How does anti-Asian bias contribute to school segregation in the United States?
This essay is reposted with permission from the School Diversity Notebook.
Despite preponderous evidence of historical and contemporary anti-Asian bias and violence in the United States, limited research has considered how anti-Asian bias impacts school racial segregation. Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnoracial group in the United States, including among school-aged children, stressing the need to examine how this often overlooked and diverse category of students fit into the overall pattern of school racial segregation. While past qualitative research has suggested White families in school districts with large Asian student populations express negative stereotypical views about Asian students and their parents, it has been unclear if these biases directly drive parents’ school preferences.Between 2019 and 2021, we fielded a conjoint experiment asking White parents to choose between elementary schools with randomly varied racial demographics, achievement profiles, and other characteristics. Our study, published online in June 2023, finds White parents strongly prefer schools with fewer Asian students and are willing to make significant trade-offs in school academic achievement levels to act on these preferences. When schools are academically equal, White parents always prefer schools with more White students than Asian students or Black students. To illustrate these tradeoffs, controlling for other school attributes, our models predict that White parents will choose a C- achievement school over an A-achievement school if this school has more than 86% Asian students.
We also consider the mechanisms behind this anti-Asian bias. Evidence from the social psychology literature shows that White Americans believe “mixed” stereotypes about Asian Americans: while they perceive Asian Americans as highly “competent,” they also believe they lack social “warmth.” Gary Okihiro and Claire Jean Kim have documented the origins and history of these stereotypes, including how they have crystallized into the “model minority” and “forever foreigner” myths often applied to Asian Americans. Given these two stereotypes, we considered whether academic or social stereotypes may drive White parents’ views of schools with more Asian students.
We find no evidence that academic stereotypes drive these anti-Asian school preferences. White parents do not rate elementary schools with more Asian students as having better academic profiles or as being more “competitive.” These findings contrast with recent study examining California schools with growing Asian student populations, which suggests that fear of “academic competition” drives white flight, especially at the high school level. In our study, even when we remove test score data, the only signal of academic achievement provided, white parents do not use percentage of Asian students as a proxy for information about the academic characteristics of schools, although they do stereotype schools with more Black students as being worse academically in this condition. This finding underlines the enduring significance of anti-blackness in American education. Because our study focuses on elementary school preferences, future work should examine if academic stereotypes regarding Asian students emerge at later grade levels.On the other hand, we do find evidence that dominant social stereotypes about Asian students and their families contribute to White parents’ preferences for schools with fewer Asian students. Participants in our study rated schools with more Asian students as places their children would be less likely to “fit in” and where they would have less “in common” with other parents. These views are widespread across demographic and ideological characteristics and are strong even among politically liberal, highly educated parents, who other studies suggest have low levels of racial animus towards Asian Americans. We believe that our experiment has limited social desirability bias—given that our conjoint experimental design randomizes many school factors simultaneously and the true factor behind an individual’s choice is masked.
In general, we find that anti-Asian bias is strong among White parents from all political, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds represented in our sample. Our substantive findings were consistent across survey waves, which include time periods before and after the start of the COVID pandemic. These findings underline the strong need for additional research on anti-Asian bias in education, as well as interventions to reduce the effects of this bias on students’ experiences and on overall levels of school racial segregation.
Research shared on the School Diversity Notebook suggests that parents often believe that a preponderance of White students is a signal of a “good school.” Additional research has examined the influence of anti-Blackness of White parents’ school preferences. While continued attention to the centrality of anti-Blackness is needed, we must also address how bias against other minoritized groups contributes to overall school segregation. Racism in the United States operates multidimensionally, so researchers must examine biases against minoritized groups both individually and in their relationships to each other. While our study only looked at preferences for schools, not actual school choices, a recent study from Leah Boustan, Christine Cai, and Tammy Tseng found strong evidence of white flight from high-SES suburban schools in California directly linked to growing Asian student populations. These studies together highlight the urgency of more research on the role that anti-Asian bias plays in overall levels of US school segregation.
Our findings also evoke a greater question about how parents use school demographic information to inform their school choices, and whether the proliferation of data on school-level racial demographics contributes to ongoing school segregation. Research has found that the availability of school profiles through websites like GreatSchools.org leads to increased racial and socioeconomic segregation in housing, the ultimate source of much of school segregation in the US. Additional research into how parents of all ethnoracial backgrounds use school demographic information to form preferences for schools in this era of increased school choice is essential for understanding and combating contemporary sources of school racial segregation.
Bonnie Siegler is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. Her research examines how equity and diversity discourses relate to efforts for promoting racial equity and diversity in educational organizations. Greer Mellon is a postdoctoral research associate in the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University. Her research examines school district leadership and governance, parents’ school preferences, and organizational supports for students in higher education.