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A San Diego-area superintendent was placed on administrative leave last week after her disparaging remarks about Asian students sparked outrage. 

During a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training on April 11, when asked why Asian students perform so well in school, Cheryl James-Ward attributed it to family wealth. She said: “We have an influx of Asians from China, and the people who are able to make that journey are wealthy. You cannot come to America and buy a house for $2 million unless you have money. You cannot come to America and buy a house for $2 million unless you have money.” 

James-Ward doubled down when the board’s president pushed back. She said: “In my community, Carmel Valley, I have, not so much today, but up until a couple of years ago, we had a large influx of Chinese families moving in sight unseen into our homes, into the community, and that requires money.” In comparison, according to James-Ward, “in some of our Latinx communities, they don’t have that type of money, parents are working two jobs. They’re working from sunup to sundown.”

James-Ward’s attempt to use the wealth of a small subset of Asian Americans to explain away Asian students’ overall academic achievements is a common false narrative spread in an attempt to explain away why, as a group, Asian-Americans tend to perform the best academically and often economically.

This narrative is ignorant, false, and rude in a way that would not be culturally acceptable were it spread about other racial groups. So let’s look at her comments and the truth, as it’s clear many people need to understand that Asian Americans’ excellence comes not from privilege, but from hard work and cultural virtues accessible to all.

Asians Have Been in America for a Long Time

Contrary to James-Ward’s remarks, not all Asian Americans are new immigrants. Some Asian families have been in the United States for more than 150 years. Their ancestors helped build transcontinental railroads and turned swamps in California into thousands of acres of fertile farmland between 1860 and 1880.

Yet some in America still treat Asian Americans as forever “outsiders.” Many of us have been told to “go back to where you come from.” As an educator, James-Ward should have known better than perpetuating this offensive stereotype. 

Second, James-Ward ignored the ethnic and economic diversity among Asian Americans. There are about 22 million Asian Americans in the United States, and we trace our roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia. In addition, according to Pew Research, while Asian Americans as a group have the highest earnings in the nation, they have displaced blacks as the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the United States.

Asian-Americans Are Not ‘All Rich’

The poverty rates were “35% among Burmese, 33% among Bhutanese, and 28% among Hmong and Malaysians, compared with 15.1% in the U.S.” In New York City, Asian Americans have the highest poverty rate, “with 29 percent living below the poverty level, compared with 26 percent of Hispanics, 23 percent of blacks and 14 percent of whites.”

If James-Ward wants to witness poverty in the Asian American community, all she has to do is visit tenants living in single-room occupancy (SRO) housing in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A typical SRO room is so small that “it barely fits in a bed and a small table, with shared communal kitchens, showers, and toilets.” 

During the San Francisco school board campaign early this year, I met Allene Jue, a campaign volunteer and a daughter of Chinese immigrants. She told me from the time she was born until she was six, her family of four crammed into such an SRO room. Her dad worked as a cook, and her mom had multiple jobs, including being a hotel housekeeper. They worked from “sunup to sundown.”

By focusing on a few wealthy Chinese families in San Diego, James-Ward papered over the poverty that many Asian Americans experience, and often triumph over. 

Asians Do Well Through Hard Work, Not Money

It’s a fallacy to claim Asian students’ typically strong educational outcomes result from money. About half of the Asian students enrolled in New York City’s elite high schools qualify for free or subsidized school lunches. The latest test data from NYC public schools shows that Asian students from low-income and well-to-do neighborhoods have the least disparity in academic achievements than do other racial groups.

My own story testifies that a culture prioritizing education is why Asian students typically perform well in school. I grew up in poverty and on food rations in Mao Zedong’s China. Despite the harsh economic circumstances, my parents taught my siblings and me how to read and do simple arithmetic before we even began the first grade.

After we started school, besides completing homework from teachers, we had to finish additional assignments from our parents, which usually involved solving math questions and memorizing Chinese poems. My parents ensured we all understood that there is nothing more important than education. They also told us 勤能补拙, a Chinese idiom that means hard work can make up for weakness or lack of talent. 

When I came to the United States in the mid-90s, I had less than $100 in my pocket. The values my parents instilled in me helped keep me focused and disciplined. I completed two master’s degrees, and education became my ladder to achieve upward economic mobility.

My experience is hardly an outlier. Almost every Asian American I met can point to education as the key that opened doors either for their ancestors or themselves in the United States. 

Asian Cultures Also Value Intact Families

In addition, Asian cultures place great value on family and marriage. Research shows, “Asian-Americans have the highest percentage of marriage (65 % versus 61% for whites) and the lowest percentage of divorce (4% versus 10.5% for whites).” In addition, “Eighty-two percent of children under 18 in the U.S. Asian/Pacific Islander population live with both of their parents.” It has long been proven that “children within a safe, stable, and supportive family environment academically perform well in school.”

One would imagine that a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training would be the perfect venue to discuss how these cultural factors such as prioritizing education, emphasizing hard work, and valuing family and marriage contribute to Asian American students’ academic success. Instead, James-Ward chose to focus on finances alone. Her comments were disparaging and divisive.

She had since apologized, claiming her words were taken out of context. Last week, the school board voted 3-1 to place her on administrative leave. 

These False Claims Hurt People

But the bigger issue here is that many on the left widely share James-Ward’s belief that academic achievement is the result of money. They have used similar arguments to successfully push K-12 schools to eliminate gifted and talented programs, and elite high schools from San Francisco to Virginia to cancel entrance exams.

Under similar pressure, colleges have dropped SAT and ACT scores from admission criteria. These so-called education “equity” reforms have lowered education standards and hurt children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including many Asian students.

Fortunately, Asian Americans are fighting back. A coalition of Asian parents and community members brought a lawsuit against the Fairfax County, Virginia school board, arguing that its racial quotas for admission to the highly ranked Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) violated the rights of Asian-American applicants. The Supreme Court recently denied a request to pause the racial quotas, but the case is moving forward.

The Supreme Court has also already agreed to take a college affirmative-action case brought by Students for Fair Admissions on behalf of Asian students and parents, which alleges the undergraduate admission processes at Harvard University intentionally discriminates against Asian Americans. Hopefully, the court will uphold the Constitution and ensure no American students will be subject to racial prejudices when pursuing educational opportunities.