Recently, there has been a series of high profile attacks on Asian Americans in Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay area. The former has involved assaults on Asian American students in the Philadelphia public school system, particularly South Philadelphia High School. The San Francisco violence has been more serious in nature with robberies, assaults, and even murders, particularly of elderly Asian immigrants.
As documented by the Philadelphia Weekly, Asian American students in Philadelphia high schools have been subject to not only “name-calling, verbal threats, petty robberies, random punches in the head while walking down stairwells, and general intimidation” but also “massive rumbles where outnumbered Asian students were pummeled by packs of teens, sending several of the victims to hospitals.”
Indeed, the “culture of violence against Asian immigrants has existed for so long at some public schools that students almost accept that random beat downs are a part of life,” reported the Philadelphia Weekly.
As one Philadelphia student named Wei Chen put it, “They don’t even know you … They just hit because you’re Asian.”
In the SF Bay area, notable cases of violence against Asian Americans include that of Tian Sheng Yu, a 59 year-old man who was beaten to death by two youths in Oakland; Huan Chen, an 83 year-old man who was attacked when leaving a transport stop and died three months afterwards; and a 52 year-old woman identified as a “Mrs. Cheng” who was hit and then thrown off a transportation platform at the same street corner in San Francisco. Other examples of violence have not received as much media coverage but also exist.
While anti-Asian racism is as American as apple pie, an interesting twist to these cases is that the perpetrators were predominantly African Americans.
And what’s also notable is how authorities in both metropolitan areas have been reluctant to call these attacks acts of racism or hate crimes.
Thus, the Philadephia School District has largely portrayed the attacks on Asian students as merely cases of non-racial bullying or student fighting in which a mix of races has been involved.
However, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a civil rights lawsuit with the US Department of Justice over the school district’s failure to to address what it specifically called “anti-Asian violence” at South Philadelphia High School. And in August 2010, investigators with the Justice Department ruled there was merit to the case.
Similarly, San Francisco and Oakland city officials have mostly downplayed possible racism in the attacks in the Bay Area, with both San Francisco and Oakland police citing statistics suggesting that violent crime against Asians is simply proportionate to their population size in the area. In the case of the Tian Sheng Yu killing, prosecutors declined to file hate crime charges against the two suspects who were arrested.
Morover, one explanation that has arisen is that these assaults are due to economic reasons or merely involve easy targets in the form of Asian seniors, many of whom do not report crimes to the police.
That said, many people in the Bay area Asian immigrant community are not buying the idea that racism had no role in these attacks.
San Francisco community organizer Carol Mo calls these examples of anti-Asian violence “San Francisco’s dirty little secret” and notes that she partcipated in a 2008 SF Police Department analysis of 300 robberies that found in “85 percent of the physical assault crimes, the victims were Asian and the perpetrators were African American.”
And Young Kong, a San Francisco talk radio host, has argued that city authorities and even Asian community leaders have been hesitant to call some of these attacks hate crimes because “they don’t want to exacerbate the tension. They are too chicken, too politically correct.”
Indeed, the political establishments in both San Francisco and Oakland have a vested interest in discounting issues of hate crimes, as they are primarily concerned with maintaining a façade of political order with predictable calls for “racial harmony.”
And more generally, America’s current framework of race relations is still largely understood in literal black and white terms. Public discourse about race is often dominated by whites and blacks, with their perspectives marginalizing that of other groups like Asian Americans.
This black-white paradigm cannot address the specific experiences and interests of Asian Americans or other minorities.
It largely denies them political voice and relegates their concerns to the sidelines.
In 21st century America, however, this kind of Black-White racial straightjacket will increasingly prove to be untenable, as other groups grow in numbers and presence — and seek to develop their own independent politics.
Asian Americans must take this lesson to heart and act accordingly.