COLUMN ONE : Caught on the Wrong Side of the Line? : Chinese Americans must outscore all other groups to enter elite Lowell High in San Francisco, sparking an ugly battle over diversity and the image of a ‘model minority.’


For many of its 139 years, Lowell High School--alma mater of Nobel laureates, a California governor and a Supreme Court justice--has been a magnet for this city’s smartest public school students.

Today, the fiercely scholastic campus is a battleground in the war over racial preferences. But the furor surrounding it takes a unique twist.

In this polyglot city on the bay, it is Chinese Americans--not the proverbial “angry white males"--who are crying foul, claiming that the school pays more attention to the color of an applicant’s skin than to the academic excellence it has long fostered.


Their allegations have ignited an ugly dispute in this liberal bastion--one that reflects the rising national preoccupation with merit, equality and finding a balance between the two.

The protest also shines a light on the complexities of affirmative action, recast by years of demographic upheaval that have turned minorities into majorities, blurring once-stark color lines. Asian Americans are Exhibit A in the newly unfolding battle, their conflicting images--model minority or targets of longstanding bigotry?--confounding the debate.

At issue is the admissions system at Lowell, the oldest and one of the most prestigious public high schools west of the Mississippi. Like other elite public schools, it selects students according to grades and test scores.

But at Lowell, enrollment is dictated in part by court order, and to maintain the required ethnic balance, Chinese Americans must post higher scores than other racial or ethnic groups. So Chinese Americans who would qualify if they were white, black, Latino or of Japanese or Korean ancestry are routinely rejected.

The district devised the system to comply with a 12-year-old desegregation plan, widely hailed as one of the nation’s most progressive for its multiracial definition of integration.

“This is absolutely a unique school district,” says Gary Orfield, a Harvard University school desegregation expert who led a court-ordered review of the plan two years ago.

“It’s one-sixth white, one-sixth Hispanic and one-sixth black . . . [and] Chinese Americans are the single largest group. It’s not an everyday situation.”

Instead of focusing mainly on mixing blacks and whites--whose numbers continue to shrink in the San Francisco Unified School District--the plan recognizes nine racial and ethnic classifications and allows an integrated setting to include any four groups. For instance, a campus can be considered integrated if it mixes Latinos, Chinese Americans, African Americans and Filipinos.

But the ethnic balancing plan also forbids any group from exceeding 45% at a neighborhood school or 40% at an alternative school, such as Lowell. And therein lies the dilemma.

Because of their demand for challenging classes and tendency to outperform others academically, Chinese Americans regularly bump against the numerical ceilings. This is especially true at the flagship school, where they apply, qualify for and accept admission in higher numbers than other groups.

For this fall’s freshman class, Lowell rejected 94 Chinese Americans with scores as good as students admitted in other categories. Last fall, 90 Chinese Americans were excluded.

Even with the restrictions, Chinese Americans tip the ethnic scales, making up 43% of the school’s 2,650 students. About 4.4% are black, 9.3% are Latino and 16.1% are white. Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos account for 14.5%, while “other nonwhites” such as Samoans, Vietnamese, Cambodians and multiracial youths make up 12.2%.

Class-Action Lawsuit

Supporters of the tiered system fear that, without it, Chinese Americans would overwhelm the school, thwarting diversity goals and denying disadvantaged students with academic potential the chance to benefit from Lowell.

But, charging that the system robs them of educational choices, three Chinese American families filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court last year challenging the desegregation plan. Defying the multiracial coalition that supports the plan, they argue that the racial quotas are unconstitutional, violating their right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

The district filed a motion in May to dismiss the suit, contending that it belatedly raises issues addressed in earlier proceedings. A ruling on that motion is expected this summer.

The lawsuit has caught the attention of leaders of the drive to place an anti-affirmative action measure on the 1996 state ballot. Even though the so-called “California civil rights initiative” would have no effect on Lowell if it passes, its backers have seized on the plight of Chinese Americans there as an example of the evils of race-based preferences.

The angry young Chinese Americans at the helm of the Lowell fight insist that they are not opposed to affirmative action and see no contradiction in their cause. The children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, they speak instead of dreams betrayed, of disillusionment with the notion that hard work could obliterate the barriers of skin color.

“I grew up knowing a lot of racism,” said Lee Cheng, 23, a UC Berkeley law student and spokesman for the San Francisco chapter of the Chinese American Democratic Club, the group behind the legal battle.

