Teach courses at Swarthmore College that challenge students to think critically about their own academic success. At the beginning of the Black White Asian Latino American Shirt 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.
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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 Black White Asian Latino American Shirt 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