Affirmative action is making waves this summer, in New York and nationally. However, Jewish groups don’t appear to be stirring.
Mayor Bill de Blasio waded into turbulent waters in June when he proposed changes on admission to eight of New York City’s nine specialized high schools — including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science — to increase the underrepresented black and Latino student body. His announcement follows a campaign promise to address the fact that blacks and Latinos received only 10 percent of admissions offers even though they make up 67 percent of the city-wide public school population.
Asians account for 62 percent of specialized high school students while making up just 16 percent of the city’s public school students, and thus stand to lose from de Blasio’s integration efforts. Advocates argue that the current system of solely relying on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT) — a multiple-choice test with no writing component — offers an objective measure and levels the playing field regardless of race or background.
Where does the Jewish community stand on these competing groups and interests?
“Jews are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said William Helmreich, professor of sociology at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate School. “They’re afraid to be caught on the wrong side of history. On one hand, they generally believe in diversity and the credo of tikkun olam. On the other hand, if there’s affirmative action, they don’t get in. It’s a dilemma, and a lot of Jews are in between.”
Alina Adams, author of “Getting into NYC High School” and mother of Stuyvesant children, agrees that people feel trapped.
“I think the Jewish community doesn’t think that this is their fight, that it’s not their business,” she said. “It’s a no-win. Nobody wants to, and nobody should, say, ‘I oppose black and Hispanic students getting a good education.’ And that’s how the argument is framed.”
For now, Jewish groups are sitting out the debate. “We have not taken a position on this issue,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, via email. A representative at another prominent national Jewish organization who asked not to be named said his group is “studying the issue but have not taken a position yet.”
Student demographics have been shifting over the decades. In 1950, Bronx Science was 85 percent Jewish, and white enrollment at Stuyvesant was as high as 79 percent in 1970. One author even recalled that Stuyvesant was once known as “a free prep school for Jews.” This history is not lost on representatives of the city’s Asian community. In a NY1 report, Kenneth Chiu, president of the Asian-American Democratic Club said, “[The mayor at the time] never had this problem when Stuyvesant was all Jewish. All of a sudden, they see one too many Chinese and they say, ‘Hey, it isn’t right.’”
In the arena of higher learning, a lawsuit filed last month claimed that Harvard University discriminated against Asian-American applicants based on personality tests and evoked its infamous history of Jewish quotas, an allegation and comparison the school denied.
Affirmative action is also under federal scrutiny, as a recent joint statement from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice announced a withdrawal of policy guidelines adopted under President Barack Obama. The letter was co-signed by Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus, whose nomination and confirmation drew widespread attention and response across the Jewish political spectrum.
Yet on the issue of admission to New York’s elite high schools, it remains to be seen when — or if — Jewish groups would be willing to dip their toes in the discussion.