Are Asian Americans Victims of Racism or Beneficiaries of Whiteness? It’s complex.
What both sides of this argument miss is the complexity of race in America.
In 2019, Federal Judge Allison Burroughs confirmed Harvard admissions practices as legally sound in its decision, but also acknowledged the possibility of anti-Asian discrimination in the “personal” evaluations. Asian Americans also experience glass ceilings in companies and bullying at school. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have seen an increase physical attacks. It is clear that anti-Asian discrimination is real. A high percentage of Asian American students admitted to Harvard does not rule out the possibility of anti-Asian racism.
On the other hand, the overall high SAT and GPA scores of Asian Americans are driven, in part, by the privileges accorded and normally granted to middle-class white Americans. Many Asian Americans have been able to benefit from these benefits. Why? United States immigration policy means that a large proportion of immigrants from Asia come with college and even graduate degrees. High incomes allow a significant number of them to move affluent suburbs historically designed as favored islands for upper-middle-class whites integrated cities.
These municipalities have, for decades, been able to provide top-notch public education—they can offer more opportunities given their high tax bases—and they also have fewer poverty-related challenges to contend with. These advantages – along with the dexterity of highly qualified Asian parents in educational testing (this is what propelled them into the best colleges in Asia) and positive stereotypes teachers often have information about the academic abilities of Asian Americans – facilitating high levels of academic achievement for Asian American children. In this respect, Asian Americans indeed benefit from “whiteness” as a system of advantage. In other words, the American education system has racially unequal opportunities and therefore integrated outcomes, and Asian Americans actually have benefited of this racial inequality that has historically privileged white students over black and Latino students.
Considering this history when making admissions decisions means that we expect the SAT and GPA scores of Asian American and White students to be higher than those of Black, Latina, and Native American students. . on average. Sure, Asian Americans are diverseand working-class Asian Americans do not enjoy the benefits of living in affluent neighborhoods, even though some may benefit from positive teacher stereotypes on the academic abilities of Asian Americans.
I found these dual racial forces operating in my own research in an affluent east coast suburb with a large and growing Asian American population. It was a city which, like many affluent suburbs across the country – from San Jose, California, to Weston, Mass. — had passed laws many years ago to prevent working-class people from moving in, such as minimum housing lot size requirements and limits on building multi-family homes. Historical records show that laws like these and the choices many white Americans have made (and continue to make) about where to live were often linked to a desire to avoid black people in particular. Many suburban properties even had explicit racial covenants, which prohibited the sale of such properties to black buyers. These clauses were legal until the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Even today, middle-class black professionals often don’t choose to live in cities like the one I studied, in part because they understand the problems likely to ensue if their children do not have peers who share their racial identity. Racial direction by real estate agents also keeps them away.
But Asian Americans had a different experience in the United States. The history of residential segregation between black and white Americans ironically allowed Asian American professionals to reap the benefits of living in communities segregated by class and previously by race. Some see evidence like this to mean that Asian Americans are “white adjacent.”
But in my research I also found evidence of anti-Asian racism. Many white parents expressed contempt for Asian American parenting, which they observed allowed Asian American students to outperform white students academically. For example, a white mother complained to me about the presence of children whose parents had academic standards she considered unreasonably high, describing one to me by saying, “Her name is not Sally Smith. … It’s never the blonde Norwegian.
Certainly, anti-Asian American racism is not the same as anti-Black racism. Both are driven by different stereotypes and appear in different spheres of social life. There is no point in trying to measure whether one is “worse” than the other. They are different and we have to find ways for both to end.
To do this, we need to stop assuming that Asian American academic success means an end to anti-Asian racism or that Asian Americans sometimes enjoying privileges previously reserved for white Americans means we still enjoy privileges of whiteness. The multifaceted nature of racial discrimination and privilege in the United States is much more complex. To face it, we must understand its various faces.
Natasha Warikoo is a professor of sociology at Tufts University and author of “Race to the top: Asian Americans and whites chasing the American dream in suburban schools.”