, Ackerman has tried to defend Black students from being stereotyped, most noticeably at the widely covered December 16 meeting. As the Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports:
Ackerman said some students had told her they felt unfairly stereotyped by media coverage of the incident, which she termed ‘sensationalized.’ Ackerman characterized the violence that triggered the weeklong boycott of classes by a group of Asian students as being perpetrated by ‘a small group of students of multi-ethnic origins.’ She said South Philadelphia students told her that they believed the coverage ‘maligned some races and mischaracterized others,’ and that their stories had been told ‘unfairly.’
Some activists and journalists may point out that efforts are being taken to not demonize the Black students. For example, a statement from students involved in the campaign stresses that they want a safe place for all students. And a December 10 news article states, “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.” Another article has a photo with the caption: “Two Asian girls and an African-American friend embrace after seeing one another at the corner of Snyder Avenue and South Broad Street this morning as boycotting students returned to school. When asked, they said they were part of the boycott but declined to give their names.” Similarly, on its website, AAU, under the heading “Citywide support for the Students of South Philly High: a show of unity and support for safe schools” posts a photo taken at Arch Street United Methodist Church, where a multiracial group of Asian American student supporters, including African Americans, gathered. And in another article, Black students express both their concerns with being negatively perceived and are also quoted saying that they don’t have problems with Asian students. Interestingly, this article, titled “Some black South Philly High students resent being lumped with attackers,” does not appear among the extensive list of news articles about the incident that appears on AAU’s website. While it’s important to highlight aspects of Black-Asian solidarity and for multiracial communities to collectively protest violence in their institutions, it is curious that African American students, themselves dealing with the negative aspects of public school as well as the ways in which they are constantly criminalized, have to go out of their way to redeem Blacks by reassuring others that they don’t hate Asians because of the purported behavior of a few African American (and Asian American) students.
It is becoming evident that some of the support for the Asian American students at South Philadelphia High is being generated by appeals to anti-Black racism, in which Asian American model minorities are viewed as unfairly stuck with presumably pathological African Americans or in conditions that are associated with Black people. More, the hidden transcript of Black reverse racism seems to be marshaling some of the support for holding the School District (also racialized as Black) accountable, although many non-Blacks don’t seem too concerned with the activities of the School District when Black students experience violence. Such gestures are consistent with other Asian American political efforts, in which emphasizing Black perpetration or being stuck with or in conditions associated with Black people is the basis for mobilizing support for our campaigns. For example, Asian Americans, against the backdrop of the U.S.’ growing imperial concerns regarding the future possible rise of Asia or ties with the region, worked to get white rights by claiming that they were unfairly being relegated to Black spaces such as segregated schools. In contemporary times, Asian American organizations have demanded that Asian Americans who have experienced violence in housing projects from African Americans be relocated with little consideration for the institutional violence that informs the existence of housing projects and the experiences of African Americans within them. And related to South Philadelphia High, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) recently announced that it will “file a complaint for civil rights violations with the U.S. Department of Justice against the Philadelphia School District for failing to address the rampant violence against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School (SPHS).” This is most ironic since AALDEF, established in 1974, was modeled after the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which was a major force working to legally desegregate the public school system.
In closing, it is unclear what will be the outcome of local organizing efforts led by or in support of the Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School, especially as the School District initiates a 50-member “Task Force For Racial And Cultural Harmony,” which is tasked with “conducting a root-cause analysis” of tension and making recommendations to curb it. Hopefully, those involved in the Task Force will find a way to explore what are very real racial tensions without succumbing to the demonization of African Americans that has plagued most of the coverage and debate regarding the attacks on Asian American students. Doing so, however, will require more active efforts to challenge the hidden and not so hidden transcripts regarding Blacks and Asian Americans that appear to be motivating some of the support for the Asian immigrant youth.