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Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education

reviewed by Nancy Abelmann - February 08, 2011

coverTitle: Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education
Author(s): Robert T. Teranishi
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807751308, Pages: 216, Year: 2010
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Asians in the Ivory Tower is, as it turns out, not really about Asians in the ivory tower at all. Although the book offers many handy figures about the numbers and distribution of AAPIs (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) in U.S. higher education, it is largely about the opportunity structures for AAPIs en route to college. Turn to this book not for a portrait of AAPIs at college, but rather for a structural account of the paths that take them there – or don’t. In January 2011, in the eye of the storm over Asian American Amy Chua’s fifteen minutes of fame over the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a parenting account that has been vilified/celebrated for its portrait of extreme parenting, Teranishi’s book seems particularly timely. Those who read through Asians in the Ivory Tower will know that that the likes of Ivy-educated Chua and her accomplished daughters speak in fact for the trajectories of very few AAPIs. If, by 2011, this reality seems nearly commonsensical (“But we know that already,” some will quip), the hoopla about Chua’s book including a healthy anti-Asian American outcry, reminds us of the critical need for Teranishi’s measured report from the field.

Asians in the Ivory Tower is a passionate plea for a radically disaggregated look at AAPIs: comparisons at the aggregate level (e.g., AAPIs and Whites, AAPIs and Blacks, etc.), Teranishi asserts, simply don’t make any sense. The fact that AAPIs manage somehow to still be rendered “conspicuous adversaries to diversity” (p. 2) (i.e., for their apparent “over-representation” in some colleges), Teranishi reminds us, speaks exactly to the prevailing aggregated look at AAPIs. To make this point, Asians in the Ivory Tower combines survey-based data with short vignettes about a cluster of AAPI youths (Chinese, Hmong, Filipino, and Vietnamese). Readers can thus put a face, a community, a family, and a high school to the numerical portrait; the vignettes work to sketch the enormously heterogeneous pathways to higher education. Weaving these youths across chapters organized along this pathway (family, community, high schools, etc.) the reader is given a glimpse at the manner in which social parameters operate to create diverse opportunity structures.

For those new to AAPI numbers, there may be some surprising ones in Asians in the Ivory Tower. For example: Hmong Americans have the largest number of people per household of any ethnic group in America (p. 63); the largest concentration of AAPIs in American higher education can be found in two-year public colleges (p. 106); AAPIs in the “Ivies” represent less than 1% of AAPIs in higher education (p. 105); in 2005 two-thirds of AAPIs in higher education were attending college in only 8 states and 49% were in only two states, California and New York (in 1980 that two-thirds figure was for two states, California and Hawaii) (pp. 100-104); from 1995-2005 all ethnic groups other than Whites enjoyed greater percentage increases in the numbers of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields (p. 129); and AAPI teachers are poorly represented in the K-12 sector (p. 132). Asians in the Ivory Tower is a treasure trove of these sorts of facts and numbers. AAPIs represent, Teranishi reminds us, 24 ethnic groups among which, put simply, life and educational chances are strikingly diverse.

In our historical moment in which the percentages of international undergraduates are at an all-time high (representing primarily the precipitous rise of students from China), and in which American observers are quick to categorically conflate these students with AAPIs (aforementioned Asian American Amy Chua’s parenting was likened to “Chinese” (i.e., in China) parenting), Teranishi’s clarion call for disaggregation and distribution seems all the more apt. We are reminded that even as in 2007 there were over 870,000 non-immigrant Asians in American higher education (p. 32), in 2003 there were approximately 500,000 undocumented AAPI immigrants (a 91% increase from 1990) (p. 33). He calls our attention thus to the contrast between “preferential condition admits” – those international students who represent often quite privileged families and educational trajectories – and AAPIs who “face social conditions that are among the lowest levels of any families in the nation” (p. 33). The tendency to not differentiate AAPIs from international Asians is particularly problematic when looking at the professoriate across all institutional types of higher education; it appears that the numbers of international scholars teaching dwarf those of AAPIs (p. 139).

