Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022.
In a case before the Supreme Court, a group of Asian American students accuses Harvard University’s admissions office of discriminating against them by using nonacademic “personality” traits to favor African American and Hispanic applicants. If Harvard has discriminated unlawfully, of course it should lose. However, if the Supreme Court decides to overturn affirmative action itself, it would make it much more difficult for elite colleges to admit students from underrepresented backgrounds. Based on academic criteria alone, the number of Asian American students admitted to the nation’s top schools will likely increase dramatically. Already, Harvard’s incoming class is 27.6 percent Asian American.
As uncomfortable as the question might be, we must ask whether changing demographics in America’s most competitive high schools and colleges will affect our educational values. In a truly postracial society, the answer would be no. But as Tufts University sociologist Natasha Warikoo argues in her new book, Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools, an ethnography of how Asian and white parents approach childrearing, high-school education, and each other in the tony suburban community of “Woodcrest,” Asian immigrant parents differ strikingly from their native-born neighbors. While the Asian approach that she describes has clear strengths, it also has weaknesses, notably, I would point out, in overemphasizing the technical and vocational ends of education.
As an Indian immigrant, I’m not surprised. My parents expected me to do well in school, but because I was raised in a diverse middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco’s East Bay suburbs, I encountered few scientists, engineers, or doctors, and certainly no professors in my daily comings and goings. Nevertheless, even my distant interactions with the wider Bay Area Indian community made it clear that the value of education was determined by whether it got me into a top college that would lead to a high-paying job in business or science. As it turns out, Warikoo and I have a lot in common. The child of Indian parents, she graduated from Brown University in 1995 (the year before I did), and, although she became a sociologist and I became a historian, we share a scholarly interest in education.
As Warikoo writes, Woodcrest celebrates diversity, proudly pointing to its many Chinese and Indian residents while conveniently overlooking the absence of black and Hispanic families. Woodcrest’s Asian families are mostly educated professionals, many of whom graduated from the best schools in China and India. Not all American Asians—who hail from more than 20 countries with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds—boast such elite credentials. But because Woodcrest’s do, they benefit as much as their white neighbors from the fact that their town is a product of American residential segregation. It is a privileged place.
While Woodcrest’s Asian and white parents share the drive to do right by their kids, they find much about each other unsettling. Woodcrest’s families, insecure in our anxious times despite their wealth, invest heavily, indeed excessively, in their children’s education and activities, hoping they will provide their children with the skills and credentials to get into the best colleges. It is cutthroat at the top, despite the fact that even the lower performers in Woodcrest’s intense high school seem to get into good colleges. As Warikoo writes, in communities like Woodcrest, it is about who gets “gold versus silver or bronze.” Most Americans outside such elite enclaves are not even in the competition.
In this rarefied world, there is even greater tension because the children of Asian immigrants outperform their white peers. There are many reasons for this. Because our immigration laws favor highly skilled workers, Chinese and Indian immigrants since 1965 have been disproportionately well educated. Success in their home country required studying nonstop and getting the best grades and scores to enter their country’s best schools, which usually meant technical and scientific schools. They then went on to graduate school at home or in the United States and became highly paid doctors, engineers, or computer scientists. Such determination worked for them, and they have inculcated it in their children.
And to their dismay, Warikoo writes, white parents see that their kids are losing to these ambitious high achievers. In a game that was supposedly rigged in their favor, white kids are being outplayed by Asians. At Woodcrest High School, Asian American students take more honors and Advanced Placement classes. They get higher standardized test scores. To explain why, Warikoo points not to race but to culture—in particular, to “cultural repertoires” that derive from upbringing, social connections and lived experiences to produce “ethnic patterns.” Asian parents, she concludes, have their own distinctive repertoires.
So, of course, do white parents. In America, academic achievement matters, but white parents believe that kids should be well rounded. Unlike their Asian counterparts, they believe academic excellence should be balanced by—or combined with—athletic excellence, the experience of working a summer job (okay, fine, as a lifeguard or camp counselor; these aren’t poor kids!), traveling, volunteering, or even being idle. The Asian parents observe these privileged white parents with mild condescension and then invest their money—and their children’s time—in math camp and extracurricular academics. It turns out that whether one is white or Asian, if you invest a lot of your money on your children, they might become very good at something.
