As a biracial Black and Chinese American, I’ve always been aware of the polarizing histories and experiences that I carry in my body. At times it was confusing. When I was very young, I distinctly remember looking at mother and asking, “Mom, why are you White?” Born in a society where one is racialized in a Black-White binary, I didn’t quite understand my Black/Asian mixed identity. What I did know was, I wasn’t White.
I learned early on about Black history and African American resistance to oppressive White supremacist structures from enslavement to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and everything in between and beyond. But where did my Asian side fit in with resisting these same oppressive structures?
Asian Americans have dealt with oppressive acts of discrimination too, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, and English only education that prevented Asian immigrants from receiving a high-quality education. It was Chinese Americans in San Francisco who won the landmark Supreme Court decision Lau vs Nichols (1974), which charged the lack of supplemental language instruction for Chinese students as a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Due to the activism of Chinese families, and the previous (mostly Black) Civil Rights leaders, all American children gained the right to access bilingual education.
Since Lau vs Nichols, tides seem to have shifted for Asian Americans. For decades now, Asian Americans have outperformed other students of color on standardized tests, such as the SAT, and have higher college enrollment rates than their Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peers. In New York City, Asian Americans make up 62% of Specialized High Schools (SHS) despite being 16% of all NYC public high schools students. SHS are some of the most competitive, elite high schools in the nation, and enrolls, who many believe, the most gifted students in NYC.
To get into one of these premiere high schools, eighth graders take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) (a multiple choice, standardized test). Admitted SHS students must score above the cutoff point to gain entry.
For years, SHS have been racially disproportionate compared to the rest of the city, raising questions as to whether the tests are racially biased and, therefore, should not be the main criteria for admission. In the 2017-2018 school year, SHS also over-enrolled White students, who made up 24% of these schools despite being 15% of all NYC public school students. By contrast, Latinx and Black students, who make up the overwhelming majority of NYC students at 40.5% and 26% respectively, combined for only 9% of all students enrolled in SHS.
At Stuyvesant High School, one of the top SHS in NYC (and according to some reports, the top public high school in New York State), nearly 75% of all students are Asian American while Black students make up 1% of the student body. To put this into perspective, Stuyvesant enrolled 10 Black students in its 2017-18 freshman class of over 900 students.
These glaring disparities led New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, and NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE) Chancellor, Richard Carranza, to release a controversial plan to help remake SHS in ways that reflect the city’s demographics. The plan will expand the city’s Discovery program, which helps students attain admission into SHS who both score below the cutoff for the SHSAT and qualify as “disadvantaged.”
This upcoming school year, 20% of slots offered at SHS will be Discovery students compared to last year where only 5% of students accepted were from the Discovery program. With this plan, Black and Latinx enrollment will nearly double. Other plans are underway to make SHS more representative include eliminating the SHSAT and reserving seats for the top students from all middle schools across the city to ensure that all high performing students of each borough have a chance to be admitted to an SHS.
Many educational advocates applaud de Blasio and Carranza’s plan, stating that this is a transformational move to advance equity in our schooling system. However, not everyone is happy about the plan; chief among them are Asian Americans.
Groups such as Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York (CACAGNY), the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) (the same group that is a part of the Harvard University lawsuit), and parents are suing de Blasio and Carranza for what they are calling “deliberate discrimination” against Asian American students. Opponents of the plan believe that the attempt to increase Black and Latinx enrollment comes “at the expense of Asian Americans.” The lawsuit claims that Asian American students are as poor and disadvantaged as other non-White students, yet get into SHS based solely on merit. It is on these grounds that opponents have attacked the plan as unconstitutional and racist toward Asian Americans.
CACAGNY stated on their website, “We call on Bill de Blasio to respect students who achieve, no matter their ethnicity, to stop pitting one disadvantaged minority against another, and to do something constructive instead: improve education for all communities, starting from the lowest grades!”
Indeed, we must improve education for all students beginning in the youngest grades. Surely, integrating the city’s most selective schools won’t eliminate the opportunity chasms between Whites and Asians and their Black and Latinx counterparts. However, this “language of equality” founded on colorblind, empty meritocratic rhetoric is all too familiar.
Historically, schools have contributed to the racialization of Asian Americans differently than other racial groups — particularly Black students1. For decades now, schools have supported the “Model Minority Myth,” a concept that blankets Asian Americans, suggesting to other students of color that if they just “work hard,” stay out of politics, and put all their energies into educational achievement instead of complaining about racism, they will break the glass ceiling.
The model minority myth promotes the myth of meritocracy, individualism, color evasiveness, and ultimately absolves any responsibility to remediate structural racism that drives gross educational disparities. This, of course, is why White Conservatives, like Edward Blum (creator of “Students for Fair Admissions” and lead of Anti-Affirmative Action cases such as Fisher vs Texas and the current Harvard lawsuit) LOVE this narrative. Folks like Edward Blum are leveraging the model minority myth to sustain the ideology that Blacks and other underrepresented groups just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps in order to succeed. However as Dr. King said, “it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
While Asian Americans experienced exclusion from White-only schools, in states like Mississippi, some Chinese families negotiated access into these schools by the late 1930s, well before the 1954 Brown vs Board decision. To secure entry into these White-only schools, Chinese Americans had to prove that they were racially closer to Whites by patronizing their churches and businesses while simultaneously distancing themselves from Black people.
