The Fairfax County Public Schools — which I’ve beaten up in this space from time to time for ruining my eldest child’s kindergarten year — can’t seem to catch a break. Now they’re getting sued for anti-Asian discrimination over the way they’re trying to racially balance the admissions process at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a nationally prominent magnet school. You can read the complaint here.
This is another example of a phenomenon I described last week: At many elite institutions, “affirmative action” increasingly means taking slots away from Asians rather than from whites, because oftentimes Asians are the only racial group that is overrepresented. How the courts will come down on this sort of thing is an interesting question, both because the Supreme Court has a strong conservative majority and because of the extremely confused line of precedent in this area (which I got into a bit in this piece).
Basically, the schools decided that Thomas Jefferson High needed to be more representative of the broader community, so they eliminated the traditional GPA- and test-based admissions process and replaced it with a “holistic” one that includes caps on how many kids can come from each middle school within the district. This especially hammers some heavily Asian schools that normally send lots of students to Thomas Jefferson.
A few statistical breakdowns are helpful in understanding what’s going on:
- The 2024 class of Thomas Jefferson is 73 percent Asian, 18 percent white, 1 percent black, and 3 percent Hispanic. (I’m ignoring the “other” category for simplicity.)
- Fairfax County as a whole is 19 percent Asian, 61 percent white, 10 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic — though the breakdown for the school-age population is likely a bit different and the school admits students from several surrounding counties as well.
- An early version of the plan, in the district’s own estimation, would have made Thomas Jefferson 54 percent Asian, 25 percent white, 7 percent black, and 8 percent Hispanic.
- The plaintiffs in the lawsuit estimate that the current version of the plan will make the school 31 percent Asian, 48 percent white, 5 percent black, and 8 percent Hispanic. However, this is based on a crude assumption that the plan “will act to keep the racial distribution of students selected for TJ similar to the racial distribution of students eligible to apply for TJ.”
Notably, Asians are the only racial group overrepresented to begin with here — 73 percent! — so any attempt to make the school look more like the general population is also, by definition, an attempt to bring down Asian admissions. Just as notably, such a shift would benefit whites quite a bit, because they’re underrepresented by something like two-thirds.
That’s not how we normally think of affirmative action. But is it illegal, either under existing precedents — which allow schools to consider race and pursue “diversity” to some extent — or in the view of the current Supreme Court? Stay tuned. As Ilya Somin puts it, this case “could end up setting an important precedent.”