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Arlene Ackerman's 'elephant in the room'

By Ron Whitehorne on Dec 16, 2009 03:08 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

The attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High raise difficult questions about the role of racism in our schools, our city, and our country.  Arlene Ackerman, addressing students, parents, and community members at the SRC meeting, called it the "elephant in the room."

She’s right.

Unfortunately in her remarks before and after the meeting, Ackerman has fallen short in providing the leadership to help us understand what happened, and how we can move forward. But others, fortunately, have taken up the slack. 

The facts, as related by the students and community leaders who have been working to improve the climate at the school, paint a disturbing picture in which Asian immigrants have been ridiculed, harassed, and subjected to violence by other students with the complicity of many of the adults, particularly security staff. District leadership has failed to aggressively address this problem in spite of clear warning signs.  

Given the strong currents in our culture that stereotype young African American men as violent and serve to justify repressive laws and policies that target the Black community, the way the attacks are characterized is important. Many, particularly those on the political right, see incidents like the attacks at South Philadelphia High as confirmation of their view that urban violence is an expression of the moral and political shortcomings of African Americans.    

As one speaker at the community forum held by Asian Americans United to support the students pointed out, racial violence between Latinos, Asians, and African Americans is a fact of life in South Philadelphia. No one group has a monopoly on victimhood. 

But this can’t be used to sidestep the fact that there are deeply rooted prejudices toward Asians and immigrants our society. Nativist sentiment rooted in White supremacy has a long, ugly history in our country. One of the most brutal chapters in this history is the persecution and violence directed against Chinese immigrants who worked the mines and built the railroads in the West, culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II with barely a whimper of protest is further testimony to the depth of anti-Asian prejudice.

Today we see a strong movement against immigrants of color, scapegoating them for the decline in working class living standards. This movement has found its strongest popular expression among Whites of European origin who have elevated demagogues like Lou Dobbs to national prominence. But no group is immune from the steady diet of anti-immigrant sentiment that draws on deeply rooted prejudices in our culture. In our city, because immigrants of color typically are living in neighborhoods and attending schools in which African Americans are the majority, the conflict is most overt between these groups.

One of the unfortunate ironies of our history as a nation is that newly arrived immigrants have tended to assimilate the White supremacist ideology of the dominant Anglo-European majority, proving their “Americaness” by supporting discrimination and violence against Blacks who were consigned to the bottom rung in America’s caste system.

Meanwhile African Americans are encouraged to target immigrants as threats to their jobs and standard of living while the corporate elite, made up almost exclusively of White people, profits from the exploitation of both groups. As one speaker at the community forum pointed out, it's all about divide and conquer.

To their credit, the Asian students, and the adults supporting them, have been careful to avoid racial scapegoating and stereotyping, consistently pointing out that school violence threatens all students and pointing out that the main failure here has been those adults charged with the safety of our schools. At the community rally, they did not ignore the elephant in the room, but have called it out in a way that benefits us all.   

As Ellen Somekawa, executive director of AAU, said,  “It is a racial issue not because of the race of the attackers…but because students were targeted for attack because they were Asian.” 

AAU member Lai Har Cheung, in an emotional speech at the community forum, vented her frustration. “I’m sick of seeing African Americans villainized and Asians victimized.”

A great moment at the rally on Sunday was when, in blogger Eric Braxton's words, ”Six African American students from the Philadelphia Student Union took the stage and spoke in support of the Asian students and in favor of schools that work for everyone. Maybe the rest of us can learn something from these students.”

Maybe we can, and maybe we can begin to forge unity based on recognizing that an injury to one is an injury to all. Let’s bring down the elephant.

Comments (32)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 17, 2009 10:45 am

Mr. Whitehorne, did you not know that German Americans and Italian Americans were also interned in the U.S. during World War II?

There was not a whimper then nor is there a whimper now for the Euro Americans who were interned? Why is that?

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 17, 2009 1:50 pm

The internment of Germans and Italians during WWII certainly violated civil liberties and unfairly impugned the loyalty of these communities.   But the scale of these internments pales in comparison to the internment of the Japanese and thus, for me, underlines the point that anti-immigrant sentiment, while not limited to immigrants of color, is more virulent and extensive.

Less than 2,000 Italian Americans were interned and most were released early on.   More than 10,000 Germans were interned, a significant number of these having been deported from Latin American countries.    Over 100,000 Japanese, by way of contrast, were interned.  These numbers acquire even greater significance when we look at them as a percentage of these communities.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 17, 2009 2:25 pm

Apparently you do not subscribe to the message... that "the Holocaust began when the first innocent victim was killed; not when the 6th millionth was killed...

