Pearl River I learned a new term to describe my old public high school in talking to Tufts University Professor Natasha Warikoo. It’s not a neighborhood school or a magnet school or even a college-preparatory school, but an “exam” school, meaning of course that it takes passing a test to get through the doors. She used that phrase as we talked about the nagging issues at New Orleans’ Benjamin Franklin High School where Asian-Americans have become an increasing percentage of the student body, winning many of the academic awards, pushing the percentage of white students down, even as Black students and their parents continued to raise the issue of the school’s questionable diversity claims in a public school district that is 7.5% White, 84.9% Black, 0.7% Asian or Asian/Pacific Islander, 4.1% Hispanic/Latino, 0.1% American Indian or Alaska Native. With those numbers, it’s hard not to concede the case that there needs to be a smoother track for Black acceptance.
We had easily drifted into this topic on Wade’s World talking about Warikoo’s book, Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools. She had embedded herself in an upper-middle-class New York suburb for four months in order to understand the positions and pressures as Asian-Americans had increasingly come to dominate the academics in the cherished, destination neighborhood schools and whites, long used to this being the upward track guaranteed to their children, were trying to change the terms of debate in the face of the competitive pressure.
The usual repertoire for white success had been good grades and scores, sure, but also extra-curricular activities like sports and other clubs to appeal to elite college recruiters who made the school a regular spot of their tour. For more newly arrived Asian-American parents and their children, largely Indian and Chinese, many of whom had immigrated in this generation, their experience had been concentrated study, tutoring, extra-math classes, and single-minded focus on class subjects. Their strategies paid dividends in the usual academic measures. Whites, losing their competitive edge, claiming their support for diversity, but refusing to confront their historic position and privilege in the school system, responded by trying to restrict homework and similar strategies to try and even the playing field. We hear about these homework conflicts increasingly around the country now, but Professor Warikoo remarked these issues about banning homework also go back one-hundred years.
Warikoo is a sociologist, so she was reporting her observations rather than making recommendations. She was clear that whites needed to check their privilege, rather than complaining about the race to the top now that they were losing, but she was also clear that Asian-Americans in the context of her study, needed to understand and appreciate the Black struggle for affirmative action that was now inuring to their benefit. Talking about the current curious right-wing attack on affirmative action at Harvard in the lawsuit claiming that Asian-Americans are being discriminated against in admissions, she felt that their case was specious. She was equally clear that this tension is a long way from being settled. Asian-Americans are a success story in achieving the American dream in her view, but they are not likely to be assimilated in the same way as the Irish and Italians, partially because of race and color bias, but also hugely because of cultural differences.
Simply put, that’s the world we live in now. Get used to it or get with it!