For Asians, it is all about academics. Because I am an academic and an Indian American, one might assume that I would be a stronger defender of that emphasis. In truth, it gives me pause. I am uncomfortable because it seems clear that Woodcrest’s Asian parents are promoting learning far less than performance. Despite their hard work, Asian students are no less, and perhaps more, alienated from the intrinsic goods of education—including an appreciation for art and ideas and an expanded understanding of the world—than their white peers. And almost nowhere in the book, among either Asian or white parents, do concerns about the common good come up. Making sure that one’s offspring get and stay ahead—class reproduction, in sociological terms—is just too all consuming.
Yet while it seems that almost all of Woodcrest’s students find their way to privileged places, it is getting harder for the white kids. In response, Warikoo argues, whites want to change the rules midgame: “Historically, the majority group has always found ways to protect its interests, often by redefining ‘merit’ in ways that suit themselves and maintain their position in the status hierarchy.” Yes, academics matter, but colleges take other factors into consideration, especially athletics. All the money and time Asians pour into extracurricular academics, white parents pour into sports: private gyms and coaches, club and travel teams, making varsity. And it pays off. According to one study, 43 percent of Harvard’s white students are admitted as athletes, legacies (children of alumni), beneficiaries of the dean’s interest list (donors), or as children of Harvard faculty and staff. Whites, Warikoo concludes, use athletics to compensate for their poor (relative to their Asian peers) academic performance.
It was not supposed to be this way. When SAT and achievement tests were first adopted in the twentieth century, their advocates’ goal was to replace an inherited genteel aristocratic class—the kind that the Bushes and Gores belonged to—with a meritocratic class, what Thomas Jefferson called an aristocracy of virtue and talent. As Nicholas Lemann wrote in his classic book The Big Test (1999), it initially worked. After World War II, as colleges focused on academic achievement, many first-generation students, including Jewish- and Asian-Americans, gained admittance to America’s top colleges. Rinse and repeat. If what it takes to get into a top school is high grades and test scores, with a smattering of extracurricular activities and some volunteer experience to show you really care, let’s make sure our kids get with the program. Having won the game, they helped their kids outplay other kids. And so this new meritocratic elite—whose stories and impact on American society have been explored by Daniel Markovits in The Meritocracy Trap (2019) and Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit (2020)—could sit comfortably as they handed down their meritocratic gains to their meritorious spawn.
That is, until the new Asians showed up and outperformed the meritocrats.
Warikoo is right that, at the end of the day, the real problem is the economic and educational exclusiveness of places such as Woodcrest. Asian families, no less than Woodcrest’s white families, are beneficiaries of race- and class-based policies. In her conclusion, however, Warikoo advances an “antiracist” argument, which authorizes her to criticize whites but not Asians. She argues that antiracism means being “willing to give up one’s privileges” and “not rejecting Asian cultural repertoires outright.” Warikoo is appropriately cautious about criticizing a minority group’s cultural practices given America’s history of racism. But if culture matters, then some hard questions need to be asked. While Warikoo admits that “Asian Americans sometimes benefit from the white supremacy that built America,” she steers clear of asking what it would mean if Asian values prevailed in elite American high schools and colleges.
Asking that question means dealing with summer vacation. Summer vacation is for…you fill in the blank. If you said academic enrichment, especially in math and science, you would be Asian, and your children would return in the fall ahead of their white peers. By contrast, Woodcrest’s white parents don’t want their children to spend all their time studying. They argue that it is essential for young people to work, play, recreate, travel, and be idle. Warikoo calls this “white,” but is it? Most white Americans can’t afford Woodcrest lives. Also, much of what they do is simply American. There is no reason to racialize it. As Warikoo admits, Woodcrest’s second-generation Asian American parents tend to resemble more closely their white neighbors. They have assimilated. Yet given the success of elite Asian parenting strategies, Warikoo anticipates that future Asian Americans will blend in less. And why should they? From the Asian perspective, American summers are a waste.
But let us consider that word waste. If there was anything, anything, in this book to suggest that Woodcrest’s Asian parents cared about the intrinsic goods of education, then this intensive academic regimen would be above reproach. But such a concern for intrinsic goods never comes up. Instead, summers are deemed wasteful (or not) only in a strictly economic sense: Do they generate human capital? Both sets of parents, Asian and white, invest in their children, but a well-rounded portfolio may not provide the same returns today as investing for the future in academics, especially STEM. As political theorist Wendy Brown has written in Undoing the Demos (2015), in a human capital regime, “knowledge, thought, and training are valued and desired almost exclusively for their contribution to capital enhancement.… It is not sought for developing the capacities of citizens, sustaining culture, knowing the world, or envisioning and crafting different ways of life in common.” This makes education purely instrumental. Woodcrest’s white parents, for all their wealth and ambition for their children, Warikoo writes, “express a more holistic perspective on excellence.”
