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NY specialized high schools are under attack by Identity Politics; Asian-Americans call foul

Written By | Jun 11, 2018

WASHINGTON: New York City has nine specialized high schools. Some of them, like the Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, are known around the country, and the world for the high quality of the education they provide. Students’ entry into these schools depends solely on a test called the NY Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHAST). NY Asian-Americans are saying that they are being unfairly treated by the NY changing the specialized high school from merit-based admissions to admissions based on identity politics.

SHAST and NY City Schools

New York’s Mayor Bill De Blasio, long an advocate of Identity Politics, wants to alter the manner in which students are selected so that these specialized schools will have a racial and ethnic makeup similar to the overall public school population.

What concerns the mayor is that based on test results for certain groups, such as Asian-Americans, are “over-represented,” while African-Americans and Latinos are “under-represented.” De Blasio wants the makeup of the school to reflect the identity of the city, regardless of merit.

The mayor wants to set aside 20 percent of the seats in each of the specialized schools for students from high-poverty schools, which tend to have a high share of black and Hispanic students, who score just below the cutoff score.

His ultimate goal, the mayor said, was to eliminate the test entirely.

In its place, top students would be chosen from every middle school in the city, a determination that would take into account their class rank and scores on statewide standardized tests. This move would require state action because a New York State law dictates how specialized schools admit their students.

NY Mayor De Blasio’s Identity Politics attack on meritocracy

Critics charge that Mayor De Blasio’s plan is an attack on meritocracy and an effort to make race and ethnicity as important a factor in gaining admission as academic ability and achievement. At the present time, while Black and Hispanic students represent nearly 70 percent of public school students, they make up just 10 percent of students in the specialized high schools.

Asian-Americans “over-represented” NY Specialized High Schools

While just 16 percent of public school students are Asian, they make up 62 percent of students in the specialized schools.  White students also make up a “disproportionate” share of the students, though by a much smaller margin. They are 15 percent of the system overall and 24 percent of the students in the specialized schools.

These developments are disappointing to those who seek to establish a genuinely color-blind society, in which people will not be judged, and constantly counted, on the basis of their race and ethnicity. This was the goal of the civil rights movement. The Rev, Martin Luther King, Jr, told the nation that men and women should not be judged on “the color of their skin” but “the content of their character.”

Now, in an era of Identity Politics, individualism, and individual achievement are under widespread attack.

New York’s Asian-Americans responds to Identity Politics proposal

Needless to say, New York’s Asian-American community is outraged at Mayor De Blasio’s projected plan. At a news conference in early June, more than 100 people gathered together in Brooklyn to declare that the proposal was an attack on Asian-Americans. (Plan to Diversify Elite NYC Schools Draws Fire From Asians)

Kenneth Chin, chairman of the New York City Asian-American Democratic Club, declared,

“I’m not sure if the mayor is racist, but this policy is certainly discriminatory. It’s like the Chinese  Exclusion Act, is what I think.” comparing the plan to the 19th-century immigration law that effectively prohibited Chinese immigration.
 “Our mayor is pitting minority against minority, which is really, really messed up, to put it mildly.”

A rally was held outside City Hall where protesters held signs that said “End Racism” and “I Have A Dream.” Soo Kim, president of the Stuyvesant Alumni Association, said that while the schools are often described as elite, the children who attend them are mostly poor, often from immigrant families, and many go to years of test prep courses in order to earn scores good enough to gain admission.

Mr. Kim noted that,

“I have dozens of letters from my members, who say ‘My dad was a taxi driver’ or ‘We ran a greengrocer.’  Stuyvesant is an option for those who have no option. They don’t know how to interview or influence their way into the right public schools or the right private schools.”
Destroying the specialized high schools for identity politics

The goal of Mayor De Blasio and others who wish to change the manner in which students are admitted to the city’s specialized high schools, argues State Assemblyman Burton G. Hecht, a Democrat from the Bronx, is to

“eventually destroy these schools and their specialized status in science, mathematics, music and art.”  

Hecht, together with Assemblyman John T, Calandra, a Bronx Republican, sponsored the legislation protecting the use of a test for admission to the specialized high schools.

The bill was endorsed by the principals whose schools would be affected.

Discussing Mayor De Blasio’s plan, Bruce Ellerstein, a parent of a student at one of the specialized schools, wrote in The New York Times, that the mayor’s proposal;

“…is shortsighted, unnecessary and potentially cruel, as without the proper preparation he’d be setting up many students for failure. Between the difficulty and the rigor of the course loads offered, the city’s elite schools are called such for a reason. The SHSAT, a screening test, helps determine who is most likely to enjoy success. The best way for the city to increase diversity at these schools is to improve the students’ primary school education and to provide greater access to quality affordable test prep in advance of the SHSAT.”

Richard Carranza, New York’s school chancellor, defended the Mayor by saying, with regard to the criticism by Asian-American leaders, that, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that says anyone ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”

Ivy Hamlin, the parent of students who attended specialized schools, responded in The Times:

“Asians don’t ‘own’ their admissions, nor do they claim to. No, Asian students achieve all those admissions with hard work and dedicated preparation for the test. Some may not like the outcome of the test, but it is fair and it is objective. Other selection measures bring in subjectivity and personal bias to muddy the waters. The fact that there are some blacks and Latinos who score high and attend these schools shows that it can be done.
By the way, once admitted, students find a competitive atmosphere that will not suit every student. Getting in is just the beginning.
Asian-American students are being asked to pay a price for their high achievement. We have seen this process before. A hundred years ago, the children of Jewish immigrants faced “quotas” at Ivy League universities, for if students were admitted by merit alone, their numbers would have been more than these institutions wished to accommodate. There can be no doubt that Asians are now victims of racial discrimination. A Princeton University study found that students who identify as Asian had to score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites in order to have the same chance of admission to private colleges, what some have called “the Asian tax.”

At the present time, there is a lawsuit against Harvard University. It cites Harvard’s Asian-American enrollment at 18% in 2013 and notes similar numbers ranging from 14% to 18% at other Ivy League schools such as Columbia, Brown, Cornell, Princeton, and Yale. It appears clear that a quota system of some kind is in place. In California, where voters in a 1996 referendum outlawed racial preferences in college admission, Asian-Americans made up 34.8 % of the student body at UCLA, 32.4% at Berkeley, and 42.5 % at Caltech.

Video produced to promote Stuyvesant High School:
What Ivy League schools are doing would be considered illegal in California.

In our changing society, with people of every race and ethnic background, it is more important than ever that each individual is treated on the basis of individual merit. New York’s Mayor, is engaged in an exercise of the very kind of Identity politics which divides us and which, unfortunately, is embraced by both the left and the right, in varying forms.

Racism, we used to understand, meant judging men and women on the basis of their race, whether for penalties or rewards.  The goal of people of good will has always been the creation of a genuinely “color blind” society. The meritocratic approach to school admissions is good for all of us. If we are concerned that some groups are underrepresented, we must improve the education they receive in elementary and middle school, not lower the standards at our specialized institutions.

Identity politics is designed only to divide us, as Asian-Americans are showing us in New York.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.