That was the question my 15-year-old son asked me as he was going out to spend the day playing tennis, something he’s been doing all summer long. My short answer was: ‘Asian kids aren’t playing tennis all day and every summer day.’ It’s as simple as that.
Here in New York City, there are four elite, competitive public high schools. These are the ethnic enrollment percentages for the past year, which have been largely consistent for more than a decade:
The approximate statistics for all of New York City are 30% Hispanic, 25% African-American, 45% white, and 15% Asian.
Only two –TWO! —African-Americans graduated from Hunter High this June, according to Hunter’s African-American valedictorian, who was understandably upset and concerned at a number which would be absurd if it weren’t so tragic.
As we all know, only too well, in New York State and nationally, Asians are tops in math, but did you know they were tops in English too, even beating out whites in reading scores, who themselves are at least 30 percentage points better than Hispanics and African-Americans, who lag woefully on the latest NYS tests in English?
Why do Asians do so well, in New York City, statewide, nationally and on SATs? Why are Asians over-represented at the best US colleges? Why are there quotas to exclude Asians at top tier schools, akin to the “Jewish problem” of the 1920s at Harvard and throughout the Ivy League then.
The 1922 freshman class at Harvard had 20% Jews, which was threatening to the entrenched WASP hegemony. The solution according to Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen was to change admission requirements from strict academic achievement (SAT scores, high school transcript and class rank) to the far more subjective, and pliant. Harvard applicants now had to supply character references, and letters of recommendation, write personal essays, list extracurricular activities, submit to an interview, and even attach a photo “to” as Karabel writes, “ensure that ‘undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment and physical appearance.”
While there have been efforts to limit Asian hegemony at the best colleges in the California state system, fortunately to date, these efforts have somewhat failed. Why do Asians do so well has the same question and the same answer as why Jews historically do so well in academics and business and professions and the arts, far out of proportion to their absolute numbers. The Jewish and Asian cultures work harder at it and have cultures that ferociously favor education. Other ethnic groups do not, or not to the same extant, or as effectively.
Let me give you some examples. City College in the 1930s was the “Jewish Harvard,” said probably both admiringly and derisively depending on who was saying it because Jews — often excluded from top private colleges —dominated City which was tuition free throughout the Depression.
Until Jews started abandoning the NYC public school system in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they dominated that too. Sen. Schumer and Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg graduated from public Madison High in Brooklyn.. Woody Allen, Midwood. More than thirty Nobel laureates have graduated from city public highs, almost all Jewish. Stanley Kubrick went to Taft; Arthur Miller to Lincoln.
Erasmus Hall – the first public school in New York City – used to lead the country in Westinghouse (now Intel) Science winners in the 1950s and early 60s. Why? It had a preponderance of Jewish kids then. Today Erasmus Hall functions as poorly as most city public schools. Why? The neighborhood changed. Today, there are zero Jews at Erasmus and almost no Asians.
When I went to school, the more Jews in the school the better the school. Today the more Asians in a school, the better the school. No one wants to say this publically. But this is the reality.
When did the NYC public schools begin to decline? In the late 60s and early 70s. Why? The Jewish population joined the “white flight” to the suburbs, or the remaining Jews sent their kids to Yeshivas or prep schools. Result: fewer Jewish public school students; worse public schools because the students who replaced them, African-Americans and Hispanics do not come from cultures where education is valued but not as highly as in other cultures.
Herman Badillo , the first elected Congressman of Puerto Rican parents, said precisely this in 2007 about Mexican (Hispanic) culture to explain Hispanic underachievement and was vilified and forced to recant. But he was right. Yes, at the elite levels of Mexican/Hispanic culture there is a rich academic and intellectual history and tradition, but it does not permeate Mexican culture the way it permeates Jewish and Asian culture.
As far as African-Americans there is also a history and tradition of academic excellence and achievement but it is reserved and limited to the small number of blacks chronicled in Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. Again this tradition does not filter down into the black ghetto or even into the black working and middle class. Black parents may articulate the need for school, but overall black culture seems to tell black kids school ain’t cool. And cool, unfortunately, is the higher value.
It’s unpleasant to say one culture “strives harder,” “achieves more,” etc. than others. But it’s a fact. In southeast Asia, the Chinese in non-Chinese societies such as Malaysia, are called the Jews of the Orient because of their business skills and disproportionate successes. The Cubans before Castro had the same reputation in the Caribbean, and were both admired and reviled for their success. So were the Asian Indians in East Africa who were brought there by the British, but were such over -achievers that after independence the majority indigenous Africans forced the Indians to emigrate.*
Why do African-Americans do so well in many sports? Or in pop entertainment? Surely, one big reason is they work hard at it. Why can’t we say that if they worked harder at education they’d achieve more? Several charter schools in Harlem have shown real academic gains. One reason: the school day is significantly longer. Ergo, those black students WORK HARDER! and accomplish more.
I taught at Sheepshead Bay High School, a very average NYC public high for almost thirty years. Once in a while my kids (majority black) asked the same question as my son. Why are Asians kids so smart? And I always told them this anecdote:
I walk to school every day through a Chinese neighborhood. On a six or seven block stretch of my walk, there are three modest storefronts labeled in English: Literary Circles. Every afternoon, school buses drop off thirty to fifty Chinese elementary aged kids at each of these after school centers, where I see them doing homework and review sheets supplied by the center. Everyone works diligently. No one is running wild. One adult and a couple of teens supervise. After an hour or maybe two, I believe there is some play and free time. But the primary purpose is academic until families pick up the kids.
No soccer. No Little League. No basketball for these Chinese kids on their way to Stuyvesant and Hunter. Oh yeah. No tennis either. My son, a bright kid who graduated near the top of his elementary school, failed the test last year for New York’s competitive schools. He’s now in a private school costing me10K per annum.
Asians are smarter than us.
*In the Kenyan case, it’s probable that one explanation for the East Indian success was that the British favored them over the indigenous Africans.