Perhaps most powerful in Asians in the Ivory Tower are those numerical and descriptive data that translate this disaggregation/distribution to the community/school level. In a strong chapter on high schools, we learn for example that in 2005 the AAPI numbers who attend schools with 50% or greater minority enrollment look much more like those of Blacks and Latinos than they do of Whites, including for example nearly 70% in urban schools and over 66% in suburban schools (p. 80). Among the book’s richest data are those for selected schools in AAPI ethnic enclaves in which, for example, we see the considerable variance of factors which correlate with post-secondary success (e.g., AP passing rates which range from 6.5% (a Hmong American concentration school) to 75.8% (a Chinese American concentration school)). This reveals the enormous distribution when it comes to high school characteristics that have been widely appreciated to promote or constrain post-secondary opportunity (e.g., percentage of teachers with less than two years of experience) (p. 80). Zooming in on examples from California high schools, we listen to: Jenny, a Filipina American, describe that at her high school, “…you gotta be a self-starter” (Vallejo) (p. 89); Hmong American Tommy: “It depends on what decisions I make and what I want to do” (Sacramento) (p. 93); and Chinese American Eric who describes the enormous support he receives from guidance counselors and AP teachers: “[the AP teacher] told me about special dates and deadlines and helped me with my college essay” (San Francisco) (p. 86). Teranishi’s “tale of two stories” of divergent “institutional contexts” (p. 97) indeed tells a powerful story.

Across Asians in the Ivory Tower’s many numbers and vignettes, we are reminded at large that many AAPIs live in quite residentially segregated communities and have limited exposure to other groups (especially among AAPI ethnic groups) (pp. 58-63). Furthermore, they attend schools that are comprised of more than 50% minorities, they head in the largest numbers to the two-year college sector of higher education, and they do not necessarily fare so well once in college (Chapter 6).

The timeliness and importance of Asians in the Ivory Tower aside, I raise two issues. First, Teranishi frequently describes AAPIs as “categorically unique” (see e.g., p. 49, p. 114). He does not, however, demonstrate that sub-group variance among AAPIs outpaces that of other aggregate groups. We do learn of a bimodal curve for the distribution of Asian and AAPI SAT I math scores (p. 113), but there, too, I was not convinced by his evidence (which in this case problematically combines “Asian” and AAPI numbers). Readers more at home with numbers-based analysis might beg to differ. Second, and in a similar vein, I am not convinced that family, community, and school characteristics (e.g., SES, residential segregation, community infrastructure, segregation, institutional context) operate differently for AAPIs than they do for any other Americans (regardless of race). Asians in the Ivory Tower implies that they do – that race somehow mediates these variables – and I am intellectually inclined to think that they do, but Teranishi does not really make or support this argument. Indeed, in his conclusion, “Beyond a Single Story,” Teranishi is explicit that nothing about race “by itself, ‘predicts,’ is ‘associated with,’ or ‘reveals’ anything about educational or social disparities” (p. 147). If Teranishi’s primary scholarly intervention lies at the feet of AAPIs’ categorical difference, I remain somewhat unconvinced. Asians in the Ivory Tower has nonetheless truly given us an account of AAPI diversity that flies powerfully in the face of the, alas, troubling persistence of unfounded stereotypes of AAPIs in education at all levels.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 08, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16334, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 7:58:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Nancy Abelmann
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    NANCY ABELMANN, Harry E. Preble Professor of Anthropology, Asian American Studies, and East Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes on class, education, and mobility as they pertain to South Korea and Korean/Asian America. She published The Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation in 2009 (Duke University Press). She is a co-editor of forthcoming No Alternative? Experiments in South Korean Education (Berkeley: Global, Area, and International Archive / University of California Press, 2011) and of in-progress South Korea’s Education Exodus: The Life and Times of Pre-College Study Abroad. With psychologist Sumie Okazaki she is writing Domestic Toil: How Korean American Teens and Parents Navigate Immigrant America based on field and survey research in Chicagoland. With Soo Ah Kwon, Tim Liao, and Adrienne Lo, she is currently conducting research on the internationalization of the undergraduate student body at the University of Illinois. She co-founded and co-directs The Ethnography of the University Initiative (EUI, www.eui.illinois.edu), a pedagogical, research, and archival project.
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