Book Review: A Beautiful Brick in the Wall — Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools
By Justin Grosslight
This is an indispensable study for anyone — including scholars, policy makers, and educators — who yearns to better understand how race, culture, and educational choices play out in a rarefied suburban milieu.
Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools by Natasha Warikoo. The University of Chicago Press, 240 pages, $24.
If you measure their success with a socioeconomic yardstick, Asian Americans are faring quite well. With a median family income and average SAT scores above their White counterparts, they have begun to find their niche in many of America’s affluent neighborhoods. America has welcomed Asian immigrants — especially well-educated ones — ever since Congress passed the Hart-Cellar Act in 1965. And the tempo of migration has only increased: the 2020 Census confirmed that Asians remain America’s fastest-growing racial group.
In contrast to these trends is angst generated by fears of discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions (at least since journalist Daniel Golden brought the matter to public attention in a chapter of his 2006 book, The Price of Admission). Students for Fair Admission v President and Fellows of Harvard College put that anxiety into the media limelight. Still, regardless of whether one believes that the college admissions process is tainted by racial prejudice, competition for entry begins far before students set foot on any campus. Hoping to “catch families before the frenzy of college admissions had begun,” sociologist Natasha Warikoo incisively investigates how Asian American academic success has impacted the college preparation choices and childrearing styles of Asian and White parents in her new book, Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream.
Drawing on three years of ethnographic research, with an emphasis on interviews with parents of high school students, Warikoo introduces readers to “Woodcrest,” a pseudonymous East Coast suburb with a median income of $150,000 and whose Asian population quintupled from 1990 to 2019. Nourished by high property taxes and the hearty support of cerebral families, Woodcrest High serves as a model of academic and extracurricular “excellence.” Providing leveled academic courses whose rigor outshines those of other schools as well as extracurricular activities that demand exacting commitment, Woodcrest attracts both White and Asian families who value education.
But White and Asian parents see education differently; their attitudes are shaped by their cultural repertoires – their different habits, styles, and lived experiences. Immigrant parents from India and China studied in nations where passing cutthroat exams was required for elite college admission and lucrative career advancement. Parents hailing from America, however, experienced a culture where multiple avenues could lead to occupational success. Divergent parental experiences led to divergent forms of conditioning: academically, Asian families nudged their children to excel in many of Woodcrest’s most advanced courses whereas White students were simply told to achieve satisfactory grades. On the extracurricular front, White parents pushed more for athletic development, while Asians saw sports more as a form of fitness, opting instead for musical or intellectually inclined activities. In addition, during vacations White families valued leisure and work experience while their Asian counterparts stressed scholarship. Such choices not only helped land Asian American students at the top of Woodcrest High’s meritocratic order but also segregated Asians and Whites because students of each race largely pursued different classes and activities from the other.
More critically, Warikoo shows how, because they felt their status atop the meritocratic hierarchy threatened, White parents turned to exploring emotional well-being and parenting styles as ways in which they could maintain their sense of racial superiority over Asians. Focusing on emotional wellness as a rationale, White parents actively lobbied for limited homework. A district-wide policy was instituted that banned homework on holidays, school vacations, and long weekends (it helped that a majority of Woodcrest’s administration was White and shared similar values). Fewer homework hours gave White students more time to excel in their athletic activities and other extracurricular endeavors – their chosen path for elite college admissions. A handful of White parents even moved their struggling children to private schools in hopes that doing so would ease academic pressure and facilitate entry into selective colleges. Asian families, on the other hand, communicated more among themselves about emotional wellness, largely feeling that homework decisions should be left to individual families, not the school. Discussions about parenting styles, however, took a moral turn. White parents strongly rejected the academic focus of Asian parenting choices while lamenting how such strategies made it harder for their own children to thrive intellectually. In contrast, Asian parents did not directly criticize the non-scholastic emphasis of White parenting. Rather, they accepted that White parenting judgments as superior and tried to distance themselves from White child-rearing accusations. Interracial friction was the inevitable result of these conflicts over parenting.
