Most everyone in our region and many beyond have heard of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ). A public magnet school in Fairfax County, Virginia, it is always rated among the top 10 or 20 high schools in the nation — and it packs off scads of students to the most selective colleges every year. Admission is highly competitive. Last year, more than 2,500 eighth graders applied for 485 seats in the freshman class.
It was considered front-page news in this week’s Washington Post that for the first time TJ’s incoming class will have a plurality of Asian Americans at 45 percent. White students will comprise 42 percent, while African American and Hispanic students will make up two percent each (the rest are called “other”).
All students in Fairfax County (and some in surrounding regions) are eligible to apply, and the corresponding ethnic percentages in the county are white (67.9 percent), blacks (9.9 percent), Asians (15.9 percent), and Hispanics (12.9 percent). These ethnic categories are not hard and fast. The Hispanic category, for example, can include people of any skin color if their ancestry is from the Spanish-speaking world. And a certain number of students at Thomas Jefferson (bless them) decline to identify themselves ethnically at all.
But in these touchy times, this sort of news is bound to induce at least dyspepsia. The Post story suggests that the Fairfax County school board is planning to review the school’s admission policy. A spokesman told me that they are always reviewing their admission criteria. There are periodic complaints that too few blacks and Hispanics are admitted, and now perhaps some members of the white majority will whine that more of their darlings should be offered those plum spots.
The game of racial and ethnic spoils has no rules and no limits. If it’s a contest of who can shout the loudest or apply the most pressure, there is no logical end of the corruption that is possible.
As a parent of white male students in Fairfax County, I’ve had occasion to size up the competition. Attending the awards ceremony in June at our high school (not TJ) for example, the Asian students carried off a huge number of the awards in nearly all subjects and completely flattened everyone else in math and science. It’s so . . . unfair.
These Asian students, some of whom only arrived in this country within the past ten years, combine natural ability with prodigious work habits. As Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom reported in their book No Excuses, “Only a quarter of white students in middle school spend more than an hour daily on homework, but half of all Asian-American children do so.” The authors quote an Asian immigrant child as explaining “Every day [our parents] tell us ‘Obey your teachers. Do your schoolwork. Stay out of trouble. You’re there to learn, not to fight. Keep trying harder. Keep pushing yourself. Do your homework. After you have done that you can watch TV.’ ”
And how does America reward these hard-working students? We’ve erected barriers to their advancement. Just as colleges and professional schools in the 1920s through the 1940s kept a ceiling on the number of Jewish students they would admit, today’s schools are doing the same with Asians.