A question that seems to be asked with increasing frequency is whether Asian Americans are the beneficiaries of privileges historically afforded to white people in the United States or if we are the victims of racial discrimination. But reality is much more complex. It’s time to discard this simplistic dichotomy.
Take the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case to be heard in the US Supreme Court in October. Plaintiffs in the case argue that Asian Americans experience racial discrimination in Harvard admissions, as evidenced, they claim, by admitted Asian American students’ higher GPAs and SAT scores compared to admitted students of all other races, including white students. They also point to admissions officers’ lower “personal” ratings of Asian American applicants compared to those of other students. Harvard and its defenders have responded in part by pointing to the increasing percentage of Asian Americans admitted every year. The university also points out that academics are not the only criterion they use to admit students.
What both sides of this argument miss is the complexity of race in America.
In 2019, federal Judge Allison Burroughs affirmed Harvard’s admissions practices as legally sound in her ruling but also recognized the possibility of anti-Asian discrimination in “personal” ratings. Asian Americans also experience glass ceilings in corporate firms and bullying in schools. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans have experienced increased physical attacks. It’s clear that anti-Asian discrimination is real. A high percentage of Asian American students admitted to Harvard does not preclude the possibility of anti-Asian racism.
On the other hand, Asian Americans’ overall high SAT scores and GPAs are driven, in part, by privileges made for and normally afforded to middle-class white Americans. Many Asian Americans have been able to benefit from these advantages. Why? US immigration policy has meant that a large proportion of immigrants from Asia come with college and even graduate degrees. High incomes enable a significant number of them to move to well-off suburbs historically designed as islands of privilege for upper-middle-class white people leaving integrated cities.
Those municipalities have, for decades, been able to offer a top-notch public education — they can provide more opportunities given their high tax bases — and they have fewer poverty-related challenges to address, as well. Those advantages — along with highly skilled Asian parents’ dexterity in educational testing (that’s what got them into top colleges in Asia) and positive stereotypes teachers often have about Asian Americans’ academic capability — facilitate Asian American kids’ high levels of academic achievement. In this regard, Asian Americans do indeed benefit from “whiteness” as a system of advantage. In other words, the US education system has racially unequal opportunities and hence outcomes baked into it, and Asian Americans have actually benefited from that racial inequality that historically has privileged white students over Black and Latinx students.
Taking this history into account when making admissions decisions means we’d expect Asian American and white students’ SAT scores and GPAs to be higher than those of Black, Latinx, and Native American students on average. Of course, Asian Americans are diverse, and working-class Asian Americans do not experience the benefits of living in well-off neighborhoods, even if some may benefit from teachers’ positive stereotypes about Asian Americans’ academic capabilities.
I found these dual forces of race operating in my own research in a well-off East Coast suburb with a large and growing Asian American population. This was a town that, like many affluent suburbs around the country — from San Jose, Calif., to Weston, Mass. — had many years ago passed laws to prevent working-class people from moving in, such as minimum housing lot size requirements and limits on the building of multifamily homes. The historical record shows that laws like these and the choices many white Americans made (and continue to make) about where to live were frequently related to a desire to steer clear of Black people in particular. Many suburban properties even had explicit racially restrictive covenants, which barred the sale of those properties to Black buyers. These covenants were legal until the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Even today, Black middle-class professionals frequently do not choose to live in towns 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 steering by real estate agents also keeps them away.
But Asian Americans have had a different experience in the United States. The history of residential segregation between Black and white Americans, ironically, enabled Asian American professionals to reap the benefits of living in communities segregated by class and previously by race. Some see evidence like this as meaning that Asian Americans are “white adjacent.”
But in my research I also found evidence of anti-Asian racism. Many white parents expressed disdain for Asian American parenting, which, they observed, enabled Asian American students to outperform white students academically. For example, one white mom complained to me about the presence of kids whose parents had academic standards she deemed unreasonably high, describing one to me by saying, “her name is not Sally Smith. … It’s never the blonde Norwegian.”
To be sure, anti-Asian American racism is not the same as anti-Black racism. The two 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 must find ways for both to end.
To do so, we must stop assuming that Asian American academic achievement means the end of anti-Asian racism or that Asian Americans sometimes benefiting from privileges previously reserved for white Americans means we always benefit from the privileges of whiteness. The multifaceted nature of racial discrimination and privilege in the United States is far more complex. To tackle it, we need to understand its diverse faces.
Natasha Warikoo is a professor of sociology at Tufts University and author of “Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools.”