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Achievement, race, and the American suburb

Photo by Neal E. Johnson on Unsplash

Welcome to The Intersection! I’m Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!

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‘Race at the Top’

For this week’s newsletter, I interviewed Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University whose research focuses on racial and ethnic inequality in education. She recently published Race at The Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools, which focuses on tensions playing out in Woodcrest, a fictional name for a real wealthy suburb with a large and growing Asian American population.

We talked about some of the issues at the center of her book: heated discussions around achievement, mental health, and who “deserves’ to get into elite colleges. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

When you started interviewing the Woodcrest community, what stood out to you? Did your questions or perception of the community change at all?

What stuck out to me was how much the community was really talking about emotional well-being and mental health — this was pre-pandemic. There was a national conversation that was starting to happen but they were really ahead of the curve on this. There was a school board election coming up and so I went to this thing where the candidates were going to take questions. I just assumed that the questions were going to be a lot about excellence and what’s the latest teaching — these kinds of questions. But it was all about emotional well-being, what people were going to do about it, what they thought about potential policy solutions to it. I think that’s something that really stood out to me in the very beginning was that this was kind of already on the table, because this was such a concentration of high achievers. That was creating pressure on kids.

How can your book open up the door to difficult conversations around race, privilege, and opportunity, especially as it relates to race in college admissions?

One of the things that I really wanted to highlight in this book is to help us have more productive conversations about race and Asian Americans, in particular. People on the right use Asian Americans as the quote “model minority” to say, hey, look, here’s a racial minority group that has experienced academic success so that means it’s possible. That means there’s no racism. That of course is false. Then on the other hand, I think sometimes the response to that is, well, Asian Americans, don’t experience the same kinds of racial discrimination. I think that’s also problematic because of course Asian Americans do experience racial discrimination. But it is not the same as experienced by Black and Latinx and Native American families.

Asian Americans have been racialized in the wake of 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic. These have been deadly attacks. This is a serious issue. But we have not had the same systematic exclusion from these kinds of upper-middle-class neighborhoods, from educational opportunity or from redlining — which was all about the exclusion of African Americans. There are very different histories and very different ways that race shapes the lives of Asian Americans and Black Americans.

We have to have a much more nuanced understanding of the role that race plays in shaping opportunities. I wanted to be able to say Asian Americans, and in particular Asian professionals, do have a lot of privileges because they have these degrees and high incomes in this community. They do benefit from certain things like being in this community where there are a lot of resources and not a lot of problems associated with poverty that the school district has to deal with. But, on the other hand, they also are racialized and experienced some kinds of racism at times. We need to have a more complex understanding of the role that race plays in our social world.

What questions or reflections do you hope readers, especially parents in suburbs, will have about the college application process once they’ve read your book?

There needs to be a little bit more understanding of things like all parents want the best for their kids but we’re doing different things and maybe that’s okay. We shouldn’t rush to judge. But in thinking about our own children and wanting to provide every opportunity for them, we also need to kind of get beyond that and also think about other children, children beyond our own family — beyond our own community. What kinds of opportunities do they have?

Sociologists call this opportunity hoarding. We don’t need to hoard opportunities to the complete exclusion of others. So thinking about, well, what are the educational opportunities that kids have that are beyond this town? How might I play a role in expanding those opportunities? I think we also have a civic duty to think about our shared social world that goes beyond our child or even our school community.

How did the use of coded language show up in conversations you had with parents? How does language play a role in the tension you saw between the white parents and Asian American parents, especially when they’re talking about academic achievement and what was best for their children?

I opened the book with that mom who talks about, well, you know, all the kids but three in my child’s class were Asian. Everybody but three kids go to supplementary math classes and this is how it’s negatively affecting my child. Or sometimes they were overt. This mom said her daughter’s friend is not going on vacation to do better on the SAT and [the mom said] her name is not Sally Smith.

Those kinds of comments often took me by surprise. I do think these are views or attitudes that people are not super aware of, or the associations or resentments that they feel. There was another mom who said that we are in this town with so many smart kids. Well, there are smart kids everywhere. Do you really think there are more smart kids here than there are in a working-class town?

When we use language like “smart” there is an unconscious idea of who is deserving. Who deserves to be on top in society and that is problematic. Even within the town, do the Asian kids deserve to be at the top of the class if they’re doing things they’re not “supposed to do” like taking extra math classes or taking a science class in the summer? There was this whole thing about kids taking a class in the summer to get an A when they come to school. If that is something they want to do then why does it bother you?

There’s this idea of who is deserving. Then the unspoken follow up is who is not deserving? If someone is deserving then that means there is someone who is not as deserving.

For more on admissions, equity, and the American dream, check out this episode of Bootstraps, a podcast series about merit and education by Open Campus and Ed Surge.

New research shows that people from elite backgrounds, especially in the field of economics, are mostly filled by scholars whose parents had a graduate degree. Check out the story by Andrew Van Dam at The Washington Post.

There are many discussions about who “deserves” to access quality education, to go to a good college, and to get a degree. That conversation is even more pointed for the incarcerated population. My colleague, Charlotte West, profiled Johnny Pippins — who is trying to pursue his doctorate in sociology but needs to get out of prison first. Read the full story.

What do first-generation students experience when they first arrive on a college campus? Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse published a survey that showed eight in 10 students felt they belonged on campus, but one-third of them only felt truly comfortable in certain spaces. Check out the story by Melissa Ezarik.

Thanks for Reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips or perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

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