As a group, Asians in America tell an incredible story of success. Seventy-one percent of Asian American adults in the U.S. today were born in foreign countries. Most came speaking little to no English and had few, if any, assets. Yet they’re the highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing racial group in the U.S. That status puts them at odds with the narrative that the deck is stacked against minorities in America. And it’s left Asian Americans in a strange place. Today’s cover story is Silent Minority.
One way to understand the racial conflicts involving Asian Americans is by visiting the controversy over a magnet high school known as “TJ” in Alexandria, Virginia, where Nicole Sbitani graduated in 2010.
Nicole Sbitani: So, for those who don't know, TJ is our shorthand for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. And because of its ranking, its prestige, its access to elite education, it's become the center of a firestorm.
To be blunt, some felt the high school’s merit-based admissions unfairly resulted in too many Asian Americans in Thomas Jefferson’s student body, and not enough Blacks and Hispanics.
About 8% of students in the entire county of Fairfax were Black, but only about 2% of students at TJ were Black. Thirty-four percent of students in the county were Hispanic, but only about 2% at TJ. In contrast, 21% of students in the county were Asian, but they dominated at TJ, making up 74% of the student body.
So in 2020, Fairfax County Public Schools made a controversial change at TJ. They tossed out the entrance exam. They began evaluating students based on skills, character, and background, such as economic disadvantage. And they installed a quota system, reserving an equal 1.5% of seats for students from each of Fairfax County’s public schools, excluding many who would have gotten in by merit and replacing them with those less academically qualified.
Though supporters argue the new system isn’t race-based, critics insist it was specifically designed to favor other minorities at the expense of Asians.
Sharyl: Do you know which racial background has been minimized the most under the new admission standards, and which one has benefited the most?
Sbitani: So something that folks who are opposed to the changes often point out is that the overall percentage of Asians has decreased under the new standards.
Sharyl: Do you know what it is approximately, and what it was?
Sbitani: Yeah, it went from about 74% — over 70% — to about 54%.
Under the new admissions policy, the proportion of Blacks and Hispanics quadrupled, while Asian student admissions cratered by nearly 20 percentage points.
Harry Jackson: I could talk a lot about what I've seen of anti-Asian racism. Like it's pretty blatant.
Even though he’s Black, Harry Jackson is part of a group fighting Thomas Jefferson’s new admissions process that benefits African-Americans over Asians. His son attends TJ.
Jackson: He's in the class of 2024. That was the last class that was admitted under the merit-based system.
Sharyl: What is the problem you see with wanting the school population to look like the society at large?
Jackson: What's the problem? Well, first of all, there's, I would say in the K-12, there's no compelling interest to do that. That's what local area high schools are for. TJ is a STEM school for those that have an aptitude in STEM opportunities. It should not be based off of racial gerrymandering. If it's 100% Asian, it's because you have that number that is there that are performing.
The status of Asian Americans is much-debated today. A minority in the U.S., yet increasingly viewed by fellow minorities as if they’re not. They’re carved out of routine discussions about minorities and sometimes left out of traditional minority initiatives. The Brookings Institution think tank says Asians are virtually invisible in some facets of society, with only two states recently requiring Asian American history in public schools. They’re the only racial group of adults that is a majority foreign-born, yet they are incredibly successful.
Asian Americans are more educated than the general population, more satisfied with their lives, they place a greater value on marriage, parenthood, hard work, and career success, and they earn far more, according to surveys.
Jackson: I think they are the inconvenient minority because they are so successful. And I would say it's fact that there is actual active anti-Asian racism and discrimination going on.
Hung Cao: I went to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. I was the first class to graduate from there.
Hung Cao attended the Naval Academy, got a masters in physics, became a fellow at MIT and Harvard, and spent 25 years in U.S. military special operations as a commissioned officer.
And, like many successful Asian Americans, he shatters the supposed privilege narrative.
Cao: I mean, we left Vietnam with nothing. We had no money. Just the shirts on our back and one suitcase.
