Book Review

About the Book: Natasha Warikoo (2022).Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools. May 2022, University of Chicago Press.

This book addresses the impact of Asian American youth’s academic success on ethnic assimilation. The findings are based on research in a well-off suburban community with a large and growing Asian American population. In “Woodcrest” white and Asian parents alike mobilize their resources to bolster their children’s achievements in both academics and extracurricular activities. Asian parents tend to prioritize academics while white parents tend to prioritize extracurriculars, especially sports. The book shows how tensions over the ‘right’ way to parent develop when Asian American youth catapult ahead of their white peers academically. Rather than whites and Asians assimilating, either by Asians adopting dominant ‘white’ upper middle class parenting practices or whites adopting the strategies of upper middle-class Asians, parents instead engage in moral boundary making to defend their own parenting, especially against well-known stereotypes about Asian parents being too demanding and white children being outsmarted by their Asian American peers. Ultimately, both white and Asian families alike benefit from the race and class segregation that keeps working class and poor families, especially those who are African American or Latinx, out of their town altogether, through policies designed to maintain racial and class segregation.

Review of Race at the Top by Natasha Warikoo

Tiffany J. Huang, PhD (University of Pennsylvania)

In Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Dreams, author Natasha Warikoo divulges that her interviews with suburban parents in Woodcrest, USA occasionally caused her to question her own parenting. Compared with Asian American parents who enrolled their children in extracurricular math courses, or with White parents who paid for individual sports coaching and private leagues, was her own parenting too lax? Indeed, I too experienced a certain degree of second-hand anxiety while reading about the intense academic and extracurricular undertakings of highly-privileged Woodcrest students, despite being many years removed from my own high school years.  In the wealthy, liberal suburb of Woodcrest (a pseudonym), where the population shifted from 95% White in 1970 to just under one-third Asian by the 2010s, both White and Asian parents alike were attracted to the town’s excellent schools, had high expectations of their children’s academic and extracurricular achievement, and cared deeply about college admissions. Yet racial and ethnic differences persisted in how parents went about mobilizing their resources in helping their children succeed. 

Drawing on three years of ethnographic observation and interviews with White and Asian parents and children, Warikoo argues that parents drew on the cultural repertoires that enabled their own success in prioritizing academics versus extracurriculars. Chinese and Indian parents who succeeded in their home countries’ exam-driven systems transferred their focus on academics to their children; White parents who found success in well-roundedness prioritized their children’s extracurricular autonomy and excellence in sports. Both sets of parents were concerned about their children’s emotional health and well-being, though White parents were more likely to leverage their concerns to influence school- and district-wide policies, successfully lobbying for homework-reduction policies. And, given these differences, both sets of parents drew moral boundaries about what constituted good and defensible parenting; White parents critiqued Asian parents’ obsession with academic achievement, while Asian parents acknowledged these critiques but highlighted White parents’ hypocrisy for expending comparable time and resources on extracurriculars. Ultimately, neither set of parents did much to acknowledge the overall privilege of Woodcrest families, to the exclusion of Black and Latinx families. 

Cultural sociologists will be interested in Warikoo’s in-depth analysis of Woodcrest parents’ cultural repertoires, though the book’s theoretical conclusions focus more on implications for theories of assimilation. Readers will also find that the book is in deep conversation with recent notable works on Asian American achievement, including The Asian American Achievement Paradox by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, Stuck by Margaret Chin, Hyper Education by Pawan Dhingra, and The Other Side of Assimilation by Tomás Jiménez. 

Race at the Top also provides readers and future researchers with pathways for future inquiries. For example, one particularly interesting conclusion in the book is that Woodcrest parents’ concerns over emotional well-being may be a new form of status, rather than a reflection of an exceptionally dire mental health crisis. Future work could expand on this proposition to examine, for example, how class affects parents’ concerns over mental health, or whether individuals’ attention to emotional well-being affects how they are perceived. 

In addition, Warikoo describes Woodcrest as leaning heavily Democratic, and interviewees spoke positively about living in a diverse community. But despite interviewees’ overt views, Warikoo’s careful analysis of her interview data reveals the subtle ways in which race emerged for parents who otherwise knew better than to explicitly critique a racial group in front of an Asian American researcher. Nevertheless, she also notes that Woodcrest High School’s White principal described White parents as speaking much more explicitly about race than they did with her. I would be curious as to whether other forms of data, such as online parenting forums, could also reveal more explicit statements about race. Moreover, in light of growing awareness of anti-Asian racism, future work could also examine whether Woodcrest parents’ attitudes have shifted since the original data was collected. 
The 2020 Census revealed that Asian Americans were the fastest growing group in America over the last two decades, and their population is projected to continue rising. Race at the Top provides a timely look at how one community with a growing Asian population is coping with change – and in doing so, prompts readers to consider how similar communities might do so in a more equitable fashion in the future.