How Black-Asian Conflict Plays Out In New York City's Elite High Schools

Who is allowed the American Dream?

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This year, out of the 895 students accepted to Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s most selective specialized high school, only seven were Black, less than 1% of this year’s incoming freshman class. Meanwhile, 33 Latinx students (3.7%), 194 white students (21.7%), and 587 Asian students (65.6%) were also offered spots. Overall, Black and Latinx students make up 70% of the city’s public school system, but together they only represent a little over 10% of those admitted into the eight academics-focused specialized high schools. New Yorkers know that this is nothing new. As troubling as these numbers might look to outsiders, they simply follow a continued trend of racial disparity and segregation at not only the elite high schools, but across the city’s entire public school system. (NYC notably has the largest public school system in the nation — and one of the most segregated.)
Though Black and Latinx students are severely underrepresented, the specialized high schools are predominantly majority-minority spaces due to Asian American enrollment; Asians students received 51% of the offers across the eight schools this year and make up 74% of Stuyvesant’s current student body. And though Asians are a growing demographic, we are only 14% of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data — meaning we are an overrepresented racial group at these elite high schools, something that certain Asian American activists are fighting to maintain.
For many working-class New Yorkers, acceptance into one of the city’s specialized high schools means the guarantee of upward mobility: a world-class education, college prep, the skills and connections that set students up for a brighter future. Unsurprisingly, getting into one of these elite public schools is no easy task and has become increasingly competitive, largely due to the admissions process, which is one standardized test called the Specialized High School Admissions Test. According to data released by the Department of Education, while over 27,000 students took the SHSAT last fall hoping to win a spot at one of eight specialized high schools this year, less than 5,000 made the cut. And when you break down the offers by race, it becomes clear that not every group has equal access to the promising future that these elite schools offer.
Last June, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza announced a plan to eliminate the test and faced immediate backlash from Asian American activist groups and parents. The mayor’s move to reform the admissions process is an effort to improve diversity at the specialized high schools. “There are talented students all across the five boroughs, but for far too long our specialized high schools have failed to reflect the diversity of our city,” de Blasio said. “We cannot let this injustice continue.” In 2016, the city enacted a $15 million plan also aimed at increasing diversity at the elite schools, which clearly has not seen its intended results.
However, the real injustice, as the Asian Americans who oppose the plan view it, is the opportunities that will be taken from Asian students, many of whom enroll in SHSAT test prep courses and study for months if not years, which is why they sued the city in December. The group named in the lawsuit, which includes Asian American civil rights groups, Chinese parents and a parent teacher organization, claim that de Blasio and Carranza’s plan to reserve 20% of seats at the eight schools for poor students who tested just below the cutoff score is discriminatory against Asian children. Of course this lawsuit feels trifling following the 2012 federal complaint filed by a coalition of education, civil rights, and social justice groups challenging the admissions process for these specialized high schools, saying they disproportionately disadvantage Black and Latinx students. Several Asian American organizations, including Asian American Legal Defense Fund (AALDEF) and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, added their statements of support. These groups are likely onto something considering the SHSAT was originally written into state law in 1971 to effectively halt then mayor John V. Lindsay’s efforts to expand Black and Latinx admissions — not to mention the racist origins of standardized testing (the SATs were invented by a psychologist who believed in eugenics).
This issue has once again splintered the Asian American community and pit minority groups against one another — similar to the more national lawsuit being waged against Harvard by anti-affirmative action Asian activists and legal strategist Ed Blum (though polls show a majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action). And it’s hard not to feel like our communities are fighting over scraps, considering these eight high schools in question only account for 6% of NYC’s high school student population.
At a Queens town hall last Saturday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked when heckled by parents, “Why isn’t every public school in NYC a Brooklyn Tech caliber school?” She continued, “My concern is that this right here, when we are fighting each other, is exactly what happens under a scarcity mindset.” (Ocasio-Cortez did not explicitly share her stance on replacing the SHSAT.)
“It’s partly the immigrant parents who don’t know the nuances of the educational system,” Syed Ali, a professor of sociology at Long Island University-Brooklyn and a Stuyvesant alum, told me in an interview. “We know Harvard is the best. We know Stuyvesant is the best.” They want their kids to be upwardly mobile and not have any difficulties, said Ali, who is co-authoring The Peer Effect, which researches the success of adult Stuyvesant alumni.
Ali pointed out that most of the student body is made up of first or second generation immigrants, and half qualify for reduced-price or free lunch, a measure of poverty in schools. According to Department of Education statistics, though Asian students are 74% of Stuyvesant, they represent over 90% of students who qualify for free or subsidized lunch. “All of those people who grow up poor, they’re all going to go to college, and most of them are going to end up in professional jobs … they’re going to be upwardly mobile economically,” Ali said.
Annie Tan, a Brooklyn Tech alum, is one of those upwardly mobile people; having grown up working class, she went on to attend Columbia University and is now comfortably middle class. Tan, however, questions the merits of the SHSAT. “We proved ourselves in a moment in time in one room where you answer bubble sheet questions for two-and-a-half hours,” Tan said. “Does that make you any better than someone who is not able to do that, who may not be the best test-taker?” She especially grapples with this concept as a special education teacher.
“It’s the classic American Dream idea to think that education will raise you out of your class, and for a lot of first generation Asian immigrants that is the case,” Tan said. “I was that case.”
Within Asian American immigrant communities, there is the popular mentality that education is a panacea that will help us achieve that dream, Tan elaborated. When this mindset is normalized, it creates a high-stakes, competitive environment around schooling and perpetuates the model minority myth. But as new immigrants with less social clout, no family connections, and at times limited language skills, it is easy to understand how standardized testing and academic achievement can be viewed as their one shot at success in this country.
Asian Americans are finding ourselves at a political impasse — it seems like our choices are to either fight for the success of our own, or the success of others. And with the way our broken education system is currently set up, it often feels impossible to fight for both. Some Asian American activists are treating education like a zero sum game, as if ceding even 20% of the spots at these elite schools is somehow equivalent to anti-Asianness. And yet they refuse to own up to their own anti-Blackness, while they are knowingly harming Black and Latinx students’ fight for equity and integration. Their argument boils down to the ideology of meritocracy, that as marginalized people we were able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, study hard and gain entry, which of course ignores the centuries of redlining and institutional racism experienced by Black and brown communities and that many middle schools in Black and Latinx neighborhoods do not have advanced programs or educators who are equipped to prepare their students for the test. In fact, before the influx of Asian immigrants over the past few decades, the boom of the test prep industry, and the reduction of honors programs in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, Black and Latinx students actually made up nearly a third of the student body at specialized schools.
“The root problem is segregation,” Ali said. “I don’t think that anything short of massive integration measures — that are going to be costly and politically contentious, and that are going to get parents really pissed off — nothing short of that is going to work.”

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