Asian Students Subject of Real-Life Course on Racism in S. D. Schools

Times Staff Writer

The Vietnamese student squirmed uncomfortably as the black student sitting behind him in the English class at Crawford High School went on and on about how he and his friends had “the right to protect themselves from groups of Orientals.”

Yet, as an often-angry discussion about recent racial tension at the high school wound down toward the end of the period, the black student leaned over to the Vietnamese, who had remained silent throughout the hour, and asked politely to borrow a pen and a piece of paper.

The exchange summed up the situation at the East San Diego school last week, after a nasty outbreak of racial violence that revealed deep-seated antagonism toward Indochinese students at the school by other racial groups.

On the surface, daily life has returned to normal, with Crawford’s multiethnic mix of Asian, black, white and Latino students blending uneventfully in class and on the athletic fields, while continuing a longstanding tradition of clustering by ethnicity during lunch. The 30 or more San Diego police officers patrolling the campus periphery have returned to regular duties elsewhere.


But the incidents of fighting and gun displays a week and a half ago have forced educators not only at Crawford but also throughout the San Diego Unified School District to rethink the level of harmony they have been able to encourage toward America’s newest ethnic groups through race-human relations programs. Hoover and Kearny high schools, and Wilson, Montgomery, Roosevelt and Horace Mann middle schools also have many Indochinese students.

“We like to think we’ve done a bang-up job with these programs in getting kids to understand each other, to develop empathy and learn how to get along,” said Maruta Gardner, principal of Mann, which sits next door to Crawford and, like its neighbor, has an Indochinese student population of more than 20% of its total enrollment.

“Yet our students graduate to Crawford, and look what happened there. It makes you wonder if things have really worked, or rather that the underlying feelings of dislike are still there.”

The uproar began Oct. 19 when two young men, thought to be Vietnamese, fired shots from a blue automobile at a black Crawford student who was a block from school and on his way home. The shots missed the black student but grazed the foot of a Cambodian student who was walking nearby.


Police and school administrators believe the shooting was retaliation for past incidents involving harassment of Indochinese by the black student, who was attending Crawford as his third high school after having been kicked off two other campuses as a troublemaker. They say the incident also reflects an increasing tendency among some Indochinese, in particular Vietnamese students, to retaliate for name-calling and physical threats that are widespread on campuses such as Crawford.

The next day, rumors spread through the campus about “gangs” of Indochinese having attacked black students. Some black students threatened revenge. On Oct. 21, roving groups of students, mainly but not exclusively black, surrounded and pummeled individual Indochinese students during lunch, injuring 11, mostly Cambodians who are more likely than other Indochinese to be in English-as-a-second-language classes and are more foreign in appearance.

San Diego police, alerted to threats of more shootings after school at nearby Colina Del Sol Park, positioned themselves in front of the school and arrested several black and Indochinese non-students who were found to have weapons.

Principal Nancy Shelburne and key teachers spent Monday and Tuesday of last week talking to all classes, separating facts from rumors and trying to put a lid on any more violence by appealing to the students’ sense of loyalty to Crawford. But she is under no illusions about the long-range problem of dealing with anti-Asian feelings.

The Crawford student population of 1,700 has been among the district’s second- or third-highest in numbers of Indochinese for several years, averaging a quarter of the total school enrollment. Whites compose about 36%, blacks 20% and Latinos 14%, with almost all students living within the school’s regular attendance boundaries.

“At the most pessimistic level, I see lots of undercurrents of racial unrest and even some racial hatred, with kids saying, ‘I’m white and I hate the Indochinese’ or ‘I’m black and I hate the Indochinese’ . . . a real deep-seated animosity,” Shelburne said.

“But, at the most optimistic, I see only pockets of white and black students willing to fan the rumors and consider it open season on Indochinese.

‘Not Surprised’


“I’m disappointed but not surprised at the racial antipathy. I thought we had progressed further, but I remind myself that no matter how good a job you do on race-human relations in any one year, you have to start the process all over again the next year because at least 30% of the student body will be new,” Shelburne said.

Crawford student body president Carmin Tandy attributes the racial feelings to jealousy and ignorance on the part of non-Indochinese students, especially blacks.

“Others see the Indochinese students driving a new car and get jealous, they don’t understand how they get this stuff,” said Tandy, adding that few black or white students know of the hardships that many refugees faced in getting to America or that the new car may be the result of 15 or more extended family members pooling hard-earned wages from several jobs.

“I know they work harder than a lot of people, and it was hard for them to come here, but a lot of students tease them about their language and the Indochinese resent it and get tired of taking it,” Tandy said.

Tandy and other student council representatives insisted, however, that there are friendships between ethnic groups and that many students are willing to work toward better relations, although they still know very little about Indochinese in general and groups such as Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians in particular.

“Last week when that Asian guy was jumped by blacks, we brought him into the (student government) office to protect him, and I got some paper towels to stop his mouth from bleeding, and it hurt me,” said Tandy, who is black. “I resented blacks for doing this, I felt ashamed, I didn’t care if he were Asian or not.”

For principal Shelburne, improving the racial climate will now be a higher priority. “I insist that every student at this school feel safe, whether at their lockers or at lunch or whatever, and that no one feel like a second-class person,” she said.

