The temperature in the Outer Sunset is around 5 degrees lower than the rest of San Francisco, but it always feels much colder. There, the sun struggles to penetrate overcast skies and the wind seeps through row after row of single-family town houses, unhindered by skyscrapers or housing complexes. It is a place where people live, an uncharming expanse of mid-century architecture built on what was once miles of sand, the suburbs, the Outside Lands and where most of my Chinese American friends grew up. And at its edge lies the oldest school west of the Mississippi, my alma mater, Lowell High School.
Founded in 1856 as a boys-only grammar school, Lowell migrated from downtown to the Panhandle in 1913 and then to its current location in 1962. The campus is a short descending staircase from Eucalyptus Drive and from there it sprawls out and downward, until it nudges Lake Merced and the Stonestown Galleria. For four years, Id ride the M or K Muni line from my home in the Mission and walk through the schools front doors; the Sunset kids would hop off the 29 and face an uphill trek to Lowells backside.
Chinese Americans comprise about 21% of San Franciscos population and are the citys largest ethnic minority group. Some families have deep roots the children of railroad workers, the laundromat owners and shopkeepers who built Chinatown but most immigrated here after the Hart-Celler Act was passed in 1965, which opened the U.S. to more immigration from Asia. Chinese immigrants came to San Francisco from Hong Kong or Guangdong Province and worked tough blue-collar jobs, even though many were well educated. They sent their kids to college and bought houses in the Sunset, replacing the Irish and Italian Americans who fled to the suburbs in the 1970s.
At the risk of courting Asian Americas oldest albatross the idea that were all the same its the Sunset that sees Lowell High School as its to lose.
For those who grew up in the San Francisco Unified School District system, Lowell is synonymous with achievement. The school has produced three Nobel Prize winners, one U.S. Supreme Court Justice and a handful of minor celebrities. While Lowell athletics range from unbeatable (track and field) to abysmal (football), its equipment and facilities are top of the line, thanks to a loyal alumni network and generous endowment the Lowell Alumni Association holds over $6 million in assets and that grew by $865,000 in 2020 alone. Lowell is the largest feeder school to the University of California system and offers the most Advanced Placement classes in the San Francisco school district.
Until recently, Lowell was one of only two city public high schools the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts being the other that used a merit-based admissions policy rather than a semi-random lottery. Ambitious students tested into Lowell and were rewarded with well-funded programs, academic rigor and sleepless nights, leaving their lower performing peers in the dust.
Because Lowell grounds itself in elitism, its culture is one of exclusion and tends to recapitulate existing inequities. Like the Sunset, Lowells demographics have shifted from predominantly white to mostly Asian American over the past few decades, but the school has also become notorious for admitting fewer and fewer students from other ethnic and racial minority groups. Last year, it counted just 52 Black students out of around 2,900; Asian Americans, who make up over 50% of the student body, outnumbered them nearly 32 to 1. For comparison, district-wide enrollment is about 8% Black and 33% Asian American.
In 2016, the Lowell Black Student Union staged a walkout after a student had put up a racist poster parodying Black History Month in the school library. The Black students called the incident typical of their Lowell experience, marked by daily microaggressions, snide references to affirmative action and lack of social support. While systemic racism is a truism, the water we swim in, a snake eating its own tail, here at Lowell you see its clear emergence not by design but from design, in a cold place where peers and parents revere success, where its taken for granted that half of the student body looks the same.
Last October, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and shrinking student enrollment, the San Francisco Board of Education suspended Lowells selective admissions process for the coming school year, citing the difficulty of collecting grades and standardized test scores during a global pandemic. Though positioned as an interim solution to logistical issues, the change quickly garnered controversy. Parents of Lowell students decried the move as anti-Asian racism; right-wing publications latched onto the story as political correctness gone wild; someone photoshopped swastikas on pictures of board members Alison Collins and Gabriela Lopez and posted them on social media; the head of the Lowell Black Student Union received death threats. A few months later, after yet another incident an anonymous troll posted pornography and spammed anti-Black slurs to an online anti-racism class the board voted 5-2 to make the admissions change permanent.
There are legitimate grievances to be had with the current Board of Education. Their failed proposal to push racial equity by renaming 44 public schools was reactionary, poorly researched and expensive; the Lowell decision also felt hasty and ill-timed. But if not now, then when? The board has the impossible task of making diversity a priority, and the Sunset is impossible to please and quick to retaliate.
In April, the newly formed Friends of Lowell Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to reversing the change, filed a lawsuit against the district. The suit claims that procedural issues void the admissions decision, which was made without the input of the Lowell community. However, considering that Lowell has failed to prioritize racial diversity for decades, its hard not to see this legalistic, middle of the road argument as another bid to keep out the rabble. Even though the school years already begun, the foundation is still trying to revert to the old system: In September, it filed another injunction against the change.
A second legal threat comes from Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco attorney, top Republican National Committee official, Trump legal adviser and regular Fox News guest. She claims that the lottery is rigged because it prioritizes students from the underperforming and majority Black and Hispanic Willie Brown Middle School, and that the change will encourage racist acts against Asian American students.
My social media feeds feature a stream of otherwise apolitical friends reposting videos depicting violence against Asian Americans, Chinatown elders shoved to the ground, stabbed in the face and so on, an endless scroll of viral, harrowing content mainlined into the lizard brain. Its often impossible to disentangle racial animus from systemic poverty. But when the assailants in these viral videos happen to be other people of color, Dhillon and her ilk push a narrative that resonates with the latent racism in the Asian American community. Its the easy explanation, the big grift: the implication that race in America has always been a zero-sum game and this time the Asians are losing.
