By Michael Meyers
I am thinking hard and critically about a "civil rights" complaint taken to the United States Department of Education by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF) and two other legal groups accusing New York City of practicing racial discrimination against black and Latino students by means of administering a single admissions test for its specialized high schools. According to the LDF complaint, such elite public high schools as Stuyvesant are discriminatory because not enough black and Hispanic students score high enough on the admissions test to gain admission.
The complaint sounds familiar--but it doesn't ring true.
That's because the overwhelming majority of students (over 70%) at Stuyvesant--the most elite of New York City's specialized public high schools--are not whites but Asians. Citywide, of the 28,000 students who took the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT) last year 5% of African Americans received offers; 6.7% were Hispanics; 30.6% were Caucasians; and 35% were Asians. Whites admitted to Stuyvesant scored far behind and below Asians, followed by Hispanics, followed closely by black admittees. That disproportionately higher admission rate for Asians (in a school system that is over 70% black and Hispanic), where the score on the single test is the admission ticket--is discriminatory against blacks and Hispanics?
If so, discrimination ain't what it used to be--even within the testing industry. Growing up black I learned early on about how tests were used to deny blacks equal access and their constitutional rights. My mentor Roy Wilkins (who headed the NAACP for 22 years) told me about the "bubbles in a bar of soap" test. In the years of literacy testing for qualifying voters, blacks were asked: "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" That was unadulterated, standard racism. Intelligence tests, too, Wilkins explained, were misused to place black students into classes for the "mentally retarded" and used by guidance counselors to tell blacks they should pursue non-intellectual careers. Even in the non-intellectual fields, blacks were disadvantaged in the work place by job tests that did not actually test for the skills needed to do the jobs. The courts, including the Supreme Court, KO'd such discriminatory tests. The High Court in Griggs v. Duke Power Company, for example, concluded that the company's promotion test for coal handlers was not "job-related."
Against such a historical backdrop of abusive testing, the knees jerk whenever a cry comes from the civil rights community that a particular test is to blame for blacks' or some other minority's exclusion from an educational or job opportunity. The civil rights groups-including the NAACP (over my objections)--started, in the 1970s, and 1980s, assailing education's standardized tests and employment competency tests as "racist" and "culturally biased" against minorities. Whites, these grievants alleged, were being advantaged when tested on middle-class "white skills" and knowledge bases to which disadvantaged poor blacks in the inner-cities were not exposed or taught. The NAACP, joined by black psychological and fraternal groups, called for the abolition of standardized tests and for broader, additional "affirmative action" criteria in schools and higher education to compensate minorities for the disadvantage of their backgrounds. The movement to change standards as a means to push blacks along was resisted by some public intellectuals. Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, the famed psychologist, and my other mentor, opposed the calls to abolish standardized tests. He thought the racially-skewed outcomes of such tests reflected the inefficiency and "racism" inherent in the public schools to which blacks were consigned and separated from their white peers. He regarded minorities' consignment to inferior schools as the cause of minority underachievement and for their disparate results on tests that supposedly measured "middle-class" values and knowledge.
Long before the "standards" movement in public education took root--which deemphasized blaming standardized tests and instead embraced coaching and preparing students for the SAT and entrance and competency examinations--Herman Badillo, the lawyer and CPA and former Deputy Mayor in New York City, was articulating the need to hold minority students to higher standards. He and Kenneth Clark regarded the lowering of educational standards and equal expectations, when it came to evaluating black and Hispanic students' academic abilities, as profoundly racist. Badillo was among the earliest critics of "social promotion" policies in New York City's public schools; the policy pushed children on to the next grade even if they did not learn anything or enough in the previous grade to merit promotion. Dr. Clark too characterized such policies as "regressive" and as part of a paternalistic treatment of black and Hispanic students, replete with negative stereotyping and lowered expectations, bordering on child abuse.
In the saner times of the Civil Rights Movement, when black leaders believed in standards and in the pursuit of academic and career excellence, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. 's mantra to black youths was straightforward: "Learn, baby, learn, so you can earn, baby, earn," he bellowed. And the NAACP's Roy Wilkins urged black students to forgo the siren song of separatism and instead go to school with and "learn what the white boys learn." If he were still alive, he'd no doubt amend that counsel, and urge black and Hispanic and Caucasian students to "do what the Asian students do"--study, study, study.
Asians in New York are not all middle-class. They don't all come from first-class, two-parent households. Their parents aren't all from the upper echelon group with buying power to get their kids special tutors. If they were that well off, their kids would be in the private schools--where many of the well-heeled Caucasians and blacks and Hispanics enroll their kids. The Asians in the public schools have followed without knowing it--the sound wisdom of the forefathers of the Civil Rights Movement. i.e. --make the best use of a free public school education. With a single-admissions test for the elite public high schools in New York, there is no discrimination against the highest scorers. That's exactly the egalitarian nature of a single standard for admission to the eight elite public high schools. You score large, you get in ahead of your peers of whatever race or ethnicity, no matter where you come from, no matter what your guidance counselor might think of your household, or what grades you posted in the city's super poor junior high schools of various neighborhoods with differential grading policies and teaching.