Regrettably, despite their divergent educational and parenting perspectives, Woodcrest parents failed to recognize that privilege shields their children from failure. Living in a town whose high school graduates regularly matriculate to selective four-year colleges, they “seemed to be fighting for gold versus silver or bronze, forgetting that practically everybody in town was assured of a medal.” The real losers in Warikoo’s study are not the residents of Woodcrest; they are the citizens who live beyond the town limits, especially the Black and Latinx families whose children do not have the benefits of well-staffed schools and extensive intellectual and athletic support. In fact, Woodcrest’s White and Asian families live in a community deliberately designed — via large lot sizes and high property taxes — to help keep African Americans and other poorer families out.
Race at the Top is obviously a timely text. As college admissions competition grows more intense, concerns over meritorious Asians tilting entry decisions in their favor has resulted in interracial frustration. Even secondary level schools, including prominent institutions such as Stuyvesant High School, Monta Vista High School, and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology have become embroiled in controversy over how to manage an eclipsing presence of Asian American students. Critics on the right routinely contend that affirmative action discriminates against high-scoring, hard-working Asians, while those on the left seek racial balance.
Political convictions, however, cannot hide an alarming reality. There has been an uptick in Asian student suicides at elite American colleges. Also, hate crimes against Asians have been on the rise since the 2021 spa shootings in metropolitan Atlanta. In this context, Warikoo’s chapter on mental health and emotional well-being is especially germane — even if Woodcrest is a school in which some students are more driven than their parents and where “depression, anxiety, and even suicide felt more like a manufactured moral crisis than anything else.” More pointed is Warikoo’s evidence that America’s liberal, multicultural community lacks deep interracial engagement. Some of Woodcrest’s American-born Asian families define diversity as living in a community filled with coethnic peers, and one particular White mother is said to have “wanted the different cuisines and faiths [of Asian families] without accepting other aspects of her Asian neighbors’ cultural repertoires.” If Woodcrest’s Whites and Asians struggle to appreciate each other’s differences, how can its Black and Latinx student visitors engage meaningfully across racial divides? Change will only come about with the growth of meaningful interaction.
But there is more to the book’s value than its immediate relevance. Race at the Top challenges entrenched arguments about immigrant assimilation and its impact on childrearing. In terms of the former, most sociologists have long held that, as immigrants arrive in the United States, they adopt the norms of the dominant racial group – in most cases, upper middle-class Whites. But Warikoo’s interviewees suggest that racial boundaries ossify rather than dissolve: “well-off suburbs are not simply landing places for ethnic assimilation, even for those highly skilled newcomers whom many Americans find desirable. Rather these suburbs are the places where new forms of ethnic tensions and integration play out.” What’s more, by valuing different cultural perspectives, Warikoo critiques Annette Lareau’s classic work on unequal childhoods. Lareau examined Black and White families from the working and middle classes through the lens of their younger children and concluded that parenting styles differed along class rather than along racial lines. Middle class families – both Black and White – embraced a “concerted cultivation” approach to childrearing. Parents depended on strategies of orchestrated engagement to foster their children’s talents, reasoning, and sense of entitlement. In contrast, Warikoo suggests that there is no blanket form of concerted cultivation: Whites and Asians maintain their own mores.
Race at the Top is also in dialogue with other recent sociological works. Most pointedly, Warikoo’s observations differ from Tomás R. Jiménez’s conclusions in The Other Side of Assimilation (2017) that assimilation is a relational or symbiotic process. Jiménez examined ethnic interactions in the San Francisco Bay Area and found that Asian families in Cupertino and Berryessa viewed Whites as an inferior (rather than a dominant) group – especially in terms of education. Concerning academics, Warikoo finds that, although a limited subset of White parents supports supplemental academic enrichment for their children, most have faith in Woodcrest’s academic rigor. In fact, some believe the workload may be too onerous. This differs from Pawan Dhingra’s conclusions in Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough (2020). Through his own interviews, albeit of younger children, Dhingra identifies a notable subset of White parents who encourage academic enrichment – particularly in mathematics. He also locates parents who think that strong public schooling cannot ensure success after America’s increasingly competitive educational turn.
