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Opinion Talented Black and Latinx students like us are now being shut out of Thomas Jefferson High School

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Daniel I. Morales and Fabianna Del Canto are board members of TJ Alumni for Racial Justice, a nonprofit group seeking equitable racial representation at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

We got into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology because of affirmative action. We graduated in the top 10 percent of the TJ class of 1998 and went on, between us, to earn degrees from Harvard, Williams College and Yale Law School. We have thriving careers in academia and technology. The TJ of the 1990s saw our potential and nurtured it, even though neither of us had the perfect grades, test scores and carefully honed polish that TJ admissions now demands. Without the nudge TJ gave us, we might never have achieved our full potential.

We now would be shut out of TJ, and our careers and achievements might well have been stunted as a result. Our parents are immigrants who cared deeply about our educations and found opportunities for us in Fairfax County gifted programs, but navigating today’s TJ admissions gantlet would certainly have been beyond them. Even without perfect grooming, the more generous TJ of the 1990s took these factors into account and gave us a boost when we needed it.

That hasn’t been true for decades, and Fairfax County and the country are more impoverished for the change. Studies show that elite educations benefit racial minorities from modest family backgrounds the most, and that talented members of these groups routinely overperform their standardized tests. Kids whose parents have advanced degrees are going to do just as well if they go to McLean or Chantilly (or Sidwell or Georgetown Day) as they would if they went to TJ. But for kids like us, TJ is a game changer. Now, they don’t get the opportunities we did, and that keeps us up at night.

A radical group of TJ parents and community members filed a lawsuit against Fairfax County to preserve the admissions test at TJ, the same test that has excluded a generation of Black and Latinx students from attending TJ and getting the life-changing education we received. The underlying premise of this group’s claim about TJ admissions is that it shouldn’t change because it already perfectly identifies all the available talent in Northern Virginia — 13-year-old Black and Latinx students these days just don’t have the chops, they imply. We think that’s absurd, statistically improbable (thanks for the stats curriculum, TJ!) and racist.

If current admissions to TJ perfectly spots talent, as the Coalition for TJ claims, then that means there are no more than a handful of Black and Latinx students in the four counties from which TJ draws who have the talent to benefit from an elite education. Even if you think inherent ability is skewed toward the top of the socioeconomic ladder (a proposition for which there is little evidence), there have to be at least hundreds of Black and Latinx kids in the area who could thrive at TJ. Almost none of these kids is being admitted. Elite colleges such as those we attended have discovered this missing talent and changed their admissions accordingly. Why can’t TJ? As a public school that serves the public good, TJ has an obligation to find these kids and bring them into the fold, not to preserve a status quo that has shut them out.

The final fallacy being peddled by defenders of the status quo is that a change in admissions is “anti-Asian.” We find this line the most disheartening. When multiracial democracy is under attack by white supremacists, Asian Americans are being killed or harassed every day and our former president used all the powers at his disposal to keep out non-White immigrants of all religions and creeds, non-White peoples have to listen to each other’s voices and work together. This moment is an opportunity for Black, Latinx and Asian people to make common cause and fight injustice hand in hand. Making room at the table for talented Black and Latinx kids is about basic fairness. Casting equity efforts as “anti-Asian” plays right into white supremacists’ hands, and every person of color is the worse for that.

Black and Latinx kids who are just as talented as their Asian and White brothers and sisters are not getting into TJ, and that is not okay in 2021 — 23 years after we graduated. That some TJ parents and community members don’t want to make room for these kids breaks our hearts.

We support the Fairfax County Public School Board’s efforts to diversify TJ, and we condemn the lawsuit designed to bring that process to a halt. We hope that many local parents out there agree with us and call the school board and their state representatives to let them know that they support efforts to make room at TJ for talented Black and Latinx kids like us.

Read more:

Harry Jackson: Thomas Jefferson High School students and parents are fighting changes to admissions standards. Here’s why.

Asra Q. Nomani: An unfair push for racial equality at Thomas Jefferson

The Post’s View: A Virginia school shows that racial inequities aren’t confined to the justice system

Jonathan Riehl: What it will take for Thomas Jefferson High School to change

Natasha Warikoo: Elite public schools won’t become more diverse just by ditching exams