I’m fighting for admissions reform at the nation’s number one high school because I am Asian American, not in spite of it.
Since June, I have been involved with efforts to change the makeup and culture of the student body at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. I graduated from TJ in 2015. For decades, my high school has continually failed to accept a critical mass of Black and Latinx students. In the last two years alone, the number of Black students admitted to the school was too small to report, and Latinx students made up less than 3% of the accepted class.
As a member of the TJ Alumni Action Group, I’ve sat in on discussions with members of the Fairfax County Public School Board as they developed a proposal for a new system of admissions that would improve the diversity of TJ’s incoming class. Today, as a co-founder and member of TJ Alumni for Racial Justice, I am proud to announce that we are working with the law firm Arnold & Porter to investigate TJ’s admissions practices and ensure that progress continues to be made towards ending the school’s exclusion of underrepresented students.
This progress has been met with substantial resistance, particularly from alumni and community members who also identify as Asian American. They argue that since any proposed reform would likely reduce the number of Asian-American students accepted, the policy (and those who support it) are “Anti-Asian.”
The term implies that those of us who seek racial justice possess a kind of self-hatred that drives us to deny opportunity to our own people. This could not be further from the truth. I am the proud son of two Vietnamese immigrants, both of whom arrived in the U.S. in 1975 after the fall of Saigon to escape ideological persecution. My awe at the obstacles my parents overcame to survive as refugees making their way to America is unwavering, and I will always strive to express my gratitude for their sacrifices. It is these same values, instilled by my family, my identity, and my upbringing as a second-generation immigrant, that ultimately lead me to our fight for progress.
Those who oppose reform have claimed that a renewed system would undoubtedly be an attack on the institution of merit. The truth is that we Asian Americans have been far too complicit in maintaining a system that consistently disadvantages Black and Indigenous people. A fair and meritocratic process would not result in a school where less than 2% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, or where the number of Black students accepted is too small to be reported. A governor’s school in a state that has been historically plagued by redlining should not have over half of its students come from just four middle schools. There is room for improvement here, and if we truly believe in merit, we should fight for that change.
Have you ever witnessed two Asian parents fighting over the bill at a restaurant? It is a world-class display of mental fortitude and endurance that would impress even the brightest tactician, but beyond that, it is a necessary facet of a culture that revolves around the tenets of respect, gratitude, and generosity. When I fight for the bill, I’m showing consideration of all the ways you have helped me. Black Americans have consistently fought for our rights as Asian Americans, from birthright citizenship to voting rights protections to The Immigration and Nationality Act that ended immigration bans on our people and allowed us to inhabit our new home. Our ability to toil for the American Dream only exists because of a foundation laid by those for whom this dream is solely a myth. So, considering all of the liberties that have been given to us by Black Americans in the Civil Rights Movement and their continued fight for justice and equality, how can we, as Asian Americans, in good conscience, let others continue to foot the bill? We’ve got to pick up the tab.
I choose to seek reform against this perceived injustice in a way that I believe is fitting of my Asian American identity: One that recognizes the systemic discrimination present in America and seeks to combat it by creating a truly meritocratic system based on the values of progress, education, merit, and respect that immigrated with us when we left our distant shores.