Next, by encountering Asian parents who want some autonomy for their children and who promote mental health awareness, Warikoo questions Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou’s “success frame” model in The Asian American Achievement Paradox (2015). Lee and Zhou’s “success frame” details the need of high-achieving Asians to follow stringent academic standards, to embrace a narrow set of potential lucrative career options, and to live up to the unrealistic intellectual expectations of fellow coethnics – typically parents or other elders. None of these issues permeate Race at the Top‘s Woodcrest setting. Finally, Warikoo reveals that several Asian parents lament lacking the social networks or cultural references that White parents draw upon to assist their children’s career advancement. This illuminates both the limitations of meritocracy’s promise and of following a so-called Asian “playbook” that stresses academic success as necessary traits for getting ahead. As Margaret M. Chin has shown in Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of The Corporate Ladder (2020), few Asian Americans have been able to break a “bamboo ceiling” and enter the upper echelons of corporate America. The lucky few who have succeeded do so only after extensively building trust and honing their soft skills.
Dialogue with other texts is, however, a double-edged sword. Warikoo’s book is all the richer because of this deep intellectual engagement, but the nuanced conversation with other academic studies is dangerous. At times, Race at the Top feels like just another sociological study about Asian Americans, race, and education. And, for all the book’s impressive accomplishments, there are areas where it falls short. For example, despite Warikoo’s meticulous research, her findings betray an often sharp bifurcation between White and Asian values. Aren’t there times when White and Asian parents cooperate? Further, if these cultural differences run so deep, how might they shape potential discussions over Woodcrest’s zoning issues, home renovation policies, or the advent of Asian-themed malls (sociologist Willow S. Lung-Amam has analyzed this in the case of Fremont, California)? Do Woodcrest’s Korean residents hold similar views to their Chinese and Indian counterparts? After all, they make up the town’s third largest immigrant community. What about Woodcrest’s immigrants who hail from slightly humbler Asian backgrounds? Are their cultural perspectives similar to those of Warikoo’s protagonists? Or are these children driven by impulses besides the meritocratic, such as, say, accepting the “immigrant bargain” of succeeding academically in return for their parents’ sacrifices?
Finally, the muted racial tensions in Warikoo’s interviews may be explained by her ethnicity as an Indian American. Interviewees “avoided talking directly about race or ethnicity,” but between the lines the book suggests that racial tensions roiled beneath the surface. The clearest evidence of this emerges from Woodcrest High’s principal, who concedes that White parents were angry about ethnic change in the community. Similarly, Warikoo notes in her appendix on research methods that White families were quick to speak “sometimes in not-so-subtle ways” about their irritation with immigrant parents. Further, sharing an American upbringing meant that Warikoo and her White interviewees stood on common ground. Chinese parents, who shared neither race nor a similar childhood experience with the author, were more reluctant to engage. Other research methods, such as an anonymous parental survey, might have been more revealing of Woodcrest’s racial tensions.
None of these concerns undermines the significance of Race at the Top. Many of Warikoo’s conclusions do not strike me as being particularly bold, but there was a real need to examine, in depth, White and Asian perspectives on elite high school education. Warikoo delivers the goods with flair in a book that boasts clear methodology, canny analysis, and limpid prose. This is an indispensable study for anyone — including scholars, policy makers, and educators — who yearns to better understand how race, culture, and educational choices play out in a rarefied suburban milieu.
Justin Grosslight is an academic entrepreneur interested in examining relationships between science, society, and business. He has published academic articles in mathematics and history of science, book reviews on a wide range of topics, and several vocabulary development and test preparation books. A graduate of Stanford and Harvard, Justin currently resides in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam working as a consultant and mentor. He has traveled extensively throughout China and to all eleven Southeast Asian nations.