Reaction to Violence Muted by Stereotypes

Jonathan Zimmerman, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 2010

If you live in the Delaware Valley, you’ve surely heard about the brutal December attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School. Seven kids were hospitalized with injuries sustained mostly at the hands of African American students, who beat Asians in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, and the streets outside the school.

But the incident has barely registered outside the area. To understand why, try a small thought experiment: Imagine if the victims were black and the attackers were white.

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But, hey, they’re only Asian kids getting beaten. And the attackers are black; we don’t expect a whole lot from them anyway.

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Sadly, the behavior of African American students involved in the melee fits neatly into media-fed stereotypes of black hoodlums, drug dealers, and gangbangers. We see these images wherever we look, from movies and TV dramas to advertisements and music videos. So if we see it in real life, we shrug; it’s what “they” do.

{snip} Yet when we refrain from criticizing black troublemakers as loudly as we do miscreants of other races, we reinforce the idea that African Americans are somehow prone to such acts. What could be more racist than that?

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News flash: Asians have suffered their share of hatred in America, too. We don’t know or talk about it as much. But it’s true, and pretending otherwise shows another stark racial inconsistency.

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The states instituted their own discrimination. In California, a 1913 law prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land. “All about us the Asiatics are gaining a foothold,” warned one supporter of the measure. “It is a germ of the mightiest problem that ever faced this state, a problem that will make the black problem of the South look white.”

During the Second World War, 120,000 Japanese Americans would be interned in concentration camps. {snip}

After the 1970s, as Asians developed businesses in America’s inner cities, African Americans became the latest entry on a long list of tormentors. Across urban America, blacks accosted Asians with taunts of “ching chong,” “chow mein,” and other slurs. Rapper Ice Cube denounced “Oriental one-penny-counting” Korean shopkeepers in a 1991 song, warning Koreans to “pay respect to the black fist” or “we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp.”

The same mix of violence and prejudice was on display at South Philadelphia High long before the December attacks. In 2008-09 alone, a legal complaint alleges, Asian students suffered 26 separate assaults at the school, mostly at the hands of African Americans.

But the school district’s recent report on the melee makes no mention of this ugly past, providing an apt metaphor for our shared racial blind spots.

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