The COVID-19 pandemic increased public attention to anti-Asian discrimination and bias in the United States. Even though media coverage of the subject has grown recently, Asian Americans have been civically and socially ostracized by white Americans throughout U.S. history. Existing research has shown that Asian Americans today face discrimination in the workplace and in a range of contemporary social settings.
In a recent study published in Sociology of Education, we find pervasive anti-Asian sentiments among white parents with different backgrounds. This bias is strong among parents with higher and lower levels of education, and among both liberal and conservative parents. The results of our study span the COVID-19 pandemic, and we found similar levels of anti-Asian biases in our experiment both before and after the pandemic began. These results demonstrate that anti-Asian bias in educational settings is not only a recent phenomenon and pre-dates the uptick in anti-Asian sentiment that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our findings are based on an original experiment that investigates how white parents respond to schools with greater percentages of Asian students. In our experiment, white parents were asked to choose between pairs of fictitious school profiles for their child, such as the kind of profiles you might see on websites like GreatSchools.org or in district-provided school choice resources. We randomly varied the racial demographics of the schools, as well as information on school academic achievement, socioeconomic composition, and safety to assess whether the proportion of Asian students affected white parents’ preferences while controlling for other factors.
We find that white parents significantly prefer schools with fewer Asian students and are willing to make academic tradeoffs to exercise their preferences. This anti-Asian bias aligns with social stereotypes that white parents form about schools with more Asian students. White parents 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.
Interestingly, we found that white parents did not stereotype schools with more Asian students as places that had higher “academic profiles” or as places that were more “competitive.” In our experiment, parents chose between elementary school profiles, and it is possible these stereotypes only emerge in later grades or only in specific social contexts–for instance, in high-income suburban communities.
Our study also allows us to compare white parents’ anti-Asian biases to anti-Black biases, that we know strongly influence white parents’ school preferences. We find that white parents have stronger anti-Black than anti-Asian biases.
We also find that, under certain conditions, white parents do make negative assumptions about the academic profile of schools with more Blacks students, while they don’t make positive or negative academic assumptions about schools with more Asian students. These results speak to the importance of examining the stereotypes that different racial groups face individually, as well as in relationship to each other, and recognizing the specific role that anti-Black racism plays in maintaining white supremacy and racial inequality in the United States.
The results of our study have several important implications for policy.
Existing research shows that students’ exposure to racially heterogeneous groups in early educational contexts is predictive of their later life friendships and level of racial bias, as well as support for progressive policies. Asian Americans represent the fastest growing ethnoracial group in the US. If anti-Asian bias causes white parents to choose less racially integrated schools, as our study suggests, we expect white students who attend these homogeneous schools may maintain the same racial biases as their parents in adulthood, further entrenching anti-Asian racism in American society.
Our work also complements ongoing research about racial discrimination and segregation in other contexts in the United States, especially housing. For instance, our research aligns with existing work that finds evidence of white flight from communities with increasing Asian populations, and ongoing research that examines the contribution of school ratings websites like GreatSchools.org to educational and housing inequalities.
Our paper focused on the impact of white parents’ anti-Asian bias on their school preferences. While measuring and naming bias is essential, we believe critically important work still needs to be done: identifying how to reduce the effects of anti-Asian bias in educational settings. Future research should focus on effective strategies that can limit the impact of anti-Asian bias on school racial segregation patterns, as well as strategies for reducing the harms of this bias on Asian American students’ and families’ well-being.
Greer Mellon and Bonnie Siegler. “New Experimental Evidence on Anti-Asian Bias in White Parents’ School Preferences” in Sociology of Education 2023.
Image: Vinicius Imbroisi from Pixabay (CC0)