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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The American Way: A Historical Ethnographic Study of Asian American Student Leaders in Philadelphia

  • Author(s): Ishimoto, Michael Masao
  • Advisor(s): Solorzano, Daniel G
  • et al.

In 2009, Asian students were targeted in an act of perceived racial violence at South Philadelphia High School. Rather than physically retaliate, the Asian and the Asian American student leaders organized a school boycott and demanded that the central school district office listen to their previously silenced voices. In response to the organizing of the multiethnic alliances in Philadelphia, the U.S. Department of Justice took notice and officially cited the school district for violating the rights of Asian students.

Using Yamamoto's (2009) interracial justice framework, this research project investigates the campaign that occurred after the attacks in 2009 to understand how Asian American students built a political movement for safer schools and pushed for increased student voice in school policy decisions. I use critical race methodology (CRM) and historical ethnography to conduct 15 phenomenological interviews, document analysis, and record observations of youth organizing efforts in South Philadelphia and Chinatown (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002; Hunter, 2005).

This dissertation finds and discusses three key themes. The first theme challenges media representations of how different racial groups define multi-racial alliances and their responsibilities as a part of the alliance. From the media articles, it appeared that a multi-racial coalition was built and maintained throughout the boycott with strong relationships among the boycott participants. Although partially true, some interviewees expressed concern with using the term “coalitions” to describe the partnerships that developed during and after the boycott.

Second, interview participants highlighted the four-step process toward sustained interracial justice. It appears that the campaign's participants successfully understood each other's personal and community struggles. Also, the students went through the performative and material processes of interracial justice by rallying together and sharing resources to gain nation attention for their cause. However, they encountered a roadblock with sustained reflective reconstruction due to the difficulty of maintaining partnerships across organizations.

The final theme is the importance of women mentors for young Asian American men. Male leaders in the boycott pointed to the pivotal role of women community leaders in the boycott's success, understanding the importance of interracial justice, and redefining masculinity as an Asian American.

The findings from this study on the process of transformational resistance of Asian American youth will provide an invaluable contribution to Asian American Studies, Gender Studies, and youth organizing research.

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