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Blog > Issues > Equality Under the Law > Racial equality means standing up against Asian-American discrimination in academia

Racial equality means standing up against Asian-American discrimination in academia

April 05, 2021 I By BRITTANY HUNTER

Julia McCaskill’s daughter is a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ)—a public Governor’s School frequently ranked first in the nation.

Like many TJ parents, Julia is an immigrant who came to the United States because she fervently believes it to be the land of opportunities, and she came in pursuit of her own American dream.

Growing up in Shanghai, Julia began learning and eventually teaching English to students at a Shanghai high school. In 2003, she worked diligently and finally made it to the United States, where she met and married her husband, with whom she now raises three daughters.

Her daughters were all admitted into Fairfax County, Virginia’s Advanced Academic Program in second grade. They worked hard and have done extremely well in school. This dedication has paid off for Julia’s eldest daughter, who made it through TJ’s rigorous admissions process and has been thriving in the institution.

Students who dream of being admitted into the best public high school in the country all have two things in common: drive and ambition.

Preparation for TJ starts long before ninth grade. Julia’s second daughter, who is now in eighth grade, began preparing in sixth grade. While taking writing classes to improve her communication skills, her daughter fell in love with writing.

While other children enjoyed leisurely Saturdays, Julia’s daughter was attending four-hour writing courses from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each weekend. When the COVID shutdowns began, the preparation didn’t stop. Her daughter began taking online classes, prepping for TJ three nights a week.

She has also prepared herself for advanced math classes, participating in Math Olympiad and American Mathematics Competitions (AMC) 8, earning high results. While still in seventh grade, she was taking Algebra I and has since moved on to geometry.

Julia’s daughters, while extraordinary in their enthusiasm for their studies, are not unique in their commitment to academic excellence. Prospective TJ students know they must put in the work if they want to be accepted. And for current TJ students, the hard work does not end once they’re accepted.

The workload is tough and the students push themselves every single day to make the grade.

Many of TJ’s student body come from immigrant parents; they have watched their families sacrifice to get where they are today, and they are determined to become living examples of what is possible in this country when you work tirelessly for your dream.

TJ’s merit-based admissions policy is precisely why the school has been able to maintain its prestigious reputation throughout the years. But a new policy designed to limit the number of Asian-American students accepted to TJ may turn Julia’s younger daughters’ dream into a nightmare.

Asian-American discrimination

The new admissions policy favors racial equity over merit. For students like Julia’s daughters, who have spent years working toward TJ admittance, their years of preparation might all have been for naught.

With the policy aimed directly at limiting the number of Asian-American students at TJ, the McCaskills and other Asian-American families feel like there is a target on their backs.

Asian-American students make up about 70 percent of the student body, while white students account for about 20 percent. The remaining 10 percent is comprised of Hispanic and Black students, as well as those who identify as “other.”

The Fairfax County School Board calls its new policy a “holistic” approach to admissions aimed at diversifying the school, but the new rules come at the expense of Asian-American students who have prepped for the entrance exams and kept their grades up for years. By throwing out the academic qualifications that these students have prepared for, the school is punishing these children for the sake of diversification.

This anti-Asian-American sentiment is not limited to TJ alone; it’s shown up on the statewide level as well.

During public testimony on a bill that was being debated in the Virginia Assembly in 2018, a retired Rachel Carson Middle School teacher testified that Asian-American parents are “ravenous” in preparing their children for TJ, going so far as to imply that they break immigration laws to enter the country in order to enroll their children in TJ.

Just because Asian-Americans tend to make up the majority of the student body does not mean they are rigging the system.

Unfortunately, this was not the only disparaging comment in the debate.

At a statewide workshop last summer, State Delegate Mark Keam expressed his belief that Asian-American parents used “unethical” means to “push their kids into” TJ, adding that the parents in question are “not even going to stay in America.”

Assuming that immigrant families will flee the country after their children graduate is not only absurd, it’s discriminatory.

It was against this backdrop of Asian-American racism that the school board went to work on new admissions policies for TJ.

While discussing the new policies, Superintendent Scott Brabrand stated that Asian-Americans were “over-represented” at TJ, and TJ’s own principal repeatedly complained that TJ’s majority Asian-American student demographics weren’t like the rest of the school district.

TJ’s mission is to accept the best and brightest, regardless of race and ethnicity. As a public secondary school, using race as any sort of qualifier for admittance is a blatant violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The new guidelines will eliminate the old qualifications, which required a two-part, rigorous admissions process in the fall and winter of a prospective student’s eighth-grade year, including a standardized test, essays, grade requirements, and teacher recommendations.

Instead, admissions will be based on a holistic evaluation and “experience factors” like socioeconomic status or attending a middle school that has not historically sent many students to TJ. Where previously a student’s chances of being admitted to TJ rested largely on a race-blind standardized test, school officials now have almost unlimited discretion to racially balance TJ.

Other TJ families, alumni, and community members are also concerned with the direction the school is taking. And many have taken notice of the anti-Asian-American agenda that seems to be behind the change in admissions standards.

Penalizing an entire racial group for working hard to gain entry into an elite school is completely contrary to constitutional protections that ensure equality before the law.

The motion approved by the Fairfax County school board stated:

“The admissions process must use only race-neutral methods that do not seek to achieve any specific racial or ethnic mix, balance, or targets.”

The problem is, this policy isn’t “race-neutral,” it’s racist.

As PLF attorney Wen Fa wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

“The county replaced an objective admissions test with a process calculated to achieve a racially ‘balanced’ student body at the expense of Asian-American applicants.”

He pointed out a similar problem in higher education, saying:

“Harvard has been sued over its race-conscious admissions policy. The plaintiffs contend that Harvard discriminates by assigning Asian-Americans lower ‘personal ratings,’ which are supposed to denote characteristics like leadership and grit. The Princeton Review has advised Asian-American applicants to refrain from noting that they intend to pursue a career in medicine or major in math or science, lest they appear ‘too Asian.’”

But it’s not just Asian-American parents who disagree with this pivot the county is taking.

TJ parents take a stand

Harry Jackson is a founding member of the Coalition for TJ, a TJ PTSA Diversity Committee Member, a retired naval officer, and an NAACP member who works with local organizations to create science, technology, engineering, and mathematics enrichment programs for underrepresented minorities. He’s also a TJ parent.

As he wrote in The Washington Post:

“To be clear, as an African American father of a TJ student, I would also like to see more Black and Hispanic students at the school. But if those students are not making the grade, the problem isn’t the standards.”

He continued:

“But rather than address their very real failures at preparing underprivileged students, Brabrand and his cronies now seek to gut the admissions standards to get the racial balance they deem appropriate.”

Jackson knows how hard his own son worked to get into TJ. And his hard work didn’t stop once he was admitted.

Every day his son pushes himself to excel with the challenging curriculum. And while he strives to do his best, his younger sister is watching from the sidelines, hoping to someday get accepted into TJ, based on merit, not on her race.

Jackson said:

“I tell her she’ll have to work just as hard as he did to earn that privilege—there won’t be any shortcuts or special favors extended to her. Just as there were no shortcuts or favors for my father when he was one of the first Black graduates of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, or when I was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. We had to work hard to earn those opportunities, and she will, too.”

Jackson hits the nail on the head: Those who have done the work and scored the highest should be accepted at TJ, regardless of race.

But these parents aren’t just talking about the injustice occurring at TJ—they are doing something about it.

In March, families, students, and alumni fought back against these racist policies by filing a lawsuit against the school board. Pacific Legal Foundation represents the Coalition for TJ in their fight to uphold Fourteenth Amendment protections to equality before the law.

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