Over the past three years, as universities across the country have abandoned standardized test requirements and moved toward more holistic models for admission, a persistent yet largely unexamined question has arisen: Would these changes be happening if white students were at the top of the academic food chain? The performance gap between Asian American and white high school students on standardized tests has grown over the past decade. In 2018, for example, Asian American students, on average, scored 100 points higher on the SAT than white students. Just three years later, in 2021, that gap had risen by over 25 percent, to 127. Many of the universities that have dropped the SAT requirement have cited a desire for diversity and equity and a de-emphasis on hard-core academic competition. (This has always struck me as errant and, frankly, self-serving reasoning. If elite colleges actually want economically and racially diverse campuses free from the academic stressors that plague high school students, they should take their own advice and stop competing so fiercely to prove that they are the most exclusive places of higher learning in the world.)
All this appears to be a noble enough goal. But is it possible instead that the move toward greater diversity and away from academic competition might also be a way to ensure that students from white, wealthy families can still compete with high-achieving 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 be chalked up to white parents who are now worried that their children are being outcompeted?
Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts, has published a fascinating and worthwhile book about this phenomenon, titled “Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools.” Warikoo details her findings from a three-year ethnography of an anonymized suburb that she calls Woodcrest. Like many other suburbs around major cities, Woodcrest has seen a browning of its population over the past 50 years. In 1970, the town was over 95 percent white, thanks to years of discriminatory zoning practices. Starting in the 1990s, well-educated Asian immigrants who came to the United States to work in the tech industry began to move to Woodcrest in search of better schools. Now roughly a third of Woodcrest’s population is Asian American.
So what happens when a big influx of wealthy Asian immigrants, mostly from China and India, come to a liberal, wealthy suburb that has always prided itself on its academic accomplishments? Warikoo correctly notes that for years, scholars and sociologists have simply assumed that these relatively privileged and upwardly mobile Asian Americans would simply melt into the upper middle class. What she found through her research is that the transition isn’t quite so smooth, in large part because many of the white families who live in these suburbs are worried that the new competition from Asian students will harm their own children’s chances of getting into elite colleges. As a result, some white parents in Woodcrest called for a de-emphasis on academics and a prioritization of mental health. Much like the moves away from the SAT, these changes sound worthwhile, but it’s worth examining the motives behind them.
I spoke to Dr. Warikoo about her book and the issues it explores, including her theories on why Asian American students in Woodcrest have done so well, the limits of assimilation, and what she thinks should be done about the scarcity mind-set that she believes drives all of this.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First things first: We should acknowledge that Woodcrest is a pseudonym and you do not specify which state it’s in. But can you tell us where some of these upper middle class, Asian American and white suburbs are located?
To identify a site for this research, I looked at cities with median household income in the top 20 percent — above $100,000 in 2010 — and where the Asian American population was at least 20 percent by 2010 and had grown since 2000. There are 34 cities around the country that fit that description, including Cupertino and Saratoga in Northern California, Sugar Land in Texas (a Houston suburb), Syosset on Long Island and Lexington in Massachusetts. White and Asian parents alike move to many of these places to send their children to their top-rated public schools. Many are suburbs that grew during the era of school desegregation, as whites left cities in large numbers and passed laws designed to keep working-class people out, like minimum housing lot size requirements and bans on the building of multifamily homes.
Why are Asian families moving to these affluent, white suburbs?
For the same reason that white American families are moving to them — in pursuit of the public schools, because of the school system, strong reputation, high levels of achievement, and in part because the community is so well educated. Some of the Asian immigrant families are also drawn to this town because there is a quorum of people from their home country, particularly Indians and Chinese immigrants, so they like the diversity.
How are these families received by the people who already live there? You note in your book that a lot of these communities are like Woodcrest in that they’re filled with affluent, white progressives with Black Lives Matter signs in their yards.
On one hand, I think there’s appreciation for the diversity that these immigrant families bring. They enable those white families to say, “We live in a diverse town.” And they do. Some kinds of diversity are glaringly missing — for example, there are not very many Black or Latinx families — but it’s not an exclusively white town.
