“it’s just violence”

Those words were uttered by a 17-year-old Vietnamese-American student in response to what has been described as racially motivated attacks against Asian students at a South Philadelphia High School in December.

The following month, in South Hadley, MA, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself after incessant physical, verbal and emotional abuse from classmates at her school. (Full disclosure: the superintendent of schools in South Hadley was my superintendent when I taught in a nearby district several years ago.)

Both incidents are horrific. Both have been labeled, in the media, as bullying.

I can’t help but think that “bullying” doesn’t adequately describe what was at play in both tragic incidents. No, I was not present in either case. But from what I’ve read, both involved teenage victims who were immigrants: Phoebe Prince had recently moved from Ireland; the students attacked in South Philly were recent immigrants from Southeast Asia. The hatred directed at Phoebe was so virulent that even after she died, she was being taunted via her memorial page on Facebook. The Asian-American students in South Philly say they’ve been the victims of a “much longer pattern of anti-Asian/anti-immigrant violence at the school.”

If these were in fact anti-immigrant, bias-related attacks, it wouldn’t surprise me. Growing anti-immigrant sentiment appears to be a national trend, notes Gabriel Arana in an article in The American Prospect. One recent example: during an immigrants-rights rally in Washington, DC, there was the much-publicized incident of Tea Party followers shouting racial epithets and spitting on members of Congress.

Arana also points out:

Since the 2006 protests, membership in anti-immigrant groups has increased 600 percent. The number of these groups has also risen from around 40 in 2005 to over 250 today.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is not a new phenomenon in this country. And neither is its consequences. As Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned, wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times in 2007:

Scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself. Born before the nation, this abiding fear of the “huddled masses” emerged in the early republic and gathered steam into the 19th and 20th centuries, when nativist political parties, exclusionary laws and the Ku Klux Klan swept the land.

As we celebrate another Fourth of July, this picture of American intolerance clashes sharply with tidy schoolbook images of the great melting pot. Why has the land of “all men are created equal” forged countless ghettoes and intricate networks of social exclusion? Why the signs reading “No Irish Need Apply”? And why has each new generation of immigrants had to face down a rich glossary of now unmentionable epithets?

Using different terminology to describe what occurred in the high schools in South Hadley and South Philadelphia – anti-immigrant bias versus bullying – doesn’t bring back Phoebe Prince or dispel the physical and emotional pain experienced by the students at South Philadelphia High. It may all be, as the 17-year-old Vietnamese-American boy pointed out, simply unfathomable violence.

On the other hand, putting the right label on what happened, understanding the broader societal forces at play in addition to the local context, may provide insight into how we work with our students to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.

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1 Comment

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One response to ““it’s just violence”

  1. You are absolutely right that we must study these tragedies in order to know our students. We have to understand what is at the root of it. I find the culture of intolerance is so prevalent among teens, at least the teens I work with, that I become numb to it. It overwhelms me. It runs me over. How can I be a parent to the hundreds of students I work with? I try every day and seem to fail. In the end, I only hope I set an example for them that they might want to emulate. Thanks for the blog post. I always love to read your writing.

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