“I was beaten up as a kid, referred to as a chink, a Chinaman. But in school I was taught that the laws will treat everyone the same, that discrimination was being eliminated.

“Then my friends and I applied to public high school. We discovered that if you are Chinese, you have to do better than anyone else.”

Cheng attended Lowell, graduating in 1989. Linda Lee’s 15-year-old son was not as lucky.

The prospective freshman, who asked not to be identified, applied last year, scoring 61 on the school’s 69-point admission index. As a Chinese American, he needed 62 to get in. For whites and other Asians, the cutoff was 58, and for others the standard was even more lenient.

Her son’s failure to gain admission, his mother said, stirred anger and self-hate.

“He said it is not fair,” Lee recalled. “He said, ‘Why a lower score for others? I have good grades, better than them.’ He said, ‘Why am I Chinese?’ ”

An immigrant who lives in the city’s Mission district, Lee believes that the current system damages race relations. The solution, in her view, would be to have one admission standard and no limits on any group.

The district argues that the caps are fair and just. They “put some restriction on all races and ethnic groups in order to ensure that desegregation occurs,” said Aubrey McCutcheon, a district lawyer.

The rules apply to all the schools, he stressed. “We don’t single out one school because one race would like to go there more than others.”

In response to the outcry, the district is examining alternatives, hoping to have new admission guidelines by the fall of 1996. One proposal would create two pools of applicants--one chosen strictly by grades and scores and one based on additional criteria, including ethnicity. Another proposal would create a pool of applicants who meet a uniform set of standards, with finalists selected by lottery.

Lee’s son, who wound up at another alternative school, wanted to attend Lowell because, like many San Franciscans, he saw it as a pipeline to prestigious UC Berkeley. Lowell sends more graduates to the nine UC campuses than any high school in the country.

In a city of immigrants, it is viewed, simply, as a ticket to success.

Distinguished Alumni

Lowell has produced a governor (Edmund G. Brown Sr.), scientists and artists (naturalist Dian Fossey, sculptor Alexander Calder), Nobel laureates (physicist Albert Michelson, physiologist Joseph Erlanger) and a United States Supreme Court justice (Stephen G. Breyer).

Last year, it ranked eighth in the nation out of more than 10,000 high schools in the number of Advanced Placement tests administered, and almost nine of 10 students passed the rigorous exams. The curriculum is extensive--Korean and Philippine language courses were recently added. The library is linked to the Internet. And nearly half of the teaching staff have master’s degrees or doctorates. It has been named a California Distinguished School by the state Department of Education four times in nine years.

Tucked away in the Sunset district, a middle-class enclave on the west side of town, the campus is atypical in other ways, too.

At almost any time of day, scores of youths line the corridor floors in the main classroom building, using their free period to pore over notes, read or study with friends.

While bells are a constant intrusion at most schools, here they are rung only at homeroom and to summon a custodian. Lowell students don’t need help to remember when it’s time for class.

“I always wanted to go here,” said sophomore Kelli Thomas-Drake, 16. “It’s like a private school setting. Kids know what to do and are mature about it. It’s really the place to be academically.”

Lowell’s appeal is heightened by parents’ perception that the quality of San Francisco schools is generally poor.

In 1978, the local NAACP sued the district, charging that its segregated schools provided black children in particular with an inferior education.

Five years later, the lawsuit ended in a consent decree signed by the district, the state Department of Education and the NAACP and approved by a federal judge.

The plan was more than a blueprint for busing, although busing is a major feature of district desegregation efforts. It took the unusual approach of calling for the overhaul of teaching and administrative staffs at schools with particularly dismal records.

But the overall academic benefits have been disappointing. The committee found that most black and Latino high school students still have low test scores and high dropout rates. In 1993, the dropout rate for blacks and Latinos was 24%, six points higher than the district average for all students and nine points higher than the state average.

The hunger for a top-notch education is evident each winter when applications open at Lowell. The school typically receives more than 1,800 applications for 600 to 700 freshman slots.

For this fall’s freshman class, Chinese Americans had to score at least 63 on the 69-point index. Whites and other Asian Americans could score 60. For Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans, the cutoff was 55. A fourth track specifically for affirmative action admits blacks and Latinos with scores between 50 and 54 and gives them extra tutoring and other support.

The cutoffs are recalculated each year and based on factors including the number from each ethnic group expected to apply and accept admission.

