Over the past three years, as universities across the country have abandoned standardized testing requirements and moved toward more comprehensive models for admission, a persistent but largely uninformed question has arisen: Would these changes occur if white students were at the top of the academic food chain? The performance gap between Asian American high school students and white high school students on standardized tests has grown over the past decade. In 2018, for example, Asian American students scored, on average, 100 points higher on the SAT than white students. Just three years later, in 2021, that gap increased by more than 25 percent, to 127. Many universities that have dropped the SAT test requirement have indicated a desire for diversity and fairness and a lack of focus on strong academic competition. (This has always struck me as faulty thinking, and frankly self-serving. If elite colleges actually want an economically and ethnically diverse campus, free from the academic pressures that plague high school students, they should take their own advice and stop the fierce competition proving to be the most exclusive place for education highest in the world.)
This all seems to be a noble enough goal. But could moving toward greater diversity and away from academic competition instead be a way to ensure that students from wealthy white families can still compete with superior Asian American students? In other words, how much of these changes should we attribute to an evolution in the way we think about equality in education and how much should we attribute to white parents who now worry that their children have been outdone in the competition?
Natasha Warico, Professor of Sociology at Tufts University, has published a fascinating and worthy book on the phenomenon, Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools. Warico details her findings from a three-year ethnography of an anonymous suburb she calls Woodcrest. Like many other suburbs around major cities, Woodcrest has seen its population turn brown over the past 50 years. In 1970, more than 95 percent of the town’s population was white, thanks to years of discriminatory zoning practices. Beginning in the 1990s, educated Asian immigrants who came to the United States to work in the tech industry began moving to Woodcrest in search of better schools. Now nearly a third of Woodcrest’s residents are Asian Americans.
So what happens when a large influx of wealthy Asian immigrants, mostly from China and India, come to a wealthy liberal suburb that has always been proud of its academic achievements? Warriko correctly notes that for years, scholars and sociologists simply assumed that these relatively privileged and upwardly mobile Asian Americans would simply dissolve into the upper middle class. What she has found through her research is that the transition is not entirely smooth, in large part because many white families living in these suburbs worry that new competition from Asian students will hurt their children’s chances of joining elite colleges. As a result, some white parents at Woodcrest have advocated less focus on academics and prioritize mental health. These changes seem worthwhile, as does moving away from the SAT, but it’s worth examining the motivations behind them.
I spoke to Dr. Wariko about her book and the issues it explores, including her theories about why Asian-American students at Woodcrest do so well, the limits of assimilation, and what she thinks should be done about the scarcity mentality she says she believes drives all of this.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First things first: We have to admit that Woodcrest is an alias and you don’t specify the state in which it is located. But can you tell us where some of the upper-middle-class, Asian-American, and white suburbs are located?
To locate this research, I looked at cities with median household incomes in the top 20 percent—more than $100,000 in 2010—and where the Asian American population was at least 20 percent by 2010 and has grown since 2000. There are 34 cities All over the country fit that description, including Cupertino and Saratoga in Northern California, Sugar Land in Texas (a suburb of Houston), Syosset on Long Island and Lexington in Massachusetts. White and Asian parents alike commute to many of these places to send their children to their top-ranked public schools. Many are suburbs that grew up during the era of school desegregation, as whites left cities in droves and passed laws designed to keep working-class people out, such as minimum housing size requirements and a ban on building multi-family homes.
Why are Asian families moving to these wealthy white suburbs?
For the same reason white American families move to them–in pursuit of public schools, because of the school system, strong reputation, high levels of achievement, and partly because society is well educated. Some families of Asian immigrants are also attracted to this city because there is a quorum of people from their home country, especially Indian and Chinese immigrants, so they like diversity.
How are these families being received by the people who actually live there? You notice in your book that a lot of these communities are similar to Woodcrest in that they are full of wealthy white progressives with Black Lives Matter signs in their yards.