The crime was committed when the first innocent victim was interned. Numbers have no meaning!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 16, 2010 6:31 pm

Japanese-Americans on the Hawaiian Island and most of the USA were not interned. Part of the reason they were picked on was the cowardly attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. The Germans and Italians declared war on the USA only after we went after the Japanese, their allies. It is unfortunate that Japanese-Americans were the target for American outrate, but you are judging after the fact, not in the heat of the moment. Pearl Harbor eclipsed both Benedict Arnold and Fort Pillow in terms of betrayal.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 18, 2009 11:41 pm

Yes, there were internment camps for Germans and Italians in the USA during WWII, but they were not American citizens at the time of their internment. However, the Japanese-Americans put into internment camps were American citizens which is why that was a violation of their civil rights. The Japanese-Americans that lived on the west coast were put into camps, not all Japanese-Americans throughout the USA. As someone pointed out there were plenty of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii even after Dec. 7th, but they remains free because there would hardly be anyone left if they had been.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 19, 2009 1:01 am

Opinions are like...you know what...everyone has one...

This feller here tells us that the Germans and Italians in America who were interned were not US citizens...

Prove it...

I have heard other accounts that said that American citizens of German and Italian descent were interned...

Back up your assertions...

Just so you know...it was liberals...lefties...Dems...who instigated the internment of the Japanese Americans...it was New Dealers...it wasn't right...but neither was the very real danger of Japanese Fascism... unfortunately a lot of honest and patriotic Japanese Americans were interned...

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 19, 2009 11:59 am

I am hardly a liberal so set your bias aside. I know Americans of German and Italian descent that lived through the WWII and none were in a camp or knew anybody who was in the camps. There were Germans and Italians that were in the USA at the time the Axis forces declared war on the US who were put into camps. They were potential threats to the US government so they were rounded up. The Japanese-American citizens were mainly interned because 1) they stood out easier than Germans or Italians; basically racism; 2) the Japanese bombed the USA, but Germany and Italy declared war us only after the USA declared war on Japan. I can ask you to back up your assertion too! Show me one website where it says German-Italian-Americans were being rounded up like their Japanese-American counterparts. I do remember seeing a show on a PBS station (is that liberal enough for you) on the subject of who was rounded up. I remember one of the American guards talking about how efficient the Germans were when it came to running the mess hall and other functions of the camp they were being held in.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 17, 2009 11:45 am

Well, according to lib think...the Imperial Japanese...weren't so bad...
Libs...don't like to own up to the fact...that it was California governor, Earl Warren who was responsible for the internment...and a lot of libs...in the Roosevelt administration approved of the internment...and cheered for it...

When it comes to internment...of civilians...the left takes the cake...

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 17, 2009 1:01 pm

I carry no brief for liberals or anyone else who apologized for these polices, but let's be clear the right wing of that period - the Bund, Father Coughlin and his followers, the America Firsters etc. were virulently racist and anti-semitic so if your suggesting that the history of this period fits some narrative that elevates conservatives think again.

Submitted by keith newman (not verified) on December 17, 2009 12:59 pm

A great blog Ron, one that should spark much rational conversation.

As a kid, a new kid to the neighborhood always had to prove themselves and establish themselves as the best athlete, toughest kid, smartest kid etc. Then they gain acceptance and establish their position in their micro-society or neighborhood. The students do this to new teachers, or even experienced teachers who are new to their school.

At the national level we rightly call this discrimination. All immigration groups suffered it, but none more vigorously than African Americans (who are the decendents of those forced here, not those that chose to come here).
Let us hope we are finally evolving as a nation to where we can judge a person not on the color of their skin or gender, but in the content of their character.
The students are correct. Adults have let them down. We have let our schools become unsafe. Bullying is relentless and tolerated in our schools. We must end that practice in the earliest of grades, beginning now, or we will fail another generation.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 17, 2009 3:44 pm

I was waiting for the term "white supremacy" associated with this story....I'm also waiting for someone to blame GW Bush.

This thuggery has nothing to do with so called White supremacy...it has everything to do with an entire community that has raised it's children to hate. To hate police, to hate whites, to hate Asians, to hate Latinos, to hate themselves. And to continuously shrug responsiblity for their own vile actions.

