The temperature in the Outer Sunset is around five 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 rows of single-family townhouses, unhindered by skyscrapers or housing complexes. It’s an unattractive expanse of mid-century architecture built on what was once miles of sand, the City’s suburbs, the Outside Lands, where most, though not all, of my Chinese American friends grew up.
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, to its present location in 1962. The campus is a short descending staircase from Eucalyptus Drive. From there it sprawls out and downwards, until it rubs up against Lake Merced and the Stonestown Galleria.
For four years, I commuted to Lowell from my house in the Mission via the M Ocean Avenue or the K Ingleside; the Sunset kids would ride the 28-bus down 19th Avenue and face an uphill trek from Lowell’s backside.
Chinese Americans comprise 21 percent of San Francisco’s population, the City’s largest ethnic minority group. Some families have deep roots — the children of railroad workers, and the laundromat owners and shopkeepers who built Chinatown — but most immigrated here after the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1965. They came from Hong Kong or Guangzhou 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 America’s oldest albatross — the idea that we’re all the same — it’s the Sunset that sees Lowell High School as theirs to lose.
For those who grew up with the San Francisco Unified School District, Lowell is synonymous with achievement. Lowell has produced three Nobel Prize winners, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and a handful of minor celebrities. Lowell’s athletics vary in quality, from an unbeatable track and field record to a generally abysmal football team, but its equipment and facilities are top of the line, thanks to a loyal alumni network and ample endowment. The Lowell Alumni Association holds more than $6 million in assets and netted in excess of $865,000 in 2020. Lowell is the single largest feeder school to the University of California system and offers the most Advanced Placement classes in the District.
Until recently, Lowell was one of only two public high schools in San Francisco — the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SotA) being the other — that used merit-based admissions rather than a semi-random lottery. Ambitious students test into Lowell and are rewarded with well-funded programs, competitive peers, and sleepless nights, leaving lower performing peers in the dust.
Because Lowell High School was founded on elitism, its culture is one of exclusion, with a tendency to recapitulate existing inequities. Like the Sunset, Lowell’s demographics have shifted from predominantly white to mostly Asian over the past few decades. The school became notorious for admitting fewer and fewer students from other ethnic minority groups. Last year, it counted just 45 Black students out of 2,700. Asians, who make up more than half the student body, outnumbered them nearly 28 to 1. Districtwide enrollment is about eight percent Black and 33 percent Asian.
In 2016, the Lowell Black Student Union staged a walkout after another student put up a racist poster parodying Black History Month in the school library. The BSU 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 in a vacuum, the water we swim in, at Lowell it’s visible. Not by design but from design, in a cold place where peers and parents revere a certain definition of success, where it’s taken for granted that half 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 voted five to two to suspend Lowell’s selective admissions process for the coming school year, citing challenges to collecting grades and standardized test scores during a pandemic. Though positioned as an interim solution to logistical issues, the change was controversial. Parents of Lowell students decried the move as anti-Asian racism; rightwing publications latched onto the story as political correctness gone wild; a SFUSD alumni photoshopped swastikas on top of board members Alison Collins and Gabriela Lopez; the head of the BSU received death threats. A few months later, after yet another racist incident — an anonymous troll posted pornography and spammed the N-word to an online anti-racism class — the Board voted to make the change permanent.
There are legitimate grievances with the Board of Education. Their failed proposal to push racial equity by renaming 44 public schools was reactionary, poorly researched, and expensive. The Lowell decision felt hasty and ill-timed. But if not now, when? The Board has the impossible task of making diversity a priority. The Sunset’s impossible to please and quick to retaliate.
In March, 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 decision, which was made without the input of the Lowell community. Considering that Lowell has failed to prioritize racial diversity for decades, however, it’s hard not to see this legalistic, middle of the road argument as another bid to keep out the rabble.
