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I teach courses at Swarthmore College that challenge students to think critically about their own academic success.
At the beginning of the semester, most students believe their hard work and intellect got them where they are. As the semester goes on, many students come to realize that their academic achievement is as much a product of structural conditions that worked in their favor as it is their hard work and merit. These are lessons that explain why some of the best high schools in America often have low populations of black and Latino students.
When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently proposed a plan to change the admissions criteria for the city’s specialized high schools, it infuriated some Asian-American groups. The new plan sought to increase the number of black and Latino students in these elite schools by no longer relying exclusively on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), an exam that Asian-American students perform disproportionately well on.
Segments of the Asian-American community came out to protest the proposed plan in ways that are reminiscent of how some Asian Americans and opponents of affirmative action, including most recently the U.S. Department of Justice, are mobilizing around the Harvard lawsuit. With signs that read “End Racism,” they decried the new policy as anti-Asian.
I followed this story closely as a Chinese-American alumna of Bronx Science (one of NYC’s specialized high schools), a former New York City public school teacher, and a professor who studies and teaches about race, education and inequality.
New York City’s specialized high schools are but one example of a larger pattern that repeats across the country: disproportionately high percentages of Asian students and disproportionately low percentages of black and Latino students in the top public high schools in America, including in Chandler, Arizona; Guilford, North Carolina; and Fairfax County, Virginia.
In the case of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the premier public high school in Fairfax County, activists brought a complaint to the U.S. Education Department in 2012 alleging that the admissions process discriminates against black, Latino and low-income students.
T.J. is 63 percent Asian, 1 percent black, 2 percent Latino and 26 percent white — in a school system that is 19.5 percent Asian, 10 percent black, 25 percent Latino and 39 percent white.
If the Trump administration’s recent push to weaken affirmative action is any indication, the struggle for educational equality for black and Latino students will be even harder-fought.
Despite the recent allegation that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants by ranking them lower on personality traits, the fight for Asian-American equality should not be weaponized to diminish opportunities for black and Latino students.
Like my Swarthmore students who have learned to think critically about their academic success, I encourage Asian-American students to critically examine how historical and structural factors have disproportionately disadvantaged black and Latino students in the educational system. There are three lessons I teach about that are particularly relevant to the situation.
First, I teach how racial bias is built into standardized tests, including entrance exams that determine admission to competitive schools. “Stereotype threat” is a concept that helps explain why some students perform lower on standardized tests — for example, because of negative stereotypes that associate being black or Latino with academic underachievement. One study found that black and Latino students underperformed on the SAT by 40 points because of stereotype threat. Asian-American groups in New York City maintain that administering the SHSAT is the only unbiased way to determine merit. Stereotype threat challenges this assertion.
Instead of providing an unbiased and colorblind assessment of students’ abilities, entrance exams are affected by racial stereotypes. The lower scores of black and Latino students reflect pernicious racial stereotypes associated with these groups.
Second, I teach my students about the enduring effects of segregation. In segregated New York City and throughout the United States, black and Latino students are more likely to attend under-resourced schools. In contrast, like many other Asian-American students in New York City, I attended public schools in Queens — schools that were not innovative, but that were a far cry from the American apartheid public schools, famously documented by Jonathan Kozol, just a train ride away.
These educational inequalities are further exacerbated by how money is unequally distributed in ways that benefit New York City’s high-performing schools, leaving under-resourced schools that serve predominantly black and Latino students with less than their fair share.
The dwindling percentages of black and Latino students in New York City’s specialized high schools, and in top public high schools and colleges across the country, are the logical outcome of decades of segregation and disinvestment from the black and Latino communities.
Lastly, in the courses I teach, I like to emphasize the positive and wide-ranging effects of the civil rights movement for all people of color. Asian-American students who feel cheated by policies that seek to increase the number of black and Latino students at selective schools would do well to remember that the road to their successes and opportunities was paved by black civil rights leaders. Jim Crow laws that sought to maintain white supremacy primarily targeted African Americans, but Asian Americans were also discriminated against and subject to inferior segregated schools. The civil rights movement led to the expansion of rights for Asian Americans as well as for black citizens.
At the protest against Mayor de Blasio’s proposed changes, an Asian-American leader referenced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an explicitly racist piece of legislation that precipitated violence and riots against Chinese Americans, to argue that the proposed admissions policy was anti-Asian. False equivalences aside, this reference to the Chinese Exclusion Act should remind Asian Americans that the victories of the civil rights movement had positive ripple effects that led to increased immigration from Asian countries.
Although the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, it was not until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 that racial quotas targeting Asian immigrants were lifted. This legislation was passed, in part, to better align immigration laws with civil rights legislation that advocated for racial equality.
Many Asian Americans have greater opportunities today because of the work of black civil rights leaders in dismantling white power structures. It is time that the Asian-American community acknowledge this debt by recognizing how white power structures differentially discriminate against people of color.
This entails having a more expansive understanding of history and the mechanisms of educational inequality that systematically shut black and Latino students out of America’s best high schools. It entails considering how blacks, Latinos and Asians are pitted against one another to compete for seats in these schools, as well as questioning why there aren’t enough great public schools for all children.
Critical thinking here will determine more than a test score. It will determine the capacity of the Asian-American community to forge solidarities with black and Latino communities in the struggle for equality.