On the Wrong Side: Chinese Americans Win Anti-Diversity Settlement – and Lose in the End

By Jeff Chang May 20, 1999

Chinese Americans Win Anti-Diversity Settlement– and Lose in the End
by Jeff Chang

By all accounts, San Francisco’s Lowell High School is one of the nation’s top public high schools. To many, especially Asian Americans, attending the highly competitive magnet school is a symbol of achievement and a source of pride. “I thought my daughter could get a quality education and be challenged,” says Jean Ishibashi, the parent of a Japanese-Chicana Lowell student.

More important, Lowell—the state’s top feeder school into the University of California system—is seen as a door to that increasingly scarce resource—access to elite universities. The school has long been the site of bitterly contested battles over educational access.

In February, a small group of Chinese Americans, supported by anti-affirmative action right-wingers, won a settlement in a lawsuit over Lowell’s admissions policies—overturning three decades of integration efforts in San Francisco’s schools. As a result, 50 percent fewer blacks and Latinos will enter Lowell next year—including only a handful of black males in an entering freshman class of over 600.

Asian American and other critics call the group’s efforts narrow, selfish, and hypocritical—and bound to inflame racial tensions. “Chinese Americans are being used as a proxy of anti-affirmative action and anti-integration viewpoints, which ultimately increase discrimination against our community,” says Diane Chin of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “This case is a tremendous setback for coalition politics,” says Henry Der, the California State Deputy Superintendent of Education Equity, Access, and Support.

Chinese Americans Swing Right
Lowell admits most of its students based on grades and test scores, but since a 1983 federal consent decree, Lowell has also had to ensure integration of its student body. The consent decree—the result of a lawsuit filed by the NAACP—allowed no single ethnic group to constitute more than 45 percent of the student body at neighborhood schools, and 40 percent at magnet schools, and required each San Francisco school to enroll students from at least four of nine defined ethnic/racial groups.

“The plan represented our best thinking at the time,” says Albert Cheng, who oversaw integration efforts for the San Francisco Unified School District through the early ‘80s. “We knew that if we did not desegregate Lowell High School, the school would have been dominantly Asian and white.”

But in 1992, some Chinese American parents began to argue that the consent decree discriminated against them because it capped Chinese enrollments, thereby forcing them to have higher grades and test scores than whites in order to be admitted to Lowell. Some began to discuss suing the school district. But Asian American civil rights organizations—who could see that Lowell was already over 50 percent ethnic Chinese and 70 percent Asian American—worried that it could be fodder for affirmative action opponents.
Instead, the parents found a sympathetic hearing from Asian conservatives, especially the Chinese American Democratic Club—a group which, interestingly, also works to increase minority affirmative action in government contracts. The Asian American Legal Foundation was formed in part to support the parents’ lawsuit, which was filed in 1994. Ward Connerly trumpeted the plight of the Lowell plaintiffs as he stumped for anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 in 1996.

In February, lawyers for the parents and the NAACP unveiled an eleventh-hour settlement which overturned the sixteen-year-old consent decree and ended San Francisco’s use of racial considerations in student assignment. When the settlement was announced, Amy Chang of the Legal Foundation crowed, “The era of racial bean-counting is over.” Roland Quan of the Chinese American Democratic Club was even more triumphal. “This is a solution,” he said, with little apparent irony, “for the 21st Century.”

From Anti-Asian Quotas to Anti-Affirmative Action Sentiments
The settlement was also characterized as “an end to racial quotas” and a victory for Asian Americans. But the origin of the fight against anti-Asian quotas goes back to battles during the 1980s between liberal elite university leaders and Asian American progressives.

By 1984, Asian American progressives noticed anti-Asian quotas at many elite universities, including those with strong pro-affirmative action leadership—such as Ira Michael Heyman’s Berkeley, Derek Bok’s Harvard, and Bill Bowen’s Princeton. After white alumni began to complain about increasingly diverse campuses, university leaders seemed to cap Asian admissions at no more than 20 percent of the student body.

Led by Berkeley professor Ling-chi Wang, Asian American progressives pressured these universities to review their policies. Audits at Brown, Stanford, Harvard, and U.C. Berkeley later confirmed that campus officials made secretive decisions that negatively impacted Asians’ chances of being admitted. Asian admits were required to have higher test and grade scores than whites, giving whites a distinct advantage in a supposedly open competition for admission. (Not surprisingly, after the audits were made public, Asian admissions usually leaped.)

But liberal pro-affirmative action officials would not acknowledge that they were trying to prop up white admissions. Instead, they characterized the admissions process as a battle between Asian Americans and other students of color. As then-Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman insisted, if Berkeley were to accommodate more Asian Americans, it would have to admit fewer African Americans and Latinos.

Wang was chilled by this line. Berkeley officials, he realized, would sacrifice affirmative action before allowing white enrollments to drop further. Worse, these liberals were forcing Asian American parents to view affirmative action for blacks and Latinos as counter to their own interests.

