Race at the Top is an illuminating, in-depth look at competition in suburban high schools with growing numbers of Asian Americans, where white parents are determined to ensure that their children remain at the head of the class. Below read an excerpt from the preface of this exciting new book by sociologist Natasha Warikoo.
The families in this story all live a few miles from each other, in the same suburban town. Let’s call this town “Woodcrest.” The town is on the East Coast, packed with highly educated parents who make good money and seek excellent educations for their kids. Many parents are alumni of well-known selective colleges in both the United States and Asia. For many years professional, well-paid parents and parents-to-be have moved to Woodcrest because of its public schools. Over thirty percent of residents in Woodcrest are Asian American, with most others identifying as white. Four out of every five adults in town have a bachelor’s degree (compared to one-third of American adults overall); a majority also have a master’s degree.
The town is both idyllic and intense. Residents know what they want and are willing to work hard to get it. Parents in Woodcrest, like parents everywhere, mobilize their resources to bolster their children’s excellence in academic achievement and in their extracurricular endeavors. In many ways, this is what we parents instinctually do, one way or another, with whatever we have. Yet that access to resources— to money, networks, time, and cultural practices to help our kids succeed— varies enormously from one family, and one town, to the next. Parents in towns like Woodcrest, no surprise, have exceptionally rich resources of many kinds to propel their children ahead.
I spent three years visiting Woodcrest, to try to understand the impact of the growing and academically successful Asian community in town. I interviewed 121 people— parents, kids, and other community members. I also spent time shadowing students at the public high school, and at high school games, performances, and more.
The origins of this story, like all good stories, were born of curiosity. I was curious about the assumption, embedded in both research on immigration and the popular imagination, that suburbs are places where immigrants blend seamlessly into the American mainstream. The story goes that someone like Mei-Ling would fit in easily in Woodcrest— her academic degrees, fluency in English, and high income would lead to a blurred boundary between families like hers and the white American families in town. This assimilation would be bolstered by the liberal sensibilities of most whites in town. In other words, so the story goes, a recent immigrant will do everything they can to move to a place like this, knowing that their kids will get a good education, learn how to fit in, and become a successful American. And suburban liberal whites will welcome the diversity that immigration brings with open arms. After all, in towns like Woodcrest, Black Lives Matter signs are common, growing in number after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer while three others looked on. And when Asian women were killed by a gunman outside Atlanta, “Stop Asian Hate” signs were placed next to the BLM ones.
And yet decades of research on the incorporation of immigrants have produced surprisingly little knowledge about professional immigrants living in suburban communities, implicitly promoting the assumption that when well-educated, well-paid immigrants and their children move into suburbs, their integration is smooth. This may be because we are comparatively more worried about children of immigrants whose families are not able to get this far, so to speak. Also, early theories of assimilation were based on the experiences of white eastern and southern European immigrants of previous generations, a model that may not apply to immigrants of color, even if they are well-educated and earn high incomes.
I also knew that 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. To take a century-old example, when administrators at Ivy League universities disliked the increasing proportion of Jewish students getting in based on standardized testing, they shifted their criteria of admission. Suddenly, Ivy League colleges required demonstrations of “character,” photographs, and more in thinly veiled attempts to limit the number of Jewish students admitted. The list of such examples is long. Protecting privilege has motivated the advantaged for centuries.
My hunch was that the growing presence of Asian Americans might make life in town more complicated than a simple story of assimilation, especially since Asian American kids are outperforming white kids academically in a variety of places around the country: in SAT scores, in admissions to the most desirable public schools with competitive entrance exams, and more. I wondered if an influx of Asian families in town might disrupt supposedly sacred American ideas about meritocracy, achievement, and excellence. How might whites respond when they notice that Asian American kids are surpassing the academic achievement of their own kids?
White Americans, of course, have a long history of finding ways to separate their children in school from children of color, even after the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawed segregated schools. The “best” schools across much of the country are heavily white, via legal machinations that separate these kids from Black and Latinx kids whose parents are economically disadvantaged. Would these white communities try to exclude Asian Americans in the same way, even if those kids were high achievers and had well-educated parents? On the other hand, I also wondered if some white parents might even start copying their Asian neighbors when they saw Asian American kids catapulting ahead of their own academically. As for Asian families, I had a hunch that they might be experiencing academic success not by assimilating into the white “mainstream,” but rather by resisting assimilation.
I came to this research as a parent myself, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and a scholar who recently wrote a book about college students’ views on, among other things, meritocracy, diversity, and college admissions. In The Diversity Bargain, I described how white Ivy League undergraduates expressed great appreciation for diversity, but only to the extent that such diversity benefited themselves. They liked how Black and Latinx peers on campus broadened their perspectives— so they supported affirmative action. But the second they experienced a setback, many pulled out the “reverse discrimination” script that lay in their back pockets. After that research, I started to wonder how whites make sense of Asian American academic success. And I began to wonder how Asian families too make sense of meritocracy and diversity as they put down roots and become a part of American suburbs. This time, though, I thought I would catch families before the frenzy of college admissions had begun.
These questions about who belongs and who is deserving are practically as old as our country is. But this research is also shaped by another social anxiety: how to be a good parent. Of course, mothers and fathers have always tried to do right by their kids, but the question of how to parent has perhaps never been asked with quite the same level of intensity— and worry— as it is today. Before I began the research, I had heard a growing chorus of concerns about intensive parenting. Some worried that the determination of parents to promote their children’s success was worsening mental health, particularly among upper-middle-class kids. Others sounded the alarm about kids becoming “excellent sheep”— good at excelling in tests and competitions, but not so good at thinking for themselves about who they want to be and the role they want to play in the world. The whole conversation seemed to tilt toward exaggeration. Even well-meaning parents— and after all, aren’t we all well-meaning parents?— became stereotypes. White wealthy parents were lambasted for being “helicopter parents”— overly involved in their children’s lives— and Asian parents for being “tiger parents”— overly demanding of excellence. I wondered how parents caricatured by both of these stereotypes really thought about parenting and how those views might be different for white and Asian parents of the same social class. How did they make sense of the drive to achievement? What did they think about concerns over the emotional well-being of kids like theirs? At the heart of all these questions was the simplest, and most complicated, one of all: how do you define what makes a good parent?
Natasha Warikoo is professor of sociology at Tufts University. She is the author of, most recently, The Diversity Bargain, also published by the University of Chicago Press.