No mention of the fact stated by several of the Asian students that they were also targeted by black teachers and staff, teased and harrassed and called racial names. No mention that those same staffers sent the Asian kids away when they asked for help. No mention that they did not intervene when they witnessed violence against these innocent students. No mention that they reinforced these attacks whether by affirmation or ignorance. Shame. Shame. Shame on ALL of them.

How can we expect any better of the students when the adults are such shining examples of racial hatred.
I challenge the black community to hold up a mirror and see with clarity the racial hatred that simmers just beneath the skin.
No one to blame here but the perps of this viciousness.
Speak truth to power. End of story.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on December 17, 2009 4:00 pm

Your blaming the entire black community which you argue "has raised its children to hate" is exactly the kind of racial scape goating that I think the Asian students and community leaders took care to avoid.

I did mention the complicty and the responsbility of adluts and school staff but I don't presume as you do that all these staff members were black.  The picture at the top of the post makes clear where I think the primary responsbiility lies.

Maybe you need to look in the mirror too. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 17, 2009 5:43 pm

And that blaming an "entire community" allegation you tossed at me does not also reflect your use of the "white supremacy" blame game? Hurts, doesn't it?
As Eric once sang.....'fore you accuse me....take a look at your self.....

Submitted by keith newman (not verified) on December 17, 2009 5:33 pm

So much for the rational conversation i was expecting.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 17, 2009 6:42 pm

right, back atcha....it's perfectly ok for you to use terms like "white supremacy" to blame for this violence but when I point out it's "black racism"....the SHTF....why is that? Why? Why?
throw your hands up and blame "irrational conversation"...and continue with your tiny mind. No wonder Philly is a pit.

Submitted by Jonny Rashid (not verified) on December 18, 2009 3:03 pm

Simple power dynamics need to be mentioned. Who benefits from this attack? I would make the argument that when two racial minorities are engaged in this kind of conflict, the ruling elite benefits.

Ron is humble and plays it relatively safe in his blog--an excellent one, to be sure. But frankly, the truth is that the ruling elite turns a blind eye to this kind of crime. It avoids addressing the prejudice that exists here because it benefits from the oppression. In fact, the attention that those in power assign this event is, by an large, not one to reconcile races, but to increase the already rabid racism against black people.

If reconciliation, peace among people, and functional educational outlets are not strictly humanitarian goals and some left-wing conspiracy--call me a conspirator.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 18, 2009 5:56 pm

I agree...racial tensions, welfare dependency, fathers missing from the homes, crime....all ensure more democratic voters....so it the liberal agenda is one to keep the poor, poor. They don't want anyone lifted out of poverty...they want government dependency. They want the racial scape goat....look at Al Sharpton...that baffoon has made a career out of racial baiting and hatred...

I am just so surprised that more individuals won't admit this.

Submitted by duwayne josephson (not verified) on December 18, 2009 10:05 pm

Denial is a sign of mental illness. As for German and Italian internments during WW2 this comes close to an absurdity to compare with the well-known facts of Japanese-American WW2 internments. There was a more vigorous Bund operating in the US during Hitler's and Mussolini's reigns and severl prominent 'Conservatives' you seem to look up too were important operatives to the effect of causing the US to remain neutral until Pearl Harbor. One of these Nazi sympathizers was the Bush family and their associations with Union Bank.
These were times when Jews were banned from many American institutions, remember?

And the USA is the first racist nation created which served as a role model for Nazi Germany, Apartheid S. Africa and Zionist Israel. That is the USA was the first nation to codify laws in favour of the White race with the ratification of the Naturalisation Act of 1790. No other nation had ever categorized race as the qualification for citizenship until then. Argue if you like its the letter of the Law and the spirit continues in the denials by people like you.

Submitted by duwayne josephson (not verified) on December 18, 2009 10:28 pm

Denial is a sign of mental illness. As for German and Italian internments during WW2 this comes close to an absurdity to compare with the well-known facts of Japanese-American WW2 internments. There was a more vigorous Bund operating in the US during Hitler's and Mussolini's reigns and severl prominent 'Conservatives' you seem to look up too were important operatives to the effect of causing the US to remain neutral until Pearl Harbor. One of these Nazi sympathizers was the Bush family and their associations with Union Bank.
These were times when Jews were banned from many American institutions, remember?

And the USA is the first racist nation created which served as a role model for Nazi Germany, Apartheid S. Africa and Zionist Israel. That is the USA was the first nation to codify laws in favour of the White race with the ratification of the Naturalisation Act of 1790. No other nation had ever categorized race as the qualification for citizenship until then. Argue if you like its the letter of the Law and the spirit continues in the denials by people like you.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 28, 2009 9:00 pm

Arelene Ackerman is an embarrassment. She totally appears disinterested in dealing the problems the Asian students have. If black students were getting beat up by white students this would be getting national attn. It just seems since blacks are attacking Asians (a quite group) who cares?

