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The presidency of Barack Obama was supposed to bring about racial progress and reconciliation. From San Francisco to New York, the rough and tumble of America’s urban centers have steadfastly refused to succumb to his message of hope and change. Instead, they have showed, through numerous recent examples, that hatred and cowardice – as delivered from African-Americans to Asians – is not only alive and kicking, but heinous and potentially lethal.
In April, two black teenagers punched 59-year-old Tian Sheng Yu in the mouth in downtown Oakland, California. He fell on his head, spent the next few days in critical care and subsequently died. Between late March and early April, five black teenagers assailed five different older Asian women, including one who was 71, on separate occasions in or near a public housing project on the Lower East Side of New York City. In late March, five black teenagers surrounded a 57-year-old Asian woman at a light rail bus stop in San Francisco; one of them grabbed her and threw her from the platform onto the rails before he proceeded to beat her. In January, black teenagers kicked and beat 83-year-old Huan Chen after he got off the same bus stop. He, too, died from his injuries. Last fall, two young black men grabbed 64-year-old Rongshi Chen on his way to a convenience store in San Francisco, threw him onto the concrete, kicked his ribs and broke his collarbone before they took his cash, credit cards and identification.
The criminals target not just the old and the weak but also the young and vibrant. In late March in San Francisco, a group of black teenagers beat a 29-year-old Asian man. Similarly, the two teenagers who attacked Tian Sheng Yu in Oakland assaulted his 27-year-old son before and after they assaulted the father.
Some of the perpetrators, like those who attacked the 83-year-old Huan Chen, wanted money before they ran off laughing. Many, however, acted for no apparent reason than just the satisfaction of perpetrating a beating itself.
After the attacks, the uncomfortable issue of race stared everyone in the face, but local officials and the media have bent over backwards to look away. San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Blackwell was eager to label the attackers as just thugs who targeted the “weak and vulnerable.” San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon insisted that the attacks against Asians were “crimes of opportunity,” not incidents of racial targeting. Oakland City Council member Jean Quan discounted the role of race as well, blaming the Chinese residents of Oakland for making themselves “easier targets” through their frequent failure to report crimes committed against them. New York City’s mainstream local media sources, including WCBS and NBC New York, failed to even report the race of the teenagers who terrorized five different elderly Asian women on the Lower East Side, even though their race was there for the world to see, on surveillance video.
In the age of Obama, racial honesty, or even racial soul searching, is apparently too much to ask for. Those in charge of the law, politics and opinion have rendered their verdict (i.e., no racism) and everyone else is supposed to go home.
Yet Asian residents of America’s urban centers, normally apolitical and non-confrontational, have refused to play along. At least not this time. At a community meeting with Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, dozens of Chinese residents, many tearfully and through a translator, relayed their stories of having been mugged or beaten by black youths. At the same meeting, Young Kong, host of a Cantonese radio program in San Francisco, shouted, “People are afraid to talk about race!”
Si Chen, the daughter-in-law of Mr. Rongshi Chen, the man who was mugged and beaten in San Francisco last fall, told the San Francisco Chronicle: “I don’t like to say this is race discrimination, but I have to say it!”
Do these shabbily dressed, English deficient Asian people know something that their much more polished and much better educated government and media representatives do not? Has facing the terror of America’s inner cities day after day skewed their objectivity, and rendered them blind to the reality that blacks, whites and other races fall victim to black violence just as Asians do? Or do their tears and outbursts result from having been at the receiving end of not just the rampant violence but also the endless racial slurs that blacks — and to a lesser extent – Hispanics, regularly dish out at Asians in dangerous and crowded urban settings?
Could it be that maybe, just maybe, they live in a society that prefers to believe that racial progress can only come from affirmative action programs doled out for “underrepresented” minorities and this same society just cannot bring itself to acknowledge disgraceful behavior from minorities? Could it be that when American society and its universities teach that minorities such as blacks and Hispanics can only be victims of racism, not racists themselves, such a society can only meet minority racism with excuses, and minority wrongdoing with an averted gaze?
Racist attitudes and racially motivated crimes in the inner city have existed for a long time, long before surveillance cameras captured them for distribution on the Internet. Now the images shock the consciences of all those who live in safer neighborhoods and prefer not to face the horrors that one human being could inflict one another. Everyone agrees, something must be done, but what?
It is crucial, as everyone now urges, that the criminals be brought to justice. It is just as important, as both law enforcement and civilians insist, to impose law and order on lawless streets.
Ultimately, however, safer streets and more secure neighborhoods depend in no small part on the willingness of residents to demand personal responsibility from everyone and condemn racist behavior across the board.
Right now, even those reviled by the recent spate of black-on-Asian violence eagerly dismiss the role that race plays, just as mainstream society hurriedly discount black racism toward Asians as anecdotal.
