(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

By Sookyung Oh

Asian American opponents of changing the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a governor’s school in Alexandria which students call TJ, describe reform as “anti-Asian.” It makes for a sensational and provocative soundbite. But it is wrong. 

Labeling the proposed educational reform efforts aimed at furthering racial and economic equity as “anti-Asian” misses the mark and trivializes the very real racial biases and structural racism that our communities face.

Thousands of Chinese Americans or people who look like they might be of Chinese heritage across the U.S. have reported violence or threats of violence because of xenophobic backlash to COVID-19. Anti-Asian racism is flattening our identities to stereotypes that rob us of our rich humanity, such as being held back by the bamboo ceiling or assuming that we’re inherently good at math and science. Japanese Americans lived under the full brunt of a racist policy that incarcerated thousands, including U.S. citizens, in internment camps during World War II.

Being treated with prejudice and discrimination because you speak with one of many Asian accents is anti-Asian. Since 9/11, profiling Muslim, South Asian and Arab Americans as terrorists by law enforcement agencies is a racist policy. Public services and programs not considering the specific needs of Asian Americans, such as meaningful language access or failing to provide outreach and communication to Asian American communities, is anti-Asian. Some Asian Americans have internalized racism by privileging lighter skin

These are actual examples of “anti-Asian” attacks. 

Let’s review the facts. Calls for admissions reform are driven not by anti-Asian sentiment, but by the shocking disparities made plain by enrollment data. Across the five participating school divisions, 30 percent of high school students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 1.9 percent at TJ. Black and Latino youth make up 11.6% and 27% of all public high school students compared to 1.7% and 2.7%, respectively, at TJ.

This pattern of under enrollment not only fails to reflect the greater diversity in Northern Virginia, it also extends to English language learner, disabled and female student enrollment. Consequently, one of admissions reform’s intended consequences should be to ensure more equity in terms of access to TJ. Fairfax’s superintendent is proposing new criteria for admission as part of potential lottery system that would eliminate the admissions test, though Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration will have to weigh in on this and other proposals to improve diversity at the 19 governor’s schools in Virginia, led by a task force assembled Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.

Asian American communities are not harmed by efforts to address institutional barriers to high-quality education for non-Asian American communities. Research strongly and clearly demonstrates the benefits of diversity in education. A more representative and diverse body of peers cultivates an increasingly positive and healthier learning environment, and has shown to improve cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving.

Reform will benefit Asian Americans, especially those who are low-income. Nearly 20 percent of Asian American students who attend Fairfax County public high schools are economically disadvantaged; that percentage is only 2.1 percent at TJ. The overemphasis on a single exam creates incentives for families with financial means to spend thousands of dollars on test prep. Meritocracy in this case is an illusion. Students in Northern Virginia do not have equal opportunity to prove themselves. Plainly put, the current TJ admissions process rewards privilege and increases inequality.

Reform could actually lead to more access for low-income or refugee Asian Americans, such as Vietnamese, Mongolian, Pakistani and Bengalis. Such reforms could also help more people to understand that far from homogenous, Asian Americans are an internally diverse group, with subgroups at substantial risk of being underserved. 

To be clear, not every Asian American student or parent in Northern Virginia wants TJ in their future. TJ does not represent the best and only viable path to success. For Asian American students who were not admitted, dealing with the rejection has long-lasting damaging impacts on mental and emotional health. Asian American youth share how their singular focus to prep for the TJ exam, meant living narrow lives, not participating in extracurricular activities. Exploring the fullness of who they are and want to be is squashed. 

Right now, the state of Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools, and other stakeholders have an incredible opportunity to do right for all young people in Northern Virginia, by pursuing an admissions reform that seeks to address the long-standing exclusion of too many in our communities. Maintaining the status quo means denying the inequalities in resources. 

Don’t get confused with the “anti-Asian” line. Many Asian Americans support reform that centers equity. And more importantly, there are many more of us who want to be defined beyond stereotypes, test scores and where we go to school. 

Sookyung Oh is director of NAKASEC Virginia, a Northern Virginia community based organization that works with Asian American communities to fight for economic, racial, and social justice.