This history is painfully close to home, as my mother’s family never fully embraced my father, and consequently, never really embraced me. I wonder what our lives would have been like if we existed in love and cohesion, instead of a relationship mired with the toxicity of anti-Blackness. As I zoom out to reveal a picture much greater than me or my family, I wonder about the possibilities of equity if the Chinese in Mississippi acted in solidarity with disenfranchised Blacks instead of vying to be accepted into Whiteness. I wonder what would have happened if more Asian Americans like Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama worked in solidarity with other oppressed groups to condemn White Supremacy.
The “model minority” language was first used in 1966 in a New York Times article that valorized a Japanese man for his hard work given his hardships. Notably, this is the same year that Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Toure) began to use the phrase Black Power2, as the Black community showed pride in their Blackness and continued the fight for decent housing, employment, education, and sanctuary from police brutality.
In 1987, Time magazine graced its cover with six darling Asian American students titled, “Those Asian American Whiz Kids” while Reagan’s presidency implemented policies that peeled back the gains of the Civil Rights movement, such as access to higher education and employment. At the same time the model minority narrative blossomed, Reagan’s attack on black mothers and social services became infamous through the “welfare queen” stereotype; the crack epidemic destroyed poor Black neighborhoods; the War on Drugs skyrocketed incarceration rates in the U.S. where Black and Latinx bodies disproportionately filled the nation’s prisons.
Still, the current lawsuit Asian American groups filed against NYC accuse Black and Latinx students as the leading cause of Asian American educational disenfranchisement. But which Asian Americans?
The origins of Asian America lay in a vast continent made up of several of the world’s largest and most diverse countries rich with a range of languages and cultures. Contrary to the idea that Asian Americans are a successful monolith, there are many Asian Americans who have not been socioeconomically and academically successful in the United States. While Chinese Americans appear the most vocal in the current debates about enrollments into elite institutions, where are the voices of Cambodians, Filipinos, Hmong, Laotians, Vietnamese, and a host of other Asian identities? The Asian American plaintiffs suing NYC most likely were not advocating for Palestinians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and other Asian-identified students who suffer from Islamophobia and other forms of faith-based and social discrimination. In fact, evidence shows that most Asian Americans support and benefit from affirmative action and race-conscious admissions3.
Then why are Chinese Americans, in particular, up in arms over Affirmative Action? Education scholars Garces and Poon explain that the relatively recent changes in immigration from China has increased the number of highly skilled, educated, and wealthier Chinese in the United States. China also requires a high stakes standardized college entrance exam (Gaokao), which may explain Chinese people’s investment in standardized testing. Many Chinese immigrants culturally believe testing can measure merit.
Unfortunately, many Chinese immigrants don’t recognize the deep history and harmful structures deeply embedded into American education that have hurt (and continue to hurt) Black and Latinx students. They don’t easily recognize how their argument is fundamentally invested in Whiteness- a construction created to put Whites at the top of the hierarchy and Blacks at the bottom.
If more Asian Americans divested from Whiteness, could we have gained more Asian American history embedded into school curricula? Asian American politicians? Asian American policymakers? Or more holistic Asian American media representation? Is the type of argument that the Asian American plaintiffs launched against de Blasio and Carranza really helping them to dismantle structural racism and make our society more just?
I don’t know if de Blasio and Carranza’s plan is perfect. I don’t know if they took the time and effort to include Asian American voices while constructing their plan (I would hope they did). But is the lawsuit justified in saying that the new plan is racist against Asian Americans?
But what is racist is this color-evasive bootstraps narrative that has been parroted by White conservatives and now Asian Americans (predominantly Chinese Americans) to keep unjust structures in tact by denying historical and contemporary systemic anti-Black racial oppression. This argument tells us that Black and other vulnerable students just aren’t good enough.
The schooling system isn’t good enough. And given the large disparities that exist today, it has never been good enough. It’s fundamentally broken at its core but has been consistently protected and preserved by dangerous narratives like this one.
As I reflect back to my own family, I think of my beautiful late maternal grandfather, who grew up in China and then left to Taiwan due to the political climate. He who was a talented businessman whose passion and drive for his work took him all over the world. I also think of my late paternal grandfather, a World War 2 veteran who fought in General Patton’s all Black 761st Tank Battalion. He was an equally beautiful man, who also endured the legacy of enslavement. My father’s family migrated to Pennsylvania to escape White terrorism in the south only to hold inferior jobs, live in segregated and inferior housing, and attend segregated and inferior schools. To say that my Chinese family worked harder or is somehow more deserving of their success than my Black family seems grossly unfair.
To my fellow educators, I ask, “what does it mean to be a true champion for equity?” Perhaps our answer lies in acknowledging our positionalities and privileges and working in solidarity with the least of us in order to create change for all of us.
Hui-Ling Malone (M.Ed) is a former secondary English teacher who has taught primarily in Detroit, Michigan and Los Angeles, California. She is a Ph.D. student in Steinhardt’s Teaching and Learning program and is interested in exploring the interaction between schools and their surrounding communities in an effort to glean a better understanding of how such interplay can be mutually beneficial.
1 Lee, S. J., Park, E., & Wong, J.-H. S. (2017). Racialization, Schooling, and Becoming American: Asian American Experiences. Educational Studies, 53(5), 492–510.
2 Kim, C. J. (1999). The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics & Society, 27(1), 105–138.
3 Graces, L. & Poon, O. (2018). “Asian Americans and Race-Conscious Admissions: Understanding the Conservative Opposition’s Strategy of Misinformation, Intimidation & Racial Division”