Racial Quotas Didn't Work in SF Schools San Francisco Examiner Op-Ed July 6, 1994 Lawrence SiskindForty years after Brown vs. Board of Education and 16 years after the Bakke decision, Chinese American students will file suit this week against the San Francisco Uniifeid School District.
They are suing not to desegregate the schools but to escape the consequences of desegregation's remedies.
The suit is a crystalline signal that the age of racial social engineering---where individuals are shifted about like mosaic tiles to achieve the right color scheme----is drawing to a close.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown case that racial segregation in schools, even when "separate but equal," was unconstitutional. In the decision prompted by Allen Bakke, a white man who had ben denied admission to the UC-Davis School of Medicine, the high court in 1978 outlawed quotas based exclusively on race.
That was the year the NAACP filed suit against the school district, charging racial segregation. In 1983, the case was settled with a consent decreee. It was drafted with the help of (in the court's phrase) "the best experts on desegregation in the country."
The court and the experts divided San Francisco's students into nine racial/ethnic groups, identified as "Spanish-surnamed, Other White, Black, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, American Indian and Other Non-White."
The decree mandated that no one group could constitude more than 45 precent of the enrollment at any regular school, nor more than 40 percent of any magnet or alternative school.
Chinese American students, who comprised 19.5 percent of the population in 1983, increased to about 25 percent by 1994. But because of their low dropout rate, more than a third of the seniors are of Chinese ancestry by high school graduation. As a result, nearly half of the regular and magnet high schools are "capped out" for Chinese American kids.
The consent decree's most embarrassing appplication has been at The City's academically preeminent Lowell High School .
In 1993, Chinese American applicants were required to score 66 out of a perfect 69 to gain admittance. "Other Whites" and several other gorups could qualify with a 59; blacks and Spanish-surnamed, with a 56.
Nearly half of the Chinese initally admitted under this system qualifed with perfect scores of 69.
In 1994, the district took a new tack. It tinkered with the standardized tests. By emphasizing language skills in both the verbal and math portions of the test, the district succeeding in making them harder for those Chinese applicants with language problems. The changes allowed the district to lower the entrance score for Chinese from 66 to 62, compared to 57 for "Other Whites." Other groups were allowed in with still lower scores.
Many observers have been reminded of comparable discrimination faced by Jewish students at elite colleges amd graduate schools before World War II. Quotas were adopted wand strictly enforced. In the 1930s, it was easier for a Jew to enter medical school in Mussolini's Italy than in Roosevelt's America.
Defenders of both quota systems say that without caps Chinese American enrollment at top schools would soar, discouraging other applicants and exacerbating anti-Asian prejudice.
These fears have echos in the Jewish experience.
In 1922, President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard University (coincidentally, a relative of the poet James Russell Lowell, for whom Lowell High is named) justified quotas for Jews to counteract anti-Semitism.
"If every college in the country would take a limited proportion of Jews," he said, " we could go a long way toward eliminating race feeling..."
In a further coincidence, Harvard's Lowell saw 40 percent (the same number as the Lowell High cap for Chinese Americans) as the ceiling past which anti-Semitism would get out of hand.
"The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become 40 percent of the student body, the race feeling would become intense., When, on the other hand the number of Jews was small, the race antagonism was small also..."
Jews and Chinese have been paired before in their exposure to discrimination. Harlan Stone, chief justice of the United States in the early 1940s, once complained that Jewish lawyers "exhibit racial tendencies toward study by memorization" and "a mind almost Oriental in its fidelity to the minutiae of the subject without regard to any controlling rule or reason."
While discontent with the consent decree is probably keenest in the Chinese American community, the decree has antagonized other racial/ethnic groups as well. Black children are "capped out" of the Carver and Drew schools, both located in predominantly black residential areas and both greatly improved in recent years. Latino children are capped out of some Mission District schools.
More than $200 million has been spent to implement the quota system, and no one claims that the money has done anything to improve academic performance.
In 1992, the court's "Committee of Experts" issued a report that declared that while the consent decree had succeeded in desegregating the schoools, "African American and Hispanic students still face devastating levels of educational failure."
It costs about $30 million annually to maintain the consent decree, or about $500 per student per year. The sponsors of the new lawsuit would like to see that money spent on improving he quality of education, instead of on color-conscious number crunching.
Lawrence Siskind writes about legal affairs.