An Asian/White Divide in Silicon Valley

McAfeeMany statistics quoted about Silicon Valley diversity often lump Asian and Whites together vs Hispanics and African Americans. This sorting implies that there is some kind of unity between Asian and Whites in Silicon Valley. As a longtime resident, I have found that Silicon Valley is highly segregated, and this piece from a Silicon Valley student now at Harvard looks at that segregation from another perspective. Samuel Liu talks about the Asian/White divide where he went to high school, a high school where mostly white administrators worked hard to make sure that the school wouldn’t be “too Asian.” How true are his observations? I think he hits the mark on much on a lot of things, hints at phenomena that doesn’t get talked about, like the Indian party scene, but misses on other divides in the valley.

Samuel Liu went to Saratoga High School, located in a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb  that contains a major attraction for Asian American parents – a well-known, excellent public school district. He says that school administrators created policies to avoid kids overloading themselves by recommending against skipping math levels, limiting stress, and reducing competition. Who were the parents complaining about these policies? Asian parents. When Liu read this Wall Street Journal article about white flight from Asians (John article) – things finally clicked – he realized that the administrators didn’t want the school to be “too Asian.”

While noticing that white parents and Asian parents were divided on this issues, he also noticed that students would self-segregate. Like many of their parents, Liu says that Asian students would resent those limitations, and that the school self-segregated into two groups of academically driven Asian students and white students. Liu states:

“And you could see it at the school. Walk into an Advanced Placement Calculus BC math course and you’d have a hard time finding a white person, besides the (wonderful) teacher. Walk among the Asian students at lunch, and you’d hear some pretty racist things said about white people. There was a somewhat famous SAT tutor in the region who told a white student, a student known for being extremely intelligent, that he was pretty much Asian.

This didn’t reflect so much on the tutor as on the culture, because people agreed with him—the white student didn’t play football, he didn’t party, and his friends were almost all Asian as well. Especially in the higher grades, as classes began to diversify between difficult and easier, the racial self-segregation based on academic lines began to emerge in even greater clarity. White kids played football, smoked weed, and hooked up on the weekends. Asians studied and took Instagram photos at McDonald’s. (Interestingly, though, the Indians at my school were said to have a pretty raucous party scene. Cannot confirm, as I was never invited.)”

How true are Liu’s observations? The Daughter has Asian friends who went to other high schools in the same district, and she told me about the same kind of racial tension years before I saw what he wrote. Other articles have talked about how Asian students at similar schools treat white students with disdain. The Daughter and Number One Son went to those private high schools mentioned in the Wall Street Journal White flight article (schools where white parents send their kids to get away from hyper-competitive Asian schools), but even at those schools the Asian/White divide exists. Their closest friends were and remain mostly Asian. Unlike Liu, both of them were invited to that Indian party scene, and they do confirm that it exists.

I would say that Liu has a few things he misses. There are Asian kids who play football, smoke weed, and hooked up on the weekends – maybe not a lot at Saratoga high School but definitely at other Silicon valley high schools (I have known some of these kids).  Also, there is a completely different world of predominantly Asian Silicon Valley high schools were the Asian American kids are often much poorer than in Saratoga and fewer do as well academically.

I’ve covered some of his article, but Liu has other insights and commentary, such as the negative effects of that segregation and whether he thought that his school administrators were racist. If you found his insights that I have covered interesting, I recommend that you read the article in its entirety. I’d also be curious to hear from other Silicon Valley parents or students if they observe the same phenomena in their high local high school.

(McAfee Performing Arts and Lecture Center photo credit: Natmanso09 licensed under Creative Commons 3.0)

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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