Warikoo therefore might have explored the ways in which Asian cultural repertoires matched up with the neoliberal transformation of our schools and colleges. By neoliberalism, I mean what scholars have called “the subjection of nonmarket practices to market logic.” While those elite white kids are off playing lacrosse or swimming, the Asian kids are doing just what America’s (largely white) policymakers asked them to do. We wanted top-performing academic students who cared mostly about STEM and making money. In Warikoo’s portrayal of them, Woodcrest’s Asian American students are model neoliberals. America’s leaders sought a globalized order where American companies would profit, and they have. But jobs disappeared.
In response, our political and corporate leaders demanded that schools and colleges focus primarily on preparing workers. None of this required Asian cultural repertoires. Americans have long valued education for its cash value; Richard Hofstadter wrote a whole book about it. Today, business is America’s most popular undergraduate major. Yet the influx of Asian scientists and programmers from China and India has produced an amplifying effect, as when two waves meet. Elite Asian families’ aspirations and values fit the neoliberal order that corporate American elites built. Globalization favored science and technology. Education’s primary purposes were no longer citizenship or individual flourishing but, as President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings put it, to generate “the human and intellectual capital needed to increase workforce productivity.” (Neoliberals in both parties agree. President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan assured Americans that “our president knows education is about jobs.”)
The impact of Asian success at the neoliberal game will be felt not only in intense high schools such as Woodcrest but also in the colleges their graduates go on to attend. If Harvard loses its case before the Supreme Court, Asian American students will likely compose an even larger percent of the incoming classes of America’s elite colleges. Their values and choices, then, will influence the future of higher education. On the positive side, public schools may focus more attention on academic achievement, and our nation does need to shoulder more of the burden of educating the world’s best scientists and engineers. Moreover, since Asian Americans are Americans, their successes benefit everyone in the nation.
But if Warikoo’s portrayal of Asians’ cultural repertoires and her projection that Asians will hold onto them are correct, Asian dominance will also reinforce instrumental approaches to education and favor the technical over the liberal. Students will be under intense pressure to perform, especially in the nation’s most competitive high schools such as Woodcrest or San Francisco’s Lowell (see Debbie Lum’s documentary Try Harder) or Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Once such students reach college, we can anticipate fewer will choose to major in the humanities and social sciences. This reflects multiple factors—well-qualified students are more likely to be successful in STEM majors; children often follow their parents’ examples; and Asian American women are more likely to major in STEM than their white counterparts (a win for gender equity in science). But even accounting for these factors, Asian Americans disproportionately choose STEM fields. In 2019–20, STEM degrees made up 21 percent of all majors but 37 percent of Asian students majored in STEM, compared to 20 percent of white students. The only comparable number was 35 percent of international students.
Woodcrest’s white families, for all their privilege, sense that as much as they value academic excellence (they live in Woodcrest!), something has gone wrong. For them, it is not a question of resources. Maybe it is, as Warikoo writes, because they are losing, or maybe it is because winning against Asian families imposes too high a cost, even for these hypercompetitive, overly involved parents. As much as Woodcrest’s white parents want their kids to perform well in school, perhaps they spend so much on sports not to maintain racial privilege, but because they are aware that Woodcrest High School, while good for college applications, is not good for children. Maybe they invest in sports because it is the one place where their kids seem to seek excellence for its own sake.
Warikoo argues that Woodcrest’s families are engaged in elite class reproduction. She recognizes that the losers are the Americans who cannot access Woodcrest’s resources. It might be hard to care about the intramural tensions of Woodcrest’s wealthy, but Warikoo’s study raises questions about what we want American childhood to be like, how to balance academic excellence with other aspirations, and ultimately what education is for. Do we still believe that education should prepare citizens? Do we think there is more to education than its cash value? How do we develop our children’s moral, civic, and intellectual virtues? Warikoo is right that Woodcrest’s white families are doing all they can to ensure their kids land on the top, but it helps that they appear somewhat naïve about it. Despite all their flaws, Woodcrest’s white parents may really believe working a summer job, playing sports, traveling, wasting time, or volunteering are good for the soul. And they just might be right.