That is the attitude Ackerman portrays. She appears annoyed that she even has to pay attn to this. BTW, when a school official thinks the "solution" is more security cameras -- you know they have basically admitted violence can not be curtailed - only monitored and recorded. What the hell kind of message is that!

Schools need to be serious about kicking out ANYONE not interested in education but violence.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 31, 2009 11:17 am

All of this fighting; let's put it aside and offer solutions. Who loses while we point fingers? The students pictured above.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 31, 2009 6:08 pm

Hiding behind the phrase "fingerpointing" is avoiding the point. If it had been white students dragging black students from classrooms it would have been national news from Day 1. Until black racism is condemned just as loudly as racism by any other race all Philly students will lose. Black bigotry in the Philadelphia School District has been a long term problem going on for decades. It's time to put a cork in it. It seems to me that the color truly involved the most is yellow (as in cowardice, not a reference to Asians).

Submitted by David (not verified) on January 6, 2010 6:30 pm

It is unfortunate that we can't have a conversation without the loud racists issuing blanket condemnations etc. BUT you and Ackerman aren't helping by pretending that there isn't a problem, mostly by globalizing it. (Ackerman: it's the violence from the streets! You: It's the white supremacists' fault!) I'm not sure what, specifically Ackerman was referring to by the "elephant in the room" or what she was right about. It does not appear to have been the obvious fact that one ethnic group is persecuting another at South Philly High.

There's nothing globally horrible or even unusual about what has been happening. It's common for one numerically superior group to persecute another. It just needs to be called out and dealt with. Ackerman seems to be terrified of doing so, as if saying that a group of black kids are targeting Asians would demolish the whole edifice of racial equality and universal human civil rights. And for her to bring a group of black SPHS students to the recent meeting with the Human Relations Commission and no Asian kids is really bad judgement that makes her look like an out-and-out racist. (Imagine the scenario where a white superintendent brings a group of white students to such a meeting after a bunch of black kids get beat up.)

You imply that Ackerman is some sort of truth teller, but it looks to me like the opposite is true. The truth is giving her the willies. And your trying to blame evil white people is just limp ideological clap trap. "Meanwhile African Americans are encouraged to target immigrants...." If a white guy goes out and beats up a Vietnamese kid, can he also blame Lou Dobbs?

Turning to the future, it seems to me like a substantial dose of ethnic sensitivity education would be helpful, along with some reminders that ethnic harassment won't be tolerated. And maybe some acknowledgment to Philadelphia's Asian community that it is welcomed and legitimate, and that its good treatment actually matters to the leaders of the Philadelphia School District.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 6, 2010 9:59 pm

David, thank you for your comments.  I wanted to respond briefly.

It was not my intention to "blame evil white people" but rather to try to situate the South Philly incident in some historical context that recognizes the common roots of anti immigrant sentiment and white racism directed at black people.   I don't think racial conflict is a matter of numbers but grows out of historically specific circumstances and reflects ideas that are deeply rooted in our culture.   I was trying, however tenatively, to explore some of this content.

I don't really understand your point about the white guy attacking the Vietnamese etc.  You seem to be suggesting that I'm saying  the Afircan American students can get of the hook because of Lou Dobbs and "evil white people.  I think all people have to be accountable for their behavior.  But that doesn't mean why shouldn't try to understand the forces that influence it.  Otherwise how can we bring about change. 

As for Arlene Ackerman I agree with you that she has sought to deny the racial character of the attacks and her behavior at the HR commission carries it to a new level.  Her elephant in the room remark I saw as ironic given her evasions.

At the same time I think many African Americans are understandably angered by the heated calls for denunciations of "black racism" coming mostly from whites who think white racism, if it ever existed has long since ceased to be a problem.  

I also agree with you that ethnic sensitivity training is very much needed in our schools and more generally.   But to me this inevitably leads back to looking at the roots of the false ideas we hold about each other.   These ideas did not fall from the sky but evolved historically out of the need to rationalize oppressive institutions and privelege.  Any training worth its salt will have to go there.