A second legal threat comes from Harmeet K. Dhillon, a top Republican National Committee official, Donald Trump legal adviser, and regular Fox News guest. She claims that the admission 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 constant stream of otherwise apolitical friends reposting videos depicting violence against Asian Americans, Chinatown elders shoved to the ground, stabbed in the face, an endless scroll of viral, harrowing content mainlined into the lizard brain. It’s 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 latent racism in the Asian American community. It’s 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.
Then there’s the controversy around Alison Collins, the Board of Education’s only Black female member. Earlier this year, Diane Yap, Friends of Lowell Foundation vice president, unearthed a circa-2016 tweet thread from Collins. After recounting a racist incident that her daughter faced at SotA, 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 Board tenure Collins has done solid work with groups like the Chinese Progressive Association, pushing the District leftwards. Yap’s been caught dog whistling for white supremacy and categorically denying the existence of racism, making her motivations suspicious. Nevertheless, the tweets, which were posted years before Collins took office, ignore the work of Asian activists and address us as a monolith.
Collins isn’t willing to take her cancellation lying down, though. After being stripped of her titles and committee seats, Collins, who is married to a wealthy real estate developer, attempted to sue the struggling SFUSD for a whopping $87 million, a suit that a federal judge quickly dismissed.
The same adage applies to Collins and her detractors alike: don’t hate the player, hate the game. Collins’ tweets were borderline racist, generalizing, and hurtful. But she’s factually correct, at least about the Sunset.
Historically, Chinese Americans have been among the biggest opponents of SFUSD’s desegregation efforts. In the 1970s and 1980s, they advocated for plans that let them opt out of busing, putting the onus on Black students in the Bayview to commute across the City to attend better schools. In the 1990s, the Asian American Legal Foundation and Chinese American Democratic Club sued the District to end use of racial caps, which dictated that no ethnic group could exceed 45 percent of a school’s student body, and won.
Since then, the SFUSD’s 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 public schools enroll greater than 60 percent of a single ethnic group. Black and Hispanic families, who generally submit their paperwork later than white or Asian 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’d threaten their edge in the game of capital. Unlike their immigrant parents, they’re not anti-Black on principle, but generally advocate for conservative policies that have the same effect. By design, the Sunset is disconnected from the rest of the City – 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 greater density. About 20 percent of the Sunset voted for Trump in the 2016 election, a significantly higher percentage than the Mission or Potrero Hill.
It’s ironic that the predominant 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 envisioned a pan-Asian coalition, a political group critical of white supremacy, standing in solidarity with Black, Hispanic, 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 onwards found shelter in higher education. Insulated by capital and the Sunset’s de facto racist housing policy, they rejected an Asian America founded on collective resistance in favor of one based on identity politics. We have representation — Crazy Rich Asians, a Marvel superhero, a flourishing literary scene — even as the old dream of self-determination recedes into the past.
The incoming freshman class at Lowell is roughly five percent Black and 25 percent Hispanic, double the proportion of the previous group. In turn, the proportion of Asian freshmen has decreased from 50 percent to 42 percents.
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, wearing 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; the rest would simply fail. I opted for classes that gave easy A’s and gravitated towards 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. Yet my high school experience failed to uplift me. It mostly reinforced what I already knew: I’d tested into Lowell because my parents had taught me how to chase success. I’d keep succeeding because of that gift. Those without it would continue to struggle without help. Curiosity, kindness, and grace I’d learn only later, and elsewhere.
I visited Lowell only once after I graduated –— my high school friends prefer to visit me in the Mission, which has better weather and more expensive bars — in 2017, when the Obama years had already curdled into a quaint and distant disappointment. The building’s facade had been repainted, from red and white, our school colors, to a vaguely Soviet shade of green. From far away, I had trouble distinguishing Lowell’s silhouette from the relentless gray engulfing it. I got lost in once familiar hallways, said hello to teachers who still remembered me, and left, realizing that time had made me a stranger to the place.
Like all institutions, 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 all its generational wealth, 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 Lowell’s cradle gathered from across San Francisco, dedicated to each other and to the City they share, seeing themselves reflected in that oft-forgotten corner of the Sunset, their hour come round at last.