Well, these accounts can only be anecdotal because no one is interested in conducting statistics, studies or polls – and few are willing to write articles — on the issue. Most Asians who have suffered from ghetto racism rarely, if ever, air their grievances to those outside of their own communities, either because they do not speak English well or they wish to avoid trouble. In the end, few people talk about this painful subject and even fewer are willing to believe it.
For now, the only solution appears to be more anecdotes. Below, I offer my own. It conveys my experience as a seventh grader growing up in Oakland, California in the late 1980s. It describes racism – largely from blacks and Hispanics — that Asians regularly experience in inner-city areas throughout America. I hope that my anecdote will allow others to see exactly what it is like to live in an environment that daily allows the ugliness of racism to occur unquestioned and unchallenged. Any reporter, researcher or policymaker who wishes to dig deeper will find an endless of supply of other stories like or worse than mine throughout this country.
I share my story not to obfuscate the racism that many blacks continue to face in this country. Nor am I trying to detract from the friendship, kindness and helping hands that blacks regularly offer to Asians immigrants in this country.
I share my story because racism is complicated and multifaceted, but it is ugly no matter where it originates. In modern America, racism consists of dimensions beyond white versus black and involves conflicts among racial minorities themselves. It could be countered with better parenting, better families and better communities. But racial equality, along with peace and harmony, also requires an American society that can confront this painful issue with more honesty, a society is that is willing demand from everyone something that the first black president of the United States has repeatedly urged the black community to grasp: some personal responsibility. It is worth more than a million affirmative action programs.
[Editor’s note: The names of the individuals who appear in the following personal account have been altered to protect their privacy].
My Story: The Fight in the Ghetto
The walk to school was less than fifteen minutes, but it always felt like an eternity. Each morning, I dreaded the walk and walked slowly. I was never late, but I always tried to delay my arrival, even if only by a few minutes.
I was in the seventh grade and attended a public school in the inner city Oakland, California. I hated my school and my fellow students. More than anything else, I hated the frequent threat of violence and the constant presence of racism.
I stood out academically. With the exception of physical education, I took “gifted” or advance classes for students my age. I also took math classes that normally admitted only eighth and ninth graders. The following year, I would skip the eighth grade and take advanced classes that my junior high school did not offer – a chemistry class at a high school in the morning and advanced algebra and trigonometry at a community college in the evening.
Most who knew me at school thought I was strange and looked at me funny. The eighth and ninth graders with whom I took math classes appeared to resent me most of all. I wore thick glasses and shabby clothing, and remained uninterested in their goofing off or their flirtations with the opposite sex. To my older classmates, no one should have been studying as hard as I did in seventh grade. I thought differently, believing that hard work and academic excellence could lead to great things.
No one told me that stellar grades in the seventh grade did not count toward college admissions or life in general. My parents did not speak English and could not advise me. Our family had arrived from China only three years ago. None of the adults at my school counseled me to enjoy my adolescence rather than bury my head in books and equations. My instructors and counselors had bigger problems to worry about: students who toted weapons, engaged in drug use or participated in gang activity.
There was little else that I wanted to do with my time anyway. I had few friends and did almost no socializing outside of school. Much of junior high consisted of students with whom I could not or did not wish to be friends anyway. My school was predominantly black, increasingly Asian and Hispanic and barely white.
Often, black students screamed racial epithets at the Asian ones. “Ching Chong,” “Chinamen” and “Chow Mein” became our names. Sometimes, our tormentors imitated how we spoke our native tongues. On other occasions, they threatened to or actually did physically assault us. No one ever doubted who would win in a fight.
Along with other Asian students, I did my best to avoid any risk of physical confrontation — those who openly and regularly uttered racial epithets always appeared ready to back up their threats with violence. When blacks made fun of the “Chinamen” among them, I said nothing. When black teenagers screamed at the middle aged Cantonese woman in the cafeteria and called her a “stupid Chinaman,” I, along with all the other Asian students present, did nothing. When black students routinely threatened to beat up their Asian classmates, who were generally smaller in size, I looked away. When black girls yelled after me, “Look at that ugly ass skirt that stupid Chinese girl is wearing,” I pretended that I did not hear them.
Black racism did not end at the school fence. Black teenagers regularly hurled racial insults at adult Asian immigrants who spoke limited English on the streets of Oakland. They also frequently crept up behind elderly Asians and frightened them with sing-song nonsense, such as “Yee-ya, ching-chong, ay-yahhhh!” Meanwhile, numerous black adults discriminated against Asian immigrants as well, at the grocery store, on the bus, at the hospital, the unemployment office and everywhere and anywhere. Each time, I gritted my teeth, felt a burning rage but watched the racism take place, in silence.
If ever, my rage burned so hot that I felt compelled to respond, my compulsion would quickly cool when confronted with the embarrassing fact that the other “Chinamen” nearby – Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos and anyone else who looked Asian – always pretended as if they were not witnesses to my anger or the incidents that caused it.
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