Why did you want to study Asian Americans in an affluent community?
Asian Americans are doing remarkably well academically, in some instances even better than the majority group in the US, whites. Conservatives, such as those behind the SFFA v Harvard lawsuit claiming affirmative action in admissions amounts to racial discrimination toward Asian Americans, are using Asian American academic achievement to further their anti-racial justice agenda. Liberals often respond to this logic by rejecting the possibility that Asian Americans ever experience racial discrimination, as if we have to deny the possibility of anti-Asian racism in education in order to defend affirmative action. I wanted to tell a more nuanced story about Asian American academic achievement and how whites respond. I spent three years visiting a well-off suburb with a large and growing Asian American population, observing at the high school and at community events and interviewing school staff, parents and high school kids. I call the town “Woodcrest”.
What are the main differences you found between white, US-born parents and their immigrant Asian neighbors?
While both Asian and white parents wanted to ensure their children succeeded at school (as parents everywhere do), Asian Americans had a much stronger focus on academics, sometimes imploring their children to quit sports and other extracurricular activities to make time for multiple honors and Advanced Placement classes. Some enrolled their children in supplementary academic classes. In contrast, white parents tended to talk more about “balance” and sought to ensure their children had time for intensive extracurriculars. Many told their children not to take too many honors classes, to make room for those extracurriculars. In particular, some of their children participated in intensive sports development, even beyond the high-level varsity teams at the high school. As a result of these differences, Asian American kids, on average, took more advanced academic classes and had higher grades, but white kids were better-represented on varsity sports teams.
How do you explain those differences?
I borrow a term from sociologist Ann Swidler: cultural repertoires. Our cultural repertoires are “strategies of action” we have in our heads for acting in the world, and which we develop based on what we experience and see in our lives, often from our parents, other relatives, peers and neighbors. Immigrant Asian parents brought cultural repertoires for success with them from Asia, where academic testing exclusively determines who gets to go to elite colleges. So their strategy for success in the US college admissions process involved intensive focus on academics. Supplementary academic classes are very common in Asia, so that was also part of immigrant Asian parents’ cultural repertoires. In contrast, US-born parents were accustomed to admissions at elite US colleges, which involves not just academics but also excellence in extracurriculars. Sports recruiting for college admission was also part of many white parents’ cultural repertoires.
What kinds of tensions did you observe between white and Asian families, and what caused those tensions?
Some white parents felt uneasy with Asian parenting, which they perceived as too focused on academics. They expressed judgment about what they observed and heard. One white mom said to me:
One of my daughter’s friends, she got a 1560-something on the SAT …[but] her parents had her retake it. I was saying that to somebody and one of my friends said, “Let me guess. Her name isn’t Sally Smith”… They’re from Korea … They didn’t go on vacation because she had to study for the SAT 2s.
Asian parents were well aware of these critiques and some saw them as hypocritical. In their view, whites and Asians simply emphasized different domains – Asians academics and whites extracurriculars. In the words of one Indian mom, “If my kid doesn’t do a club team, he or she won’t get into the JV or varsity teams. So what’s the difference?” Other Asian parents agreed with the critiques but claimed they themselves were not like other, more problematic “tiger” parents.
What caused the high level of stress among students at the school? How did parents and the school district try to address these concerns?
Even before the devastating impact of Covid-19 on teen mental health, concerns about emotional well-being among kids were growing around the country. Folks in Woodcrest worried a lot about mental health – this included school staff, white parents and Asian parents as well. However, white and Asian parents had different ideas –cultural repertoires – about how the community should address those concerns.
White parents wanted the school to reduce the amount of academic work kids had. Some even moved their children to private schools to provide them environments with less academic competition. Asian parents, on the other hand, did not want the school to limit children’s academic aspirations, and argued that kids without intensive extracurricular commitments should not be limited in how much academics they could take on. Some Asian parents asked the school to institute more casual intramural sports for kids to destress without having to commit to intensive varsity-level sports teams. Generally, the district made changes that aligned with white parents’ perspectives, in part because most school administrators and staff were also college-educated whites, so they shared cultural repertoires with the white parents in town. This included, for example, a new policy to limit how much homework teachers could give and when they could give it.
What is the Race at the Top?
The Race at the Top is the competition in Woodcrest (and other towns around the country like it), especially for spots at elite residential colleges. I call it a race at the top because the intensive culture in the community can make students and parents alike forget that virtually everyone in town is assured a medal and the competition is simply for gold, silver, or bronze. That is, living in Woodcrest nearly guaranteed a spot at a selective college and future success for all children. The ones who really lose out are children whose families cannot afford to live in a town like Woodcrest, who have fewer cultural resources to support their educational success, and who experience much lower standards at school. But the competition Woodcrest kids experience often blinds them and their parents to the privileges they hold.
What should parents and school leaders in affluent communities do about the Race at the Top in their communities?
I wish there were easy answers! Asian and white residents of towns like Woodcrest should look beyond their own children’s needs and attend to the opportunities afforded to children beyond the town’s boundaries. They should support the building of more mixed-income housing in their neighborhoods, the expansion of busing programs designed to bring children in urban and suburban schools together at school, and social policies designed to increase educational and economic equity. They should support increased opportunities for Black and Latinx children in particular, given that these groups have been historically excluded from the American dream.
Closer to home, these parents should also work hard to understand how and why their cultural repertoires may differ from those of their neighbors with different life experiences, and find ways to accept and support that diversity rather than judge those differences.
Expanding on my interest in increasing educational opportunities, I have just completed a book on affirmative action which will be released in October. That book will use social science research to analyze arguments that have been made for and against affirmative action in college admissions. I argue that we need to think of college admissions less as an individualist meritocracy that selects the very “best”, “most deserving” young people to study at elite colleges, and instead as an organizational practice that attempts to fulfill institutional mission, one of which is to develop diverse leaders for tomorrow.
Then, I’m hoping to study the impact of admissions changes to selective public schools around the country such as Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia and Boston Latin School. These changes were facilitated by the disruptions of the Covid pandemic – one small opportunity to expand opportunity – which forced districts to rethink exam-based admissions, and how they might rethink their selection to broaden access, especially for Black and Latinx youth historically underrepresented at the schools.
Natasha Warikoo is a professor of sociology at Tufts University. Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools is published in the US by University of Chicago Press