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The atrocities against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders making headlines spotlight the reality millions of individuals live with every day. Time is overdue for one group who has the ability to influence large swaths of people in every community across the country to take action: educators.

It is imperative that educators in positions of power protect Asian Americans at school, at work and at home. It’s not enough to illuminate the ugliness of deeply entrenched racism. Education leaders, faculty and staff must work together to develop meaningful solutions to set an example of how structures can be rebuilt to prioritize equity and empathy.

School systems and institutions of higher education must have both the right people and policies in place to not only curb discrimination, harassment and violence but also nurture and empower a culture that promotes belonging. That process starts with the people at the top. Will students see leaders who look like them and look out for them? Do individuals know where to go to report racism in class or on campus (virtual or in-person)? Are there even enforceable policies in place? After a victim files a complaint, who will protect them and help make them whole? Is the institution willing to make itself vulnerable to support its most vulnerable community members?

Many Americans are just beginning to see that something’s wrong. The response that followed a recent message I wrote about anti-Asian violence was both affirming and surprising. While the support was overwhelming, I didn’t realize how many people were unaware of the violent attacks Asian Americans have experienced this year or the day-to-day aggressions people of color face. More than once, I was thanked for bringing the problem to light — and asked what can be done.

We must seize this critical moment of awareness and desire to act. We talk about settling into a “new normal” with regard to the pandemic; we cannot grow accustomed to the escalating hate-driven violence that’s impacting lives every day. Racism fatigue cannot be a thing, especially as white supremacy continues to grow.

We talk about settling into a “new normal” with regard to the pandemic; we cannot grow accustomed to the escalating hate-driven violence that’s impacting lives every day.

In 2019, federal officials warned that white supremacist violence was a growing threat; 2020 brought widespread attention to the long-standing oppression Black Americans face. All people of color are vulnerable, not to mention LGBTQ individuals, Jewish people, immigrants and the myriad of others that systems subjugate to maintain the social hierarchy.

When you look at different groups in terms of their educational and socioeconomic standing, Asian Americans are often viewed as better off, comparatively. But the “model minority” stereotype does not stem from an inspirational story of individual determinism. Toward the middle of the last century, the concept was championed as a way to blame other minority groups for their lower socioeconomic status and hide discriminatory structures of exploitation. White Americans pointed to Asian Americans and suggested that their success proves that people of color have every opportunity in America. In fact, historians note that Asian American outcomes strengthened after the model minority myth took hold and white Americans’ discrimination toward them, in some respects, softened.

Regardless, educational attainment and financial stability are not shields against racism. As the daughter of a Korean mother and a Black father, the racism I experienced at a young age did not disappear when I earned a Ph.D. from Stanford. If anything, the road became narrower as I looked around and saw fewer and fewer people who looked like me.

At face value, Asian Americans are well represented in many fields, including education. But, as always, closer examination reveals a different story. At the leadership level, Asian Americans are underrepresented, often to an extreme. Research from the Ascend Foundation found that while Asian Americans made up the largest racial/ethnic group among Bay Area tech professionals, they were the least likely to become managers and executives. In education, a survey of 1,400 U.S. school superintendents found only six, or 0.4 percent, who identified as Asian.

This must change. Representation matters.

Institutions have an obligation and an opportunity to redefine what and who constitutes an effective leadership team. It’s not only about experience, skills and strategy. Leaders must reflect and represent the communities they serve. Now is the time to hire and promote Asian Americans into leadership positions.

This does not mean simply putting an Asian American in charge of a diversity task force. Too often, people of color are expected to head advisory panels with very little power to effect real change. Truly diverse teams of key decision makers will develop new and better solutions to drive equity and, at the core, improve education overall. This is key to changing systems.

Once in place, leaders must ensure that the right data is analyzed in order to better understand the communities they serve. Numbers can deceive when they overgeneralize or tell only part of the story. Disaggregating and questioning data can be hard work, but it’s well worth the effort.

I lead a team of policy researchers who analyze data that, when aggregated, puts Asian Californians’ higher education and workforce performance close to that of white Californians. But the details paint a different picture, with stark differences between South and Southeast Asians. For example, 79 percent of South Asian Californians earn bachelor’s degrees compared to 46 percent of Southeast Asian Californians. South Asians in California earn a median income of $81,685 — 72 percent more than that earned by Southeast Asians.

It’s also important to examine how identities intersect and how social and educational structures shape our lives. In light of this month’s shootings in the Atlanta area, we should consider the impacts of gender and address the misogyny experienced by many Asian Americans. Over the past year, the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate found that Asian women report more than two times as many hate incidents as men.

Tragedy is the saddest way change is made, but we should not make this tragedy worse by failing to act. In this moment, education must lead the way toward a society rebuilt on inclusion rather than exclusion and hate. We have that power.

Su Jin Gatlin Jez, Ph.D. is executive director of California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, a nonprofit higher education and workforce policy research organization.

This story about Asian American equity and education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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