But the results of such intricate engineering still fall short. Outside of class, students self-segregate. At lunch there are black tables, white tables, Asian tables.

Not far beneath the surface, some students say, are ugly stereotypes, held by students but also by some of the predominantly white faculty: Asians only care about grades. Blacks aren’t smart enough to be here.

“A lot of people are stigmatized because of the [admissions] system,” said Thomas-Drake, who is black. Although she was admitted with a 65, she feels “there’s a message” from some teachers and students “that you’re not good enough to get in on your own.”

Nicole Williams, 16, an African American sophomore, said she is so disheartened by the low expectations that she regrets coming to Lowell. But, like other students, she thinks Lowell cannot afford to eliminate a system that strives for a better ethnic mix.

Some Chinese-American students agree.

Senior Brian Chan, 17, said the pressure among Chinese Americans to get good grades can be unhealthy, leading many to overlook the value of extracurricular activities.

“In Chinese families, school is first and other activities come later. If the school were more diverse,” Chan said, “it would be more relaxed here.”

Before the consent decree was enacted, the school had been predominantly white, the result largely of demographics and racist admissions practices, district critics say. The persistence of such “racially identifiable” schools was one reason why the NAACP brought its original lawsuit, said Peter Cohn, attorney for the group.

The NAACP--along with the district and the state Department of Education--is a defendant in the current suit.

The NAACP opposes the suit, Cohn says, pointing to the substantial Chinese American enrollment as proof that they “are in fact not being denied equal protection of the laws.”

Dispute About Discrimination

Some observers have suggested that the Lowell debate is really a case of Chinese Americans being cursed by their own success, that--like whites before them--they must be held back to allow others a chance to succeed.

Others vehemently disagree, arguing that Chinese Americans continue to face discrimination. The case resonates with members of the Bay Area branch of the American Jewish Committee, which backs the lawsuit, seeing parallels with battles 40 years ago over Jewish quotas at some elite universities.

Indeed, the situation at Lowell mirrors controversies at UCLA and Harvard, which faced charges in the 1980s that qualified Asian Americans were being excluded because of quotas.

“We are really at a very important point,” said Amy Chang, chairwoman of the education committee of the Chinese American Democratic Club. “What are Asians going to do with these rising barriers?

“This lawsuit isn’t about getting a few more Chinese kids into Lowell. It’s about the importance of protecting individual rights.

“The Chinese are getting screwed here.”

Such arguments do not sit well with Henry Der, the head of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a San Francisco civil rights group at the forefront of many fights over limits on Asian-American university enrollment.

Der opposes the lawsuit, citing numbers showing that Chinese American students are overrepresented at special schools such as Lowell. He also argues that the legal challenge imperils a greater good.

“Ultimately you have to ask, is it in the interest of Chinese students . . . that students of other backgrounds are not succeeding or not gaining access to schools that put them on the road to academic success? I tend to think it is not in our interest.”

He said the suit “shows the Achilles heel of the Chinese community. Clearly, Chinese Americans buy into this notion of merit. . . . But in the whole education arena, we seem to turn a deaf ear to members of other groups who experience educational problems.”

The Lowell case illustrates an important shift in the affirmative action debate, said UC Santa Cruz sociology professor Dana Takagi. More sympathetic as victims than are whites, Asian Americans have become “the new poster children” of the anti-affirmative action movement, she said.

Takagi believes that Lowell’s restrictions on Chinese American enrollment are unfair. But there is greater danger, she suggests, in oversimplifying the debate.

“What the debate is about is trying to balance the assumption, really an illusion, that we should be judged by merit and that we should all have equal opportunity.

“The playing field is not level. What Lowell is trying to do is . . . deal honestly with how we educate different parts of the population and try to level that playing field. That ultimately is what the civil rights agenda is about.”

Principal Paul Cheng is optimistic that the emotional clashes over who deserves a seat at Lowell will be satisfactorily resolved. He noted that an aggressive recruiting campaign last year by the PTA broadened the applicant pool for the fall class, bringing in more whites, Latinos and blacks.

But a steep challenge remains.

“We are dealing with the paradoxes and contradictions of American society,” he said. “We’re asked to be proponents of individual merit, yet at the same time we need to recognize the need for . . . correcting past injustices and past discrimination. Some people don’t like the way it’s being done.

“Like any good democracy, we’re just going to have to debate this thing out.”