“The most important thing we learned is that when we push Asian American issues we have to be conscious about the issues of other minorities as well. We tried hard to make sure that we were not in any way undermining the University’s commitment to affirmative action,” he says. “But with the Lowell situation, the people who pushed for the lawsuit really did not have that kind of consciousness. They only see themselves as discriminated against.”

At the time of the 1983 consent decree, African American students were the largest ethnic group in the San Francisco school district, and the most racially isolated. Now Chinese Americans are the largest ethnic group, making up a quarter of the district—and over half of Lowell High. “When you have a situation like that, you are bound to antagonize racially the whites and the blacks alike. They will say, ‘Well, when is it enough for you guys?’” says Wang. “What about the thousands of kids in the other fifteen high schools who are getting nothing?”

Funding Problems and Race Proxies
Carol Kocivar, president of the San Francisco PTA, laments her city’s education funding: “We don’t have the basic resources for kids in schools. You name it, we don’t have it.” But because of the settlement, $37 million in federal desegregation funds —12 percent of the school district’s budget—could disappear by 2003. Diane Chin, director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, argues: “The end of the consent decree may make it easier for middle-class Chinese children to attend Lowell, but the rest of the school district will have far fewer resources to address the educational needs of low-income, disadvantaged children.”

The Lowell settlement comes at a time when racial resegregation in public schools is returning to pre-integration era levels. At 27 of San Francisco’s 107 public schools, one ethnic group predominates, exceeding the consent decree’s limit of 45 percent of the school’s population. Most of these racially segregated schools are not desirable magnet schools, but underfunded schools in segregated neighborhoods. But because of the settlement, the district can no longer collect mandatory information about students’ racial backgrounds—data that is necessary to determine the extent of segregation.

Many privately predict that Lowell may soon become almost all Chinese. Even Kocivar, who sits on the Lowell admissions board, is pessimistic. While Latinos make up 20 percent and African Americans make up 18 percent of the city’s public school population, Kocivar notes that Lowell’s applicant pool last year was only 7 percent Latino, and less than 4 percent African American. She says, “Unless we use indicia that’s going to pick up more minority students, we will continue to grapple with lower numbers of underrepresented minorities at the school.”

San Francisco Unified School District is now proposing to substitute geographic and economic class considerations as proxies for race. “The District is free to give any kind of preference it wants to poor students, or students who live in public housing or use Section 8. Under the new plan that the District is now developing, I believe these types of things will be much more important,” says Michael Harris of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, one of the lawyers who helped negotiate the settlement.

But when the University of California did the same thing, African American and Latino enrollments at the highly competitive Berkeley campus dropped by half. School officials confirm that a similar drop will occur at Lowell next year. “You can’t resolve racial discrimination without racial considerations”, says Francis Calpotura, co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing.

Settlement Doesn’t Solve The Problem
While the Lowell lawsuit has been settled, the underlying problems remain. “None of the three plaintiffs ever proved that they were discriminated against. In fact, I don’t believe that they had a case,” says Henry Der. Only one of the student plaintiffs, Patrick Wong, was actually turned down by Lowell. Wong was admitted to Abraham Lincoln High School, and went on to excel at the University of California at Irvine. “What is the harm that was done to Patrick Wong?” asks Der.

The greatest irony, Der believes, is that a Lowell education may actually reduce the chances of stellar students to move on to elite colleges. Although Lowell’s student body is among the best in the state, research done by Rowena Robles, Kyung-Hwan Mo, and Mariam Araujo shows that at least 43 percent of Lowell’s class of 2000 has a GPA of 3.0 or less. These students may not even attain minimum University of California standards of eligibility. The result is a school whose culture is defined by intense competition and high stress.

Tram Vo-Kumamoto’s parents pushed her to attend Lowell. “I was one of those students who excelled in middle school and did not excel at Lowell. I had college counselors that told me I couldn’t go anywhere,” she says. Vo-Kumamoto went to City College of San Francisco and then transferred to U.C. Berkeley. Parents say cheating, truancy, and depression are endemic problems at Lowell.

“Asian parents should not be concentrating their target at Lowell. The target is other schools, where the vast majority of Asians are,” says Ling-chi Wang. Der feels the Chinese American “obsession” with Lowell—and the lawsuit and settlement that have been the result of it—reflect badly on the entire Asian American community. To him, these sentiments are short-sighted and selfish.

Some Chinese American parents have often behaved “as if students of other racial backgrounds cannot or do not deserve to benefit from a Lowell education,” says Der. He worries the plaintiffs’ success will fuel growing Chinese American intolerance against other minorities, especially blacks.

“What is really sad about just cramming a few more Chinese [into Lowell]—who may, in fact, not end up at Berkeley or Harvard or Stanford—is that all the low-income Asians will not have the benefit of consent decree support,” says Der. “The Chinese American Democratic Club does not care about those students. They only care about their own students and that’s what this is all about.”

Jeff Chang is managing editor of ColorLines and a research fellow at the Applied Research Center.