After leaving Vietnam in 1975, he spent his early years with his family in West Africa speaking no English, prior to coming to the U.S. for his teenaged years and getting admitted to Thomas Jefferson based on merit.
Cao says some minority activists want to carve out Asians because Asians make it harder to argue America is systemically racist or lacking in opportunity for non-whites.
Cao: So the Asian community, because we don't meet the narrative of the minorities who need help, they won't call us minorities anymore. They start using other names like “white-adjacent." And so now you're calling, you know, an Asian American who grew up in Africa, you know — and again, I grew up in a Buddhist family in a Muslim country, and I became a Christian at the age of 20. And so, to call me something other than a minority is kind of insulting.
As for his high school alma mater’s changes in admissions policy
Cao: They said it wasn't diverse enough. Again, a school with 73% Asians, they felt it was not diverse enough.
Sharyl: What's your take on that?
Cao: I mean, that's kind of the root of Asian hate, right? I mean, it's definitely prejudice.
Sharyl: You’ve heard the term “white-adjacent” referring to Asian Americans?
Jackson: Yeah, yeah. I heard the word “white-adjacent” referred to Asian Americans. Unfortunately, I'm aware that the members of the NAACP had used this term to the Asian community,
Sharyl: What does “white-adjacent” mean to you when you hear that?
Jackson: When I heard “white-adjacent,” they are trying to deny them as their own — as a group that had suffered discrimination in the past, which we know is not the case.
Today, Thomas Jefferson High School is the focus of two investigations by Virginia’s attorney general. One into whether its new admissions policy violates state law. The other over TJ hiding from students the fact that they’d gotten a National Merit Scholars award. The school quietly told award winners, mostly Asian and from immigrant families, well after the deadline for college applications that could have listed the achievement.
Jason Miyares / Virginia Attorney General (January 4): To the extent that withholding of any of these awards at Thomas Jefferson High School was based on race, national origin, or any other protected status under the Virginia Human Rights Act, that is unlawful.
Even though she's Asian and got into Thomas Jefferson on academic merit, Sbitani helped get that system tossed out as part of the TJ Alumni Action Group.
Sbitani: Not everyone had access to the same opportunities that I did. So, although we can debate about the contours of the definition of fairness, I think it's ludicrous to say that the previous system was fair.
Sharyl: At what point did you decide that diversity was more important than pure merit?
Sbitani: So I grew to have an understanding where I no longer believed that merit and diversity are opposed. If we're talking about preparing students for the real world, and to be leaders and innovators in their field, then they have to be prepared to work with others who come from different backgrounds.
Jackson says it's untrue that non-Asians like his son didn't have a fair shot under TJ's old system.
Jackson: We were offered scholarship opportunities just like many other minority parents who have gifted children. So he was there. He did a summer STEM enrichment, but he didn't do a test prep. And he took the test and was admitted. So the opportunity is there. The resources are there. There are tutors that are there.
The courts are allowing TJ’s controversial admissions policy to stay in place during ongoing legal challenges. All of it sharpening the debate over where exactly Asian Americans fit in and whether their achievements as a group make them the target of a newer kind of discrimination.
Sbitani: Now we've seen two new incoming classes with the admissions changes. And they are the most diverse classes that TJ has ever seen. And so, for us, advocates of education equity, we saw this as definitely a step in the right direction. We don't think it's perfect. We don't think that the process is done, but we think it's moving in the right direction.
Sharyl: Do you think some of the sentiment is driven by jealousy?
Cao: I think it is. I think it's jealousy. I mean, I had an uncle who was a very famous three-star general in Vietnam. And the first thing he did when he came over here — he swept the floor at the metro stops. He swept, I mean, he went from a three-star general to sweeping the floor. Now, he rose back up. He fought to pull himself out of poverty and, you know, became very prominent. But, you know, it is jealousy when you see somebody have something you don't have.
Sharyl (on-camera): A parents' group recently unearthed record of more than a million dollars in donations to Thomas Jefferson High School in recent years from entities linked to Communist China. A school board response said it’s not unusual for elite U.S. schools to get donations from various sources, including international sources.