Race to the Top: White and Asian Americans and the Push for Equity in Education | Books

Why did you want to study Asian Americans in a wealthy community?

Asian Americans do remarkably well academically, in some cases even better than the majority group in the United States, the whites. Conservatives, like those behind the SFFA v The Harvard lawsuit asserting that affirmative action in admissions amounts to racial discrimination against Asian Americans, uses the academic achievements of Asian Americans to advance their anti-racial justice agenda. Liberals often respond to this logic by denying the possibility that Asian Americans experience racial discrimination, as if we must 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 white reaction. I spent three years visiting an affluent suburb with a large and growing Asian American population, observing high school and community events, and interviewing school staff, parents, and high school students. I call the town “Woodcrest”.

What are the main differences you found between white American-born parents and their Asian immigrant neighbors?

While Asian and white parents wanted to make sure their children did well in school (as parents everywhere do), Asian Americans focused much more on academics, sometimes pleading with their children to stop the sports and other extracurricular activities to save time for multiple honors and advanced studies. Placement course. Some have enrolled their children in additional academic classes. In contrast, white parents tended to talk more about “balance” and sought to ensure that their children had time for intensive extracurricular activities. Many have told their children not to take too many specialization courses, to make room for these extracurriculars. In particular, some of their children participated in intensive athletic development, even beyond high school’s top varsity teams. Because of these differences, Asian American children on average took more advanced college courses and had better grades, but white children were better represented on college sports teams.

How do you explain these differences?

I borrow a term from sociologist Ann Swidler: cultural directories. Our cultural repertoires are “action strategies” we have in mind for acting in the world, and which we develop from what we experience and see in our lives, often from our parents, other relatives, peers and neighbours. Immigrant Asian parents have brought with them cultural repertoires for success from Asia, where academic tests exclusively determine who can go to elite colleges. Thus, their strategy for succeeding in the US college admissions process involved an intensive focus on academics. Extra academic courses are very common in Asia, so this was also part of the cultural repertoires of Asian immigrant parents. In contrast, American-born parents were accustomed to gaining admission to elite American colleges, which entails not only academics but also excellence in extracurricular programs. Athletic recruiting for college admission was also part of the cultural repertoires of many white parents.

What kinds of tensions have you observed between white and Asian families, and what has caused these tensions?

Some white parents felt uncomfortable with Asian parenting, which they perceived as too academically focused. They expressed their judgment on what they observed and heard. A white mom said to me:

One of my daughter’s friends, she got a 1560-something on the SAT…[but] his parents took him back. I was saying this to someone and a friend of mine said, “Let me guess. Her name is not Sally Smith”… They are from Korea… They did not go on vacation because she had to study for SAT 2.

Asian parents were well aware of these criticisms and some considered them hypocritical. In their view, whites and Asians simply emphasized different areas – Asian academics and white out-of-schools. In the words of an Indian mother, “If my child is not in a club team, he or she will not enter joint venture or university teams. So what’s the difference? Other Asian parents agreed with the critics 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 have parents and the school district tried to address these concerns?

Even before the devastating impact of Covid-19 on adolescent mental health, concerns about the emotional well-being of children were growing across the country. People in Woodcrest were very worried about mental health – this also included school staff, white parents and Asian parents. However, white and Asian parents had different ideas – cultural repertoires – of how the community should address these concerns.

White parents wanted the school to reduce the amount of school work for children. Some have even transferred their children to private schools to provide them with environments with less academic competition. Asian parents, on the other hand, did not want school to limit children’s educational aspirations and argued that children without intensive extracurricular engagement should not be limited in the amount of study they could undertake. Some Asian parents have asked the school to institute more casual intramural sports so that children can de-stress without having to commit to intensive college-level sports teams. In general, the district made changes that aligned with the perspectives of white parents, in part because most school administrators and staff were also college-educated whites, so they shared cultural repertoires with parents. city ​​whites. This included, for example, a new policy to limit how much homework teachers could give and when they could do it.

What is Race to the Top?

The Race at the Top is the competition in Woodcrest (and other towns across the country like it), especially for places at elite residential colleges. i call it a race at the top because the intensive culture of the community can make students and parents forget that virtually everyone in town is guaranteed a medal and that the competition is simply for gold, silver or bronze. In other words, living in Woodcrest almost guaranteed a place in a selective college and the future success of all the children. The real losers are children whose families cannot afford to live in a town like Woodcrest, who have fewer cultural resources to support their academic success, and who experience far lower educational standards. But the competition the children of Woodcrest experience often blinds them and their parents to the privileges they hold.

A campus tour at Harvard. Photography: Elise Amendola/AP

What should parents and school leaders in affluent communities do about the race to the top in their communities?

I wish there were easy answers! Asian and white residents of towns like Woodcrest should look beyond the needs of their own children and seize opportunities for children beyond the city limits. They should support the construction of more mixed housing in their neighborhoods, the expansion of bus transit programs designed to bring children from urban and suburban schools to school, and social policies designed to increase educational and economic equity. . They should support increased opportunities for Black and Latino children in particular, given that these groups have historically been 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 this diversity rather than judge these differences.

And after?

Developing my interest in increasing educational opportunities, I have just completed a book about affirmative action which will be released in October. This book will use social science research to analyze the arguments that have been made for and against affirmative action in college admissions. I argue that we need to view college admissions less as an individualistic meritocracy that selects the “best” and “most deserving” young people to study at elite colleges, and more as an organizational practice that attempts to fulfill the institutional mission, one of which is to train diverse leaders for tomorrow.

Next, I hope 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 – a small opportunity to expand opportunities – which forced districts to rethink exam-based admissions, and how they might rethink their selection to expand access, especially for historically underrepresented Black and Latinx youth in schools.

  • Natasha Warikoo is a professor of sociology at Tufts University. Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites Chasing the American Dream in Eastern Suburban Schools published in the United States by University of Chicago Press

James C. Tibbs