But many blacks and Hispanics, according to their leaders, think of Stuyvesant High School as "discriminatory" not just as discriminating. Discriminatory? You bet. But not in an invidious way--unless you believe that a single admissions test that is passed mostly by Asians, fewer whites, and even fewer Latinos and blacks "discriminate" against the vast numbers of the New York City public school students, mostly blacks and Hispanics, they who attend, by and large, lousy and segregated schools with ineffective teaching that are saddled with teacher contracts that defeat innovation and accountability. Indeed, the LDF complaint should be against the larger city public school system--where policies and practices of racial segregation (exacerbated by neighborhood zoning and ethnic identity-based charter schools) go unchallenged. Instead of taking on the truly and purposefully discriminatory aspects of the city of New York's public miseducation system, the LDF and its co-counsel organizations have taken the short cut route to the US Education Department's paternalistic Office for Civil Rights, maybe sensing that they have a receptive ear there for investigating a decades-old practice of doing in New York City what the Japanese have long done--test their students (all Japanese) for admission to the better schools. Japan however does not have a Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And it is Title VI's language about "disparate" racial impact of the policies of recipients of Federal financial assistance that LDF hangs its complaint on against Stuyvesant and the 7 other elite public high schools in New York City.
But Stuyvesant High School's mostly Asian student body renders hollow and misguided and absurd the LDF and other complainants' accusation of racism. Students are not being "excluded" from these elite schools by reason of their "race" or ethnicity or national origin. To contend otherwise is a bald-faced lie, because Asians, unlike blacks and Hispanics, are a racial minority in the city's school system and yet they far outnumber at Stuyvesant their white counterparts, as well as the blacks and Hispanics of similar age and qualification. These Asians aren't super-smart because of their genes or anything like that; but they are better prepared because they've done what they had to do to score ahead of all other subgroups who took the same test. They studied, and, in some cases, took weekend and after-school test-taking classes.
It's easy to blame the test. And the "organizational complainants" do so glibly -contending that the Specialized High School Admissions Test doesn't truly predict academic success in the elite schools, and that the SHSAT was never "validated" as an education/admissions instrument. In these circumstances--and with its, ahem, "disparate impact" on blacks and Hispanics, they pray for an interpretation of Title VI that recognizes that this "discriminatory" test leads to an "ongoing persistent pattern of unjustifiable and disproportionate exclusion of African American and Latino students."
That's a mouthful of nuttiness.
Reading the complaint shocks and scares me. It trivializes and ignores the achievement of the black and Hispanic students who do gain admission to the elite schools. The lawyers actually argue that so few minorities (not counting the Asians of course) create in these schools a "detrimental "atmosphere of racial isolation. In other words the relatively few blacks and Hispanics who attend Stuyvesant don't feel especially welcome because there aren't enough students there who look like them. Do these civil rights groups now believe, as they actually argue, that when black and Latino students are a minority at a mostly Asian public high school that fact denies them "a diverse educational environment", and that their "racial isolation" is therefore illegal under Title VI? That is an astonishing perversion in equal opportunity logic and an inversion of the rhetoric of civil rights. They've cravenly lodged a legal objection when Asians and blacks and Hispanic students break through racial stereotypes and socio-economic barriers and attend the same schools with other bright kids of every hue.
These specialized "exam schools" do not exclude by race, and every one of them is racially diverse. That was once called merit, not discrimination.
So, I dissent from this guilt premised on racial condescension and its inculcation of double standards in the guise of coming to the aid of "culturally disadvantaged" minority group black and Hispanic students who are under-represented at the elite high schools. I feel for the students of any hue who don't study hard or long enough, who don't go to the library, whose parents don't take the interest and go the extra mile to ensure their children's preparation (through coaching and tutorials) for the single test that can get them into these free elite schools and thereby change their lives by helping to ensure their advancement to the ivy league colleges. But the advancement and enrollment of "only" 19 blacks at Stuyvesant High School does not in my vocabulary make a brief for intentional racial discrimination. It doesn't pass the Title VI "effects" test either.
Let's face it: Race ain't what it used to be; that is best illustrated by the fact that Asians (some of who are immigrants and poor and disadvantaged and everything we attribute to inner-city blacks and Hispanics) have outperformed their white counterparts. Blacks and Hispanics can do likewise. In this regard, I remember the mantra during the years of massive resistance and protest against school busing for integration. We in the civil rights community responded, "It's not the bus, it's us" and integration they were protesting. Now, as we move away from protest and racial paranoia, the champions of civil rights must face modernity and a change in racial configurations in our public school system; and we should counsel black and Hispanic children who don't do the necessary and laborious work--"Like it wasn't the bus, it's not the test."
Michael Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former Assistant National Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).