Already, Shelburne has the names of almost 80 students chosen by teachers as influential, either in a positive or negative sense, on campus. Special district race-human relations counselors have talked with these students throughout the week about their views, winnowing down the numbers for Shelburne to convene a group of students to maintain a continuing dialogue about ethnic issues.


“We have had the Spice Club until now, but it has been fairly superficial, picking the student of the month and things like that,” Shelburne said. “I’d like a more down-to-earth group to talk about real problems, not just issues such as self-esteem.”

Last year, Shelburne sponsored seminars for her teachers on different learning styles among students as her race-human relations program emphasis to boost academic achievement.

“Maybe, in retrospect, I should have zeroed in instead on the nitty-gritty of conflict resolution and racial anger,” she said.

At Mann, Gardner instituted “lunch bunch” groups three years ago, where teachers volunteer to sit down over lunch periodically and talk about any problems that students have with classes or with one another.

“We started it because we were finding that blacks, whites, Latinos were all unified against Indochinese,” Gardner said. “We said, ‘This can’t go on, all this name-calling, pushing in the halls, etceteras.’ It took a whole year before we had the lunch discussions fully integrated.”

Mann also has periodic “Celebration of America” festivals where the school focuses on the culture of a particular ethnic group for the entire week, not only during special assemblies but also in classroom curriculums as well.

“I think at the least we have created an awareness about the Indochinese students, about their past, and that the climate has improved over the past four years,” Gardner said.

But, although her efforts have won widespread praise from district officials, Gardner is more cautious about their effect, pointing out that younger siblings of students at Crawford were posturing and making threats at Mann this week as well.

“I do feel the tension here as well,” she said. “Some of it is normal adolescence, wanting to have some excitement. But I’d be foolish to say that everything is fine here, although there has been nothing overt and I do think we’ve made progress.”

Shelburne compared the effort to promote harmonious ethnic cooperation to “solving the issue of war and peace . . . look, realistically, nations and families fight and we haven’t solved that. But I think we can give a good go at establishing basic understanding. I’ve got to believe that, by chipping away at attitudes, we avoided an even worse situation than what happened.”

Student leaders at Crawford concede that an improvement in atmosphere will not occur overnight.

“We know it will take more than just this year to stop name-calling, to begin to change peoples’ ideas,” said Todd Roberts, the school’s race-human relations student commissioner. “Somehow, the Indochinese kids, too, have to be convinced to take a chance, to join in.”

But the students--most of whom attended Mann--criticized the race-human relations programs for emphasizing cultural customs of the homelands of Indochinese students and not promoting social interactions more directly.

“They show you their dances, their foods, but there isn’t a setting where you can meet and talk and learn about them as a person,,” student Lorraine Carroll of Crawford said. “The programs focus on where you are from rather than about you as a person now.”

Student Mark Gilbreth said that assemblies are perceived “as uncool, so a lot of students don’t want to go” because there usually is only a single speaker from one ethnic group. If there were two or three at the same time from different groups, Gilbreth said, they would reflect more accurately the school’s makeup and therefore be able to talk more easily about problems.

Che Gonzalez did praise the lunch-bunch groups at Mann for promoting realistic dialogue. And student body president Tandy said too many students are afraid to “break tradition” and reach out to the Indochinese.

The problems at Crawford are not unique and probably will continue as Indochinese students bear the brunt of being the newest immigrant groups, said Kenji Ima, San Diego State University professor of sociology. “They are viewed as intruders, especially the Cambodians who are less assimilated and came out of a ‘hell’ in Cambodia only to be treated like dirt here,” Ima said.

Ima and colleague Ruben Rumbaut completed a national study on Indochinese students last year, using data from a 10-year period in San Diego city schools, which showed among other things the increasing reluctance of the students, in particular the Vietnamese, to passively accept discrimination.

“It’s very interesting that the numbers of suspensions for Indochinese, especially Vietnamese kids, have risen dramatically, although still below those of other ethnic groups,” Rumbaut said. “Among Vietnamese, half the suspensions we studied were for fighting with non-Indochinese as a result of race-baiting, whereas for other races the reasons are more for defiance of authority, smoking, stealing or possession of weapons.

“And, in cases of retaliation, the Vietnamese are much more likely to retaliate collectively, in groups for self-protection, and not as individuals.”

Both Rumbaut and Ima also criticized district race relations programs, with Rumbaut citing school district studies that show many junior high school students “consider all these kids a bunch of ‘yangs’ or words even more pejorative, and say, ‘Send them back to Japan or China’ . . . they have no idea who these people are.”

Ima said, “You can lessen the antagonism, but you have to do a lot more so that American-born kids understand why these refugees came here, to understand that the kids have different obligations in terms of their parents, and even in terms of having a special mission to try and get more of their families out of Southeast Asia.

“We should have kids learn about the joys and fears of these refugees rather than just have a lot of ‘psychobabble’ programs.”

Ima said that the black community has a special obligation to promote understanding, since so often black students complain about Indochinese students studying too hard or not participating in after-school activities without knowing of refugee pressures and hardships.

“The black community has been very slow to react because it has always thought in terms of black-white relations,” Ima said. “And the district programs as well are outdated because they were set up on a black-white basis as result of the stormy history of integration in the courts.”