Heroes: South Philly High’s Protesters

News that Asian students were being viciously beaten within the halls of South Philadelphia High stunned the city. But the real story is the courage of the teens who banded together to stand up to their attackers

One more sign went up in an indecipherable script. One more family moved onto the block. Another corner store changed ownership. And along the way, resentment—deep, and deeply unfair — gradually gripped people’s minds, then their children’s. No one can articulate the exact moment it started because there wasn’t one moment. There were millions.

A decade ago, for instance, a boy named Xu Lin arrived in Philadelphia from China’s Fujian Province. He spoke no English and had no friends, as he started school at Furness High in South Philadelphia. On his fourth day, as he crossed an empty lot near the school while heading home, he heard footsteps coming from behind, and turned just as the fist of an African–American schoolmate smashed into the side of his head. There were several boys, laughing now. Xu Lin reeled — physically, yes, but mentally more so — as he stared at the boys’ moving mouths, forming sounds that meant nothing to him.

His confusion, his inability to understand his attackers, would come to define not just his own experience in Philadelphia’s schools, but the bewilderment of a whole generation. After that first punch, Xu Lin started learning English to strengthen his vocabulary, and lifting weights to strengthen his body.
He felt determined to defend himself and his fellow immigrants in South Philadelphia. Even if it took a lifetime.

JENNIFER SOMMERKORN doesn’t look like a hardened veteran anthropologist, with her youthful smile and her red hair tucked behind her ear. But in the years before she arrived in Philadelphia, she taught English in China, Korea and Turkey. When she decided to return to America in 2006, one job in particular caught her eye.

“I find working on the edges of cultures extremely gratifying,” she says. The job at South Philly High — coordinator for new immigrant students — seemed perfect. On her first day, she arrived to find two parents speaking Vietnamese to a translator. “What’s going on?” she asked a co-worker.

“They’re taking their son out of school because he got attacked in the lunchroom,” the colleague answered, “and they had to wire his jaw shut.”

Conditions never improved.

“I was shocked that in America we have schools like this. It felt like a school from a developing country,” she says. The building struck her as bleak and prison-like, with students roaming institutional gray and green hallways. And much worse, she says, “Teachers were afraid of students.”

The staff, she says, seemed “beleaguered” at best.

“When someone faces constant violence all the time, and you’ve only got six and a half hours each day, you end up tending to the immediate danger, instead of the things causing it,” she says. If she stopped students misbehaving in a hallway, they would call her “cracker bitch whore” and laugh.

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  • Mark

    Hats off to Wei Chen for his courage and leadership. One question, though: Where are the parents of the violent bullies wreaking havoc in our schools, and are they being held accountable?

  • Alphonse

    I’m a student at Penn, and I’ve worked with these kids who are trying to provoke change. The sad thing is administrators are so worn out by the violence and the misbehavior, they seem to have given up on the possibility. And the parents of the bullies [most of which are black] either are non existent or don’t feel like their kids have done anything wrong. Even if the fights are taken out of the school they will undoubtedly resurface in the subways or on nearby streets where school officials can’t always be present.

  • J

    It may be a problem with the system, but if the offending students (whatever race, gender or creed) would rather commit criminal acts than act like responsible citizens, they should be treated as criminals. Maybe only then they will realize what goes around comes around,

    It is ridiculous that people who want to obtain an education spend more time being afraid of each school bell, and people who want to bully others are given a free pass. If anyone is receiving special treatment, it’s the bullies. Fix this, Phiadelphia. You should be embarassed!

  • Jennifer

    No!” they both said. In China, there was no such thing as civil disobedience. The very idea seemed absurd. Terrifying. “Just drop out,” his father told him, not because he didn’t value education, but because in China’s Communistic schools, there is no expectation of institutional change. Students fit in, or they drop out.

    If we look to the early roots of Mao’s communism and the later “Red Guard” and the young who stood up to Communist tanks in Tian An Men Square we come to understand that indeed, the Chinese young, when provoked hard enough… are strong enough to cause a revolution of tumultuous change… this is nothing new to their culture.

  • Donna

    I was sickened when I read this story. I can’t even imagine trying to go to school every day, knowing full well my physical well-being is in danger. Shame on the administration for allowing this to g

  • mike

    What a sickening story. The savages doing the beatings are nothing but criminals. And I don’t believe in making excuses for the “weary” staff. They chose to turn a blind eye.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • R

    I am Chinese, and I grew up in a racist suburb in the mid-west. My family had to move to San Francisco for safety reasons. I now live in Philly, and I thought it would be a safe place since it’s so cosmopolitan. But, this article shakes me to the core. After reading it, every time I look at a black person, I wonder, “Do you hate Asians, too? Are you going to try to beat me up the moment I walk down an alley? Are you a parent of a kid who likes to beat up Asian kids? Did you teach them to hate people like me?” It chagrins me to know that the Civil Rights movement, which worked so hard to free black people from oppression, means nothing to the black youth who are engaging in the beatings at Philadelphia High. Minorities should be helping minorities. In the mid-west, at least minorities would help one another.

  • Jenn

    First of all, the Phildelphia school system is a hot mess. South Philly High is just one school that is seeing the effects from the lack of resources, attention, etc. needed at inner-city schools. There is no accountability from the city to the school system. It’s ONE city and taxpayers pay for both city and school taxes. Where is the accountability from the local government? Where is the accountability from school officials? It starts from the top and trickles down (which reminds me, uh, do school officials even do a background check? WTF is up with LaGreta Brown? How the hell did she get the job, even after her past incidences??). African Americans were the crux of the segregation and violence during the Civil Rights Movement. Well, hello, Philly! Here it is again in 2010 but it’s now African Americans violating and discriminating Asian Americans. There needs to be change!

  • dawn

    To the author of this article:

    I appreciate your portrayal of Wei Chen and absolutely sympathize with his and his classmates’ plight—but seriously, the biased language and portrayal of the African American students in this school is misleading and reinforces negative and racist cultural stereotypes of African Americans as violent. For the first 8 pages we get sensational stories as to how “the black students” were terrorizing the Asians–and it isn’t until page *9* that, finally, we learn–a handful of white students — and apparently even one Asian student — had contributed to the bullying. “And, likewise, some black students had made valiant efforts to protect the immigrants.” Really, the ones at fault are the adult administrators. Please be more culturally sensitive in your portrayals regarding race!

  • dawn

    To the author of this article:

    I appreciate your portrayal of Wei Chen and absolutely sympathize with his and his classmates’ plight—but seriously, the biased language and portrayal of the African American students in this school is misleading and reinforces negative and racist cultural stereotypes of African Americans as violent. For the first 8 pages we get sensational stories as to how “the black students” were terrorizing the Asians–and it isn’t until page *9* that, finally, we learn–a handful of white students — and apparently even one Asian student — had contributed to the bullying. “And, likewise, some black students had made valiant efforts to protect the immigrants.” Really, the ones at fault are the adult administrators. Please be more culturally sensitive in your portrayals regarding race!

  • reggin

    niggers man…