Submitted by David (not verified) on January 7, 2010 8:29 am

It looks like we have boinked into the source of our disagreement. You seem to think that American racism is something singularly horrible and stemming from our unique history, but it looks pretty ordinary to me. I view it as a subset of tribalism, which exists around the world in many forms ranging from benign to murderously violent. And yes, I do think the impulse to tribalism 'fell out of the sky,' in the sense that it looks to me like it's genetic or at least very deeply rooted. Humans are very dangerous to each other, and we immediately search each stranger for signs that we can trust him or her. Similar tribal membership (however that membership is defined, not always by ethnicity) is one thing that makes us feel safer.

One of the things I like about the US is that no one tribe owns us (contrary to the beliefs of a lot of English, German and, to some extent, Irish folks), and we're forced to confront our own tribal impulses on a regular basis. I suppose we learn something from that, at least politeness, notwithstanding the overt and ugly racism one sees on anonymous conversations like this one.

Finally, I don't view African Americans (or Asian Americans for that matter) as angels in this regard, and I don't blame these kids' violent tribal actions on white people, racial oppression or anything of the sort. I don't think those black kids attacked the Asian kids because Lou Dobbs or history or anyone/thing else told them to. They did it because the victims looked different, spoke oddly and probably acted unfriendly. White racism obviously hasn't 'ceased,' but it's not to blame for what these kids did.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 8, 2010 4:00 pm

I think you are right that this is the nub of our disagreement.   Let me try to develop my side of it a little more.

Yes there is something we can call tribalism or entnocentrism in social relations.   There's much scholarly argument over where it comes from but that is for me a secondary matter.

But white supremacy is qualitatively and quantitatively different.   And we are not simply talking about our home grown version of it, but a global phenomena.

Beginning in the 15th century Europeans began a process of expansion and colonization that by the waning years of the 19th century was global in scope. The subjugation of people of color by white Europeans was not "tribal" but racial  in character. White Europeans, whatever their ethnic differences, some of them quite sharp, were united in both theory and practice when it came to the peoples of what was later called the third world.

And while tribalism certainly has led to some nasty conflicts, the domination of white Europeans was brutal on a unprecedented scale. African tribes may have warred with each other and enslaved rival tribesmen.  Europeans depopulated the whole continent and sold millions into slavery.  Native American tribes had small scales wars. European settlers carried out a systematic genocide. Etc. Not "ordinary" in my view.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 7, 2010 11:05 pm

Ron, where are you getting the idea that whites who call for denuciation of black racism think that white racism is no longer a problem? Nobody has said that it does not exist, but we do know that it is too often used as an excuse for failures in black communities. Bill Cosby was right on the money about this very issue. We're tired of the racist assumption that any time there is racism it must always be "whitey". The recent South Philly High incidents are specifically related to black bigotry. Why do you have such a hard time condemning them? There is a misguided notion that any white who speaks up against acts of black bigotry must be espousing white supremacy. They are two different issues. If not, then we could also assume that every black person who denounces white racism is really espousing black supremacy.

White teachers in the West Region will shortly be observing the ninth year of the infamous Overbrook hate speech against them by Dr. Carr. This was at a school- mandated function which was suppose to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but ended up soiling his legacy with Carr's racist slur towards whites. Even the teachers' union admitted he had done wrong and an apology was due to them. Nine years later those teachers are still waiting for that apology. That is why a number of whites will be joining their Asians counterparts in asking the Federal government to investigate the racist mindset that has flourished in the Philadelphia School District too long.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on January 8, 2010 10:00 am

The most vocal critics of "black bigotry"  are right wingers who for years stood in the doorway to block evey measure to promote racial equality in this country.   The media and the political arena provide a mulitude of examples, most recently the condemnations of Barack Obama as a racist.  If you can cite a single example of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk condemining white racism I'll buy you lunch.

That being said African Americans are not immune from bigotry.   What I object to is an abstract equation of white racism with "black racism".   White racism is not simply a matter of attitudes but exists as an institutionalized system that denies opportunities to some and confers privileges on others.  I don't know anything about the incident at Overbrook you cite but whatever the shortcomings of some black administrators, including our beloved Dr. Ackerman, the Philadelphia School District, which is 85% students of color, remains a prime example of institutional white racism, offering an education that is separate and unequal.

Submitted by Erika Owens on January 8, 2010 11:00 am

A post on YPP also has a take on "reverse racism." (It also links to the great article from earlier this week with some of Ackerman's comments about the South Philly situation.)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 8, 2010 2:39 pm

I understand that the Republic of Viet Nam sent its deputy ambassador in Washington, D.C., to speak with the Department of State about what is happening to its citizens in South Philly...

I wonder if the government of Viet Nam has been told that the ethnic intimidation of its nationals...is "no big deal" and "not racial."

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