Harvard Educational Review
  1. Race at the Top

    Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools

    Natasha Warikoo

    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 240 pp. $24 (cloth).

    What does it mean to be a good parent? Natasha Warikoo’s Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools invites readers—parents and those without children—to grapple with the anxieties and judgments that this question inspires. Based on three years of research in Woodcrest, a pseudonym for a high-income suburb in the northeastern United States, this accessible, engaging, and thought-provoking book examines divergences in how privileged Asian Americans (of Chinese and Indian origin) and whites approach parenting and explores how tensions arising from these divergences shape prospects of immigrant incorporation. 

    Once a predominantly white town, Woodcrest is one of a growing number of wealthy suburbs that have received a steady influx of Asians over the past three decades. Asians now account for about 30 percent of its population (compared to 6 percent of the US population as a whole). Woodcrest’s white and Asian residents have similar class profiles—college educated, high-earning professionals—and appear to want the same outcomes for their children. Both are preoccupied by securing their children’s admission to selective colleges, and the town’s well-regarded public schools are an important reason why both groups choose to call Woodcrest home. 

    Alongside these strikingly similar motivations and goals, the book examines important differences in parenting practices. Asian parents tend to focus more on academic achievement (chapter 2). They enroll their children in supplementary math enrichment classes, unlike white parents who typically access out-of-school academic services only if their children need remedial support. Asians encourage their children to take multiple Advanced Placement (AP) and honors courses. White parents tend to invest more time and resources in enabling their children to excel in extracurricular activities, particularly sports (chapter 3). 

    These divergent parenting practices are, perhaps unsurprisingly, associated with differences in children’s outcomes. While white and Asian American students both excel in Woodcrest’s schools, Asians shine just a little bit brighter in academics. They spend more hours doing homework than their white peers, score higher on standardized and state tests, and are better represented in rigorous academic tracks and at the school science fair. 

    And as white students become relegated to second place, their parents worry about their children’s diminishing sense of self-worth in comparison to academically superior Asian American peers as well as the burden that all of Woodcrest’s students bear in their pursuit of academic excellence. In response to shared concerns about children’s mental and emotional health, white parents advocate for reducing students’ academic load (chapter 4). The more vocal among them successfully lobby school authorities to impose restrictions on homework. Asians, who view homework as crucial for attaining the highest levels of academic achievement, oppose such restrictions, albeit quietly. A few white parents even relocate their children to expensive private schools, which offer less academically intensive routes to elite colleges. 

    By changing the rules of academic competition in school, or exiting this competition altogether, white parents effectively, even if unintentionally, seek to shore up their children’s educational and life advantages. And as chapter 5 shows, white parents assert their moral superiority by defining “good” parenting in ways that are most familiar and favorable to themselves. In interviews, they blame other parents for holding unreasonably high academic expectations and giving their children an “unfair” advantage (by, say, paying for supplementary math classes), while giving themselves a free pass for investing substantial amounts of time, energy, and money in their children’s extracurricular pursuits. These other supposedly pushy, academics-obsessed parents are often explicitly identified as Asian. Keenly aware of such criticisms, Asians in Woodcrest seemingly uphold white norms of good parenting by distancing themselves from the intensive child-rearing practices of other immigrants or likening their emphasis on academics to white parents’ push for excellence in sports. 

    While white parents claim the parenting moral high ground and Asians defend themselves against the charge of being “bad” parents, Warikoo reminds readers that both groups are unwitting beneficiaries of structures that perpetuate racial and class inequality. Very few of Woodcrest’s residents (less than 5 percent) may be classified as poor or Black, Latinx, or some other race—an artifact of discriminatory housing laws and other policies that continue to limit access to the town’s celebrated schools. The debate on good parenting between whites and Asians obscures the tremendous advantages that most children in Woodcrest already enjoy and ignores children from whom these privileges are withheld.

    For a reader who knows little about life in elite suburban enclaves, Race at the Top makes the parenting anxieties and racial tensions in “Woodcrests” across the US visible and clear. This is in large part because Warikoo lets readers in on her own thinking about what she saw and heard during her study. At various occasions, she reflects on how her identity as a scholar of racial and ethnic inequality in education, a child of Indian immigrants, and a parent shaped her approach to this research, her interactions with parents, and her reactions to what they shared. Warikoo is candid, for instance, about how being around Woodcrest’s achievement-oriented parents made her question whether she herself is making the grade as a caregiver. She also describes how white parents’ judgments have made her feel defensive about her own parents’ emphasis on academics. These personal reflections, together with clear and detailed research methods appendixes, helped me understand both the Woodcrest parents’ thinking and Warikoo’s data collection and analysis. I particularly appreciated how Warikoo unpacked generalizations and moral judgments about Asian parenting practices and clearly signaled the dissonance between these subtle manifestations of racial prejudice and white parents’ verbal commitments to diversity and liberal values.

    Discussions on racial and ethnic differences in parenting are tricky. Given the impressive performance of Asian American students on conventional measures of academic achievement (Hsin & Xie, 2014), it is tempting to laud their parents for prioritizing education and to fault other racial groups for failing to. Race at the Top steers readers clear of such simplistic conclusions about Asian educational values and beliefs by focusing instead on the strategies and resources that immigrant professionals mobilize in support of their children’s achievements. Through generous use of participant quotes, Warikoo illustrates that wealthy Asians in Woodcrest are simply chasing the American Dream by leaning into their own tried and tested strategies for success. 

    For instance, Saumya, an immigrant Indian mother, feels that the standards of math education in her children’s school are lower than what she experienced growing up. Her search for more challenging math classes is “normal” given that well-resourced Indians in India and the US do so routinely. Warikoo conceptualizes this strategy as arising from Saumya’s “cultural repertoire,” or toolkit, for success. As she notes, most Asians who make it to Woodcrest are products of highly competitive and hierarchical higher education systems in their countries of origin, where academic achievement is the primary criterion for admission to elite colleges. Their emphasis on academic excellence is shaped by these firsthand experiences and by those of family, friends, and acquaintances. White parents’ toolkit, however, is influenced by the admissions processes of selective US colleges that reward both academic and extracurricular achievement. 

    While Warikoo provides much evidence of dynamism and heterogeneity in Asian American approaches to parenting, the book’s primary focus on fault lines between Asians and whites leaves less room for discussions of how cultural repertoires evolve and vary within the town’s immigrant communities. Given that the majority of Warikoo’s parent interviewees are mothers, I missed some discussion of how the work of child-rearing and drawing moral boundaries about what constitutes “good” parenting is distributed within white and Asian households.

    Race at the Top rightly emphasizes the need for continued examination of how racial divisions and hierarchies shape immigrants’ experiences, including for those wealthy professionals who can access the best education money can buy and then surge ahead in American meritocracy. And while Warikoo’s primary focus is not educational practice or policy, she closes with an appeal to parents in towns like Woodcrest to understand each other’s parenting approaches and advocate for communities that are excluded from their race at the top. This made me think about the ways I, too, as an upper-class, upper-caste, English-speaking product of highly selective colleges in India, benefit from systems of meritocracy that exclude vast numbers of Black, Latinx, and Native American students from elite US universities and consider what I can do to uncover and dismantle these inequities. I hope it does the same for many readers.

    swati puri

    Hsin, A., & Xie, Y. (2014). Explaining Asian Americans’ academic advantage over whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8416–8421. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1406402111
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