On the one hand, I think there is an appreciation for the diversity that these immigrant families bring. Those white families were able to say, “We live in a diverse city.” And they do. Some diversity is starkly missing – for example, there aren’t very many black or Latinx families – but it’s not just a white town.
On the other hand, I think that over time, as the Asian American population grows and their children do well academically, there is – among some white families – a little bit of concern about these new Asian families. Those white families might think that these Asian families do things a little differently, they focus on academics more than a lot of white families, they prioritize different things. This raises concern about how society will change.
This only happens when the immigrant population reaches a certain number. When there are only a few of them, the culture doesn’t really change, but as they grow, concerns begin to arise, such as: Is high school becoming too competitive? Do so many people put their kids in extracurricular math classes that you can now only get honors if you attend these classes? Or is it impossible for my child now to be a top student in the class?
In the book I describe what some white Woodcrest parents consider a loss of status. How is this manifested?
There are two answers I talked about in the book. One is that there is a small minority of white families who pull their children out of public schools and send them to a private school so that they have a less competitive and less dense environment.
The other thing is that they are pushing for policies to reduce academic competition. The school has already finished the semester rankings, they don’t mention the top student – all this happened before I started this research. Then they reduced homework. And that’s something that a lot of white parents have talked about is important to them. Not many Asian families would agree with this. The district actually ended up finishing primary school homework. And a lot of Asian families didn’t agree with that either.
Interestingly, there was never any talk of determining how many extracurricular students could participate in or how many hours on the field the sport could require, or anything like that.
How much of some of the shifts in educational policy today—whether it’s getting rid of the SAT or the push to get rid of magnet schools with a large Asian population—come from this concern about losing prestige?
It is true that black activists have been talking for decades about how problematic SAT is. The way students are accepted into these exam schools is problematic. The NAACP has done a lot of work on this for decades and hasn’t made much progress. And is it a coincidence that the whites are listening now? I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence.
However, I see this shift as positive. If we have elite colleges and high schools, they should really be accessible to children of all races and from all neighborhoods. Currently, exams seem to make elite colleges and especially exam schools less accessible to black and Latino youth, especially those who live in neighborhoods and who attend middle schools from which historically very few students have attended exam schools.
One of the questions the book asks is to what extent we should attribute Asian success to cultural differences. This is a very controversial topic for the understandable reason that if you say that there are Asian American cultural norms that help them perform well academically, the question then turns to why other populations do not perform well. What did your research find in this question?
What I reject is the idea that Asians value education more than white families or black families. The school did a survey, and one of the questions they asked the kids was how much your parents pressure you to get good grades. The group that reported the highest level of stress was black children. Most of these kids are actually kids who participate in the bus program, so they come from downtown; They do not live in Woodcrest.
So I think the notion that Asian parents put pressure on their kids and that’s why they do so well in school is not true. What I see is this: I use the idea of ”cultural repertoire” in the book. The idea is that we all have a toolkit for how to move forward. We get these tools from our parents, from our neighbors, and from our cousins, aunts and uncles.
Therefore, the bulk of these immigrant parents went to school and did well in China and India. This is how they ended up in Woodcrest. And almost all of those had gone to supplementary academic classes after school when they were kids because that’s exactly what you do in those countries, isn’t it? And this is the set of tools they bring with them. And because they come from countries where these decisions are made by assessing their scores on standardized tests, this is what they prepare for. Then they pass it on to their children.
The American-born and mostly white parents in this city went to selective colleges. They realized that those colleges wanted a more diverse student; They understand the path to sports through employment and having a talent that surpasses academics. So this is something that has become important to them. Again, different toolkits.
When I think about the families that aren’t in this community – mostly black and Latino families – they have their own strategies, and they try too, but they may not have an extra education class center in their area. They may not have relatives who went to a four-year residential college that they can explain: What does it take? How does that look? what do you need?
So it’s not that they want it any less, it’s just that those strategies just don’t exist. For me, this cultural repertoire is a way of thinking about what people do differently.
Jay Caspian Kang (Tweet embed), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times, and author of Lonely Americans.