I participated in a panel yesterday to discuss the book Trespassers?: Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia by my friend and colleague, Willow Lung-Amam. I have written out a summary of my comments on this very important and timely book below.
I want to congratulate Dr. Lung-Amam on the great accomplishment that this book represents. People who want to understand race in its contemporary context should read this book. I intend to assign it to my students for this very purpose.
The way that Lung-Amam scales different levels of geography was impressive. She connects factors as large as the geopolitics of global capital and migration flows to those as small as school board meetings, the quintessential example of local politics in America. As I struggle to explain similar patterns in my own work, this book provides an excellent example how to pull off such a feat.
To put this book into context, I had the good fortune of reading this book while I was reading Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. Rothstein’s book describes the racist policies that whites used to segregate blacks and cites, as his introductory example, the same GM factory in Fremont that Lung-Amam describes in Trespassers?
In that context, the efforts that the parents took to create their own school district alarmed me. These were the same tactics that, Rothstein documents, whites had used throughout the 20th and 21st century to create racially and economically exclusive neighborhoods. The activism that Lung-Amam documents in Trespassers? adds a new twist to a long story in the history of the suburbs in that the parents seeking to make schools exclusive were Asian American. That difference, however, does not eliminate how the devolution of policy to the most local levels provides a key tool for reducing access to valuable resources like schools. Local school systems become a way that the wealthy—regardless of race—hoard opportunities in the United States.
As a demographer,the many cohort effects evident in the book struck me. The zoning disputes over regulating “monster houses,” and gives me a chance to do my favorite thing: talk about my own research a little bit. As I read the chapter I tried to imagine a counterfactual: would the same debate have arisen if a majority of the newcomers and old-timers were both white. The answer I came to was “yes.” Debating tear-downs occurs in predominantly white Bethesda and District neighborhoods all the time.
What was different about the case of Fremont was that the new-comers were predominantly Asian or Asian American and many of the old-timers were white. Many of the old-timers would have been residents who benefitted from the racist policies prior to passage of the Fair Housing Act. They stayed and aged in place as Fremont became more diverse around them. Many probably welcomed this growing diversity. But what was so troubling was the fact that the debate became racialized because of these demographic patterns. The demographic patterns turned an otherwise common debate among homeowners in which race became one of, if not the, central terrain of debate.
I was curious whether the appreciation for a more well-rounded academic program represented a greater cultural capital compared to immigrant parents who focused on developing human capital. It seems possible that immigrant parents could not access cultural capital and so compensated by pushing their children to acquire human capital in spades. As their children are admitted to prestigious universities, they will gain that cultural capital and thus might realize the benefits that accumulate from that cultural capital.
Finally, I was struck by how the Asian mall became a site through which pan-Asian identity was constructed. On the one hand, these places felt comfortable because they reminded the Americans who visited of their homes. The diversity of ethnicities would seem to have belied building a pan-Asian identity. On the other hand, the fact that an immigrant from Singapore and an immigrant from Delhi could feel at home in the malls, despite the big differences between those places, suggests a new Asian-American, transcontinental identity.
I wanted to conclude by discussing some policies since the Institute in which we sit is devoted to policy. School funding should be funded at the regional or state level. Despite all of the discrimination and insecurity that the Asian and Asian American parents in Fremont faced, they still accessed resources unimaginable to the residents of Richmond or Hayward. The adoption of the same language of local control could poison efforts to generate equality.
Second, the book warns against the hubris of planners. As I was on the way to the conference, I went past the Kennedy Center which is entirely closed off from the city by highways that once reflected planners’ best practices. We now know the price paid for the Robert Moses vision of planning. Planners and policymakers should approach design problems today with more humility to not remake those mistakes.
Finally, this book highlights the importance of the suburbs to understand housing and economic development policy. The global flows of capital and people come to places like Fremont as often as they come to more well-known cities. Policy makers should be cognizant of how interrelated communities here are to the world economy. Gentrification has become the almost exclusive lens through which view housing and urban policy in the U.S. But the uneven distribution of resources in suburban neighborhoods, and the changes occurring there warrant as much attention as does gentrification. Trespassers? has enriched the debate by showing why.
[Post edited October 4, 2017 for grammar and clarity.]