And then theres the controversy around Collins, the Board of Educations only Black female member. Earlier this year, Diane Yap, the Friends of Lowell Foundation vice president, unearthed a 2016 tweet thread from Collins. After recounting a racist incident that her daughter faced at Ruth Asawa High School, she wrote, Many Asian Am. believe they benefit from the model minority BS ... They use white supremacy to assimilate and get ahead. She continued, Where are the vocal Asians speaking up about Trump?
During her tenure on the board, Collins has done solid work with groups like the Chinese Progressive Association in 2019, she co-sponsored its Our Healing in Our Hands Resolution, which led to increased mental health resources for students of color in the citys public schools. Yap, meanwhile, has been caught dog whistling for white supremacy: On Facebook, shes rallied against critical race theory, asserted that systemic racism does not have a consistent or causal effect on academic performance and joked that a Black person would beat you up if you called them a colored person.
Nevertheless, Collins tweets, which were posted years before she took office, ignore the work of Asian American activists and address us as a monolith. Even worse, she hasnt taken her cancellation on the chin. After being stripped of her titles and committee seats, Collins, who is married to a wealthy real estate developer, attempted to sue the struggling school district for a whopping $87 million before withdrawing the suit last month.
The same adage applies to Collins and her detractors alike: Dont hate the player, hate the game. Collins lawsuit is frivolous and self-aggrandizing; her tweets were borderline racist, generalizing and hurtful. But shes essentially correct, at least about the Sunset.
Historically, Chinese Americans have been among the biggest opponents of the school districts desegregation efforts. In the 1970s and 1980s, they advocated for plans that let them opt out of busing, putting the onus on students in Black neighborhoods like the Bayview to commute across the city if they wanted to attend better schools. In the 1990s, the Asian American Legal Foundation and the Chinese American Democratic Club sued the school district to end the use of racial caps, which dictated that no racial group could exceed 45% of any schools student body, and won.
Since then, the districts diet-diversity initiatives the diversity index, a composite of socioeconomic factors as a stand-in for race; and from 2011 on, a system that prioritizes school choice have led to resegregation. More than a quarter of the citys public schools enroll greater than 60% of a single racial group, and Black and Latino families, who generally submit their paperwork later than white or Asian American ones, end up with lower priority for contested schools.
Many of my friends in the Sunset remain loyal to a gilded ideal of American meritocracy. They oppose affirmative action, diversity initiatives or anything that would threaten their edge in the game of capital. Unlike many of their immigrant parents, theyre not anti-Black on principle, but generally advocate for conservative policies to the same effect. By design, the Sunset is disconnected from the rest of San Francisco. Its restrictive single-family zoning laws were conceived as a vehicle for segregation, and its residents consistently block new housing developments, choosing clean streets and homogeneity over the needs of the city. About 20% of voters in the Sunset went for Trump in the 2016 election, a significantly higher percentage than most city neighborhoods.
Its ironic that the de facto moniker for people of Asian descent, Asian American, was radical before it was descriptive. In the late 1960s, student activists at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley intended to create a pan-Asian coalition, a political group critical of white supremacy and standing in solidarity with Black, Latino and indigenous power. But here we are, half a century later, more fractured than ever, the label stretched to its breaking point. Asian America was always too broad and too unwieldy to comfortably house all of us.
In the stony sleep of leftist solidarity the death of organized labor, the birth of the neoliberal beast the Chinese immigrants who came to San Francisco in the 1970s and onward found shelter in higher education. Insulated by wealth and the Sunsets de facto racist housing policy, they traded an Asian America founded on collective resistance for one based on identity politics. We have representation Crazy Rich Asians and a Marvel superhero and a flourishing literary scene even as the old dream of self-determination recedes into the past.
The incoming freshman class at Lowell is roughly 5% Black and 22% Latino, double the proportion of the previous class. In turn, the proportion of Asian American freshmen has decreased from 42% to 38%, a mere 4% for the chance to iterate on, or even revolutionize, Lowells values.
I remember my tenure at Lowell as a bleary-eyed dash to the finish line. My competitive, college-bound peers constantly compared grades and accolades and wore sleep deprivation as a badge of pride. I had good teachers and bad ones, who coasted on the assumption that most Lowellites would teach themselves while the rest would fail. I opted for classes that gave easy As and gravitated toward friends who let me copy their homework. By Lowell standards, I thrived; I graduated with a high grade point average and matriculated to the UC system. And yet my high school experience failed to uplift me. It mostly reinforced what I already knew: I had tested into Lowell because my parents had taught me how to chase success. I would keep succeeding because of that gift and those without it would continue to struggle without help.
Curiosity, kindness and grace I would learn only later and elsewhere.
I have visited Lowell only once since I graduated my high school friends prefer to come to me, since the Mission has better weather and more expensive bars in 2017, when the Obama years had already curdled into a quaint and distant disappointment. The buildings facade had been repainted, from red and white (our school colors) to a vaguely Soviet shade of green. From a distance, I had trouble distinguishing its silhouette from the relentless gray engulfing it. As I entered, I got lost in once familiar hallways, said hello to the teachers who still remembered me, and left, realizing that time had made me a stranger to the place.
Lowell High School stands for many things academic achievement, racial inequities, Asian America but it also stands for itself, the physical space it occupies. With its generational wealth and storied history, Lowell is responsible for transforming that tract of the Sunset into a place of public good, one that prioritizes the needs of its people above all else. Set Asian America, the grifters and Alison Collins aside for a moment, and picture a revelation peeking through the fog, way out west where the country meets the sea. Imagine a community of students in Lowells cradle gathered from all across San Francisco, dedicated to each other and the city they share, seeing themselves reflected in that oft-forgotten corner of the Sunset, their hour come round at last.
Justin Lai is a San Francisco native and freelance writer. You can find him at http://www.torwards.com. A version of this piece was originally published in the Potrero View.
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