A new book, Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia, explores that tension in the context of Fremont, California, the largest Asian American-majority suburb in the Silicon Valley. With its good schools, sprawling homes, and proximity to tech jobs, Fremont has long been the gold standard for the American Dream—a prime destination for upwardly mobile Asian Americans in San Fransisco and Oakland, as well as more recent waves of “high-skilled” immigrants. These new, incredibly diverse groups of residents have adapted their surroundings to suit their needs and reflect their values—but it hasn’t been an easy process.
- In your book, you talk about how Asian Americans been historically barred from the suburbs, in similar ways to African Americans. Could you talk about how that changed over time?
The position of Asian Americans, particularly of Chinese Americans, has really shifted in the American imagination over time—particularly in California. It goes back to the 1800s—to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the other laws through which Asian immigrants were denied citizenship and the ability to hold land. That lasted for such a long period. The immigration laws of the 1960s had a huge impact, not just on Asian migration, but the inclusion of Asians within the country. That’s one part of the story: how long Asian-Americans were excluded from even being able to establish a real presence in America.
Then there’s the other part of the story: housing discrimination and exclusion of Asian Americans from the suburbs. A lot of the first exclusionary zoning laws in California really focused on Asian Americans in Chinatowns. San Francisco had one of the first and most heavily enforced racial zoning laws. They were fueled by this idea of cultural contamination. Asian Americans were the ultimate outsiders, whose presence could somehow impact the purity of the American experience.
But in that changing period in the interwar years between World War I and World War II, there were strategic alliances being made with foreign powers, which influenced how Chinese Americans were seen at home. Foreign policy goals began to shift the discourse on who is acceptable as a neighbor and as a coworker. That's when we begin to see the contours of the “model minority” myth taking shape. It relies a lot on stereotypes about Asian American compliance and their willingness to quietly integrate, as opposed to African Americans, who were labeled as being too radical in their claims for civil rights. Of course, these perceptions weren’t true.
- So at some point, Chinese Americans start making inroads into suburbia—some of them even acted as “straw buyers” for African-American friends, who were formally and informally barred from suburbia for a long time. But even as they established their presence in a places like Fremont, Asians struggled to have their surroundings reflect their identity, values, and lifestyle. How did that play out in the public school system?
Schools are so essential to people's migration patterns. When you migrate, you do so in part to give your kids a better life. Education becomes a key tool for that. Fremont became a very popular destination for many Asian immigrants in part because it has a high-ranking schools. So, now you have lots of new housing being built in this neighborhood because it's so popular. So you already have tension around that growth, and it plays out in the school.
Asian Americans have become such a presence in the school system. And what they consider to be academic priorities differs from older or long-term white residents. There are fights over curriculum: whether it should be more science and math based and prepare kids for jobs in Silicon Valley, how many AP classes students should be able to take, how big a role the liberal arts should play, and whether how sports should be prioritized. There’s a perception of a clash of values that plays out in children's education.