By Eli Steele
I was setting up my camera to film a rally on the steps of Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan when a disheveled middle-aged man clutching an odd assortment of papers to his chest stopped and stared at the gathering of parents and community leaders. They were there to protest Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ongoing attack on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the sole gateway to one of New York’s nine specialized high schools. Their hand-drawn signs read, “Stop picking on Asian kids!” “Fix failing schools!” and “Keep the test!” The disheveled man began to yell aggressively and I turned, to lipread him: “You Asians take all the spots at these schools! Only eight blacks got into Stuyvesant High, only eight! You gotta give us blacks a chance, that’s all we’re asking for, man!” I turned my camera to capture him but he saw me and fled.
Later, as I reflected on this incident, I thought of that frosty November morning in 2013 when I waited outside a Brooklyn voting center for the de Blasio family to arrive and cast the votes that helped elect the father mayor of New York City. I was filming my documentary on multiracial Americans, “How Jack Became Black.” There was an excitement in the air as people around me praised de Blasio’s multiracial family. They believed such a man was a harbinger of better racial relations and they loved his campaign stance against racial profiling. They could not have predicted that de Blasio would leave office eight years later as one of America’s most egregious racial profilers.
Why had de Blasio and his education administration racially profiled Asian children? Was it because these youths took the American dream seriously and burned the midnight oil? Was it because their parents — many of them immigrants and impoverished — squeezed every penny to see that their children were prepared to take the test? Or was it simply that they were different, Asian and an unpreferred minority?
If 54 percent of the 4,262 eighth graders that passed the SHSAT had been black instead of Asian, there is very little doubt that de Blasio would not have charged the test as “structurally racist.” In fact, he likely would have praised the test.
Wai Wah, the charter president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York, and her friend, George Lee, showed me the tweet sent by de Blasio’s education chancellor, Meisha Porter, after the students received their test results. Porter found it “unacceptable” that so few blacks were admitted to specialized high schools and said that it was “past time for our students to be fairly represented.” The implication was the test was racist.
Wai Wah and George pointed out that Porter failed to congratulate the students who had studied for years and passed the exam. They also noted that Porter had neglected to pay respect to the other 19,266 students who similarly sacrificed but did not pass the test. The only thing that mattered to Porter was “our students,” a label that included only Blacks and Hispanics.
Porter was only following the path forged by de Blasio, who spoke of the need to “redistribute wealth.” Like previous educators, she ignored the reality of favoring equity over merit, a reality that cost many black and Hispanic neighborhoods its gifted and talented programs over the past several decades. When blacks and Hispanics had access to these programs, they took the same test that de Blasio disparaged as racist and dominated Brooklyn Tech from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Not one of these bureaucrats from de Blasio and Potter to the previous education chancellor, Richard Carranza, asked the obvious question: why had “too many” Asians passed the test?
Asking such a question would have forced de Blasio to examine what influences and behaviors made certain students successful. He would have quickly discovered that there was nothing “Asian” about their successes — after all, far more Asians failed the test than those who passed. He would have also discovered that it was their steadfast belief in the American Dream that drove them to take chances on their talents, a path followed by countless successful Americans.
Also, to look at the humanity of these Asians would have forced de Blasio to look at the root causes driving the terrible inequities that plague the nation’s largest public school system. Instead, it was easier for him to racially profile and scapegoat Asians for these inequities.
The racial biases of de Blasio and the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) establishment, rarely got much attention in the press. These folks promoted equity to the level of a top societal moral virtue where representation by race trumped merit. Having lowered themselves down to the inhuman level of race, they see race in everything and therein lies their bias, a bias that extended beyond Asians to blacks and Hispanics.
Rather than empower these demographics with the tools of equality by strengthening the schools, de Blasio believed he could racially engineer blacks and Hispanics to parity at the expense of Asians. That is how little faith he had in these demographics to agent their own fates. At the same time, de Blasio derived enormous political capital for appearing to champion the downtrodden while conveniently ignoring the long history of horrific oppression suffered by many Asian communities in America. It was this bias that allowed de Blasio to racially profile an entire class of people for the way they looked.
I thought about how this ugliness was taking place in 2021 as I traveled to the far end of the Brooklyn borough to visit the Ni family. Sam, an immigrant shop owner, welcomed me into a home that married the American Dream with cultural memories of the China that Sam and his wife left behind. I asked their children, Zoe, a seventh-grader studying for the SHSAT, and Leo, a ninth-grader at Hunter College High School, what they thought of all this anti-Asian discrimination — a Brooklyn educator had recently called the people like them “yellow folks.”
After several shy answers, Zoe answered with the truth ignored by many educators: “People aren’t numbers. There are real people in these statistics. There are real people who are losing out on opportunities. And it is upsetting to me to know the reason is merely race.”
Sam, a reflective and thoughtful man, revealed later that he had heard of Martin Luther King’s dream in China and that is part of why he came to America. Through a translator, he said, “In China’s cultural revolution, students were classified as ‘being of red five category’ or ‘being of Black five category.’ Why? It’s not anything to do with the individual student, but with his family background, with other external factors. In New York, even the entire United States, education, concerning race matters, it’s actually like China’s Cultural Revolution, not looking at the student himself, on who studies well and who doesn’t, but throwing up a mess of race and family background identity, to judge what kind of person you are. I think this is going backward in history.”
Sam also had words for leaders like de Blasio: “What they want is to use their views to remake and control the world as they want, and not let us free people, competing freely, under a system of equal opportunity, create a brilliantly multi-colored world. So what they are doing, to take their ideas to control the world, that’s, in a certain sense, actually very much like communism, totalitarian communism.”
Sam revealed to me that he had recently thought of immigrating to another country. He left the paralyzing class divisions of China only to find his children on the wrong side of racial divisions in America. But then he seemed to let that thought die down — at least in America he has the unbridled right to fight the injustices affecting his kids and he has fought.
As I rode back into Manhattan, I thought of what George Lee told me on the issue of representation. He blamed the ongoing racial divisions on critical race theory that, for him, was a “political ideology of race war, racial hatred.” He wondered out loud how one Asian could represent another Asian, or a black another black, for that matter. He explained that nobody looks like him or thinks like him so how can he represent another Asian? He then continued, “If an Asian gets into Harvard, does that Asian take courses on behalf of an Asian who did not get in?” He looked at me with the twinkle in the eye that one often has when revealing a racial absurdity: “There is no such thing as representation by race. This whole language of representation is basically saying that Asians or whites or blacks are mutually substitutable.”
That was the very thing that de Blasio fought against when he campaigned for Mayor of New York. He knew the evil of racial profiling was that people were not seen as individuals but as members of a race. He had heard blacks complain that they should not fall under suspicion because they were black and lived in high crime neighborhoods. They protested that it was unfair and that they were more than their race. Yet de Blasio betrayed this lesson in humanity when he racially profiled the Asians his entire time in office, leaving many black and Hispanic students worse off than when he took office.
In many ways, the disheveled man who yelled at the Asians at the rally was a sad symbol of de Blasio’s education legacy. That man had been poisoned in the mind to believe that Asians somehow had monopolized all the power and that is why he demanded that they give blacks a chance. But there is nothing the Asians can give him. There is nothing a race can give. Only the individual can give or take. That man will sadly never rise above his current station as long as he thinks that way. And that is why de Blasio failed so miserably on his campaign promise to uplift the schools.