On the other hand, I think over time, as the Asian American population grows and their kids are doing quite well academically, there’s — among some white families — a little bit of unease about these new Asian families. Those white families might think, These Asian families do things a little differently, they focus on academics more than a lot of the white families, they prioritize different things. That brings concern about how the community is changing.
This only really happens when the immigrant population there reaches a certain number. When there’s only a few of them, the culture doesn’t really change, but as they grow, concerns start to emerge, like: Is the high school becoming too competitive? Are too many people putting their kids in extracurricular math classes so that now you can’t get into honors unless you do these classes? Or is it impossible for my child now to become class valedictorian?
In the book, you describe what some white parents in Woodcrest see as a loss of status. How does this manifest itself?
There’s two responses that I talked about in the book. One is that there’s a small minority of white families who pull their kids out of the public schools and send them to private school so they can have a less competitive, less intensive environment.
The other thing is that they push for policies to reduce academic competition. The school had already ended class rankings, they don’t name a valedictorian — that all had happened before I started this research. Then they reduced homework. And this was something that a lot of the white parents talked about is important to them. A lot of the Asian families didn’t agree with that. The district actually ended up ending homework in the elementary schools. And a lot of the Asian families didn’t agree with that either.
Interestingly, there was never any talk of limiting how many extracurriculars kids can participate in or the number of hours on the field that sports can require, or anything like that.
How much of some of today’s educational policy shifts — whether it’s getting rid of the SAT or the push to eliminate test-in magnet schools with large Asian populations — comes from this anxiety over a loss of status?
It’s true that Black activists have been talking for decades about how the SAT is problematic; the way that students are admitted to these exam schools is problematic. The N.A.A.C.P. has done a lot of work on this for decades and has not made much headway. And is it a coincidence that whites are listening now? I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental.
Still, I see that shift as positive. If we are going to have elite colleges and high schools, then they must be truly accessible to children of all races and from all neighborhoods. Currently, the exams seem to make elite colleges and especially exam schools much less accessible to Black and Latinx youth, especially those living in neighborhoods and attending middle schools from which very few students historically have attended the exam schools.
One of the questions the book raises is about how much we should ascribe Asian success to cultural differences. This is a very contentious topic for the understandable reason that if you say that there are Asian American cultural norms that help them to perform well academically, the question then turns to why other populations don’t do as well. What did your research find on this question?
What I reject is this idea that Asians value education any more than the white families or Black families. The school did a survey, and one of the questions they asked kids was to what extent your parents pressure you to get good grades. And the group that reported the highest level of pressure was the Black kids. Most of those kids are actually kids who are part of the busing program, so they’re coming from the urban center; they’re not living in Woodcrest.
So I think this idea that Asian parents pressure their kids and that’s why they’re doing well in school is not true. What I do see is this: I use this idea of “cultural repertoires” in the book. The idea is that we all have a tool kit for how to get ahead. We get these tools from our parents, from our neighbors, from our cousins and aunts and uncles.
So, the bulk of these immigrant parents went to school and did well in China and India. That’s how they ended up in Woodcrest. And almost all of these people would have gone to supplementary academic classes after school when they were children because that’s just what you do in those countries, right? And so that’s the tool kit they bring with them. And because they come from countries where these decisions are made by evaluating their scores on standardized tests, that’s what they prepare for. And then they impart that on their children.
The American-born, mostly white parents in this town also went to selective colleges. They get that those colleges want a more well-rounded student; they understand the pathway to sports through recruiting and having a talent that’s beyond academics. So that’s something that becomes important to them. Again, different tool kits.
When I think about families who are not in this community — mostly Black and Latinx families — they have their own strategies, and they are trying as well, but they may not have a supplementary education class center in their neighborhood. They may not have relatives who went to a residential four-year college who can explain: What does it take? What does that look like? What do you need?
And so it’s not that they want it any less, it’s just that those strategies are not there. For me, those cultural repertoires are a way to think about what people do that’s different.
Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”