Ghosts of White People Past: Witnessing White Flight From an Asian Ethnoburb

If diversity is so important to liberal whites, why do they keep fleeing ethnically diverse suburbia?
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For the first time in my life, I am not a racial minority when I move to Johns Creek, Georgia. People from myriad cultures, ethnicities, religions, and nationalities deem this patch of earth home. Persian and Indian markets bookend strip malls. Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Korean, and Chinese restaurants perch on the corners of major intersections.

One blustery winter morning, I tour a preschool for my then-youngest child. The director, a petite woman with light brown hair, greets me warmly in the foyer, hands me a pamphlet describing the classes, the curriculum, the school’s philosophy. At the end of the tour, she asks if I have any questions. I shake my head, thank her for her time, and open the glass door to the parking lot when she calls out in a cautionary tone: “This area has changed quite a bit in the past few years. It’s really, really different.”

I’ve heavily researched this suburban dream of a town, analyzed pertinent school and safety statistics. Her hesitation doesn’t reflect the fruits of my labor.

“How so?” I ask.

Her lips disappear into a thin line. “It’s just, you know, changed.”

Over the next nine years, I have front row seats to a white exodus from Johns Creek, a suburb located 25miles outside of Atlanta. The majority of these white families do not relocate closer to Atlanta or to jobs elsewhere in the metro area. They move across a newly expanded four-lane road to the adjacent northern county, Forsyth, a stone’s throw from their former domiciles.

I ask our neighbors, point blank, why they are moving.

Nora’s good at math. There are too many kids here good at math. They’re affecting her self-esteem.

Asian parents take their kids for extra tutoring. It’s not fair for the “regular” kids.

The high school is too competitive. My kids won’t get into a good college because of all of the Asians.

I want my children to grow up in the real world. This is not the real world.

In a decade, the white population at our local elementary school plummets from 397 to 195 white students, or from 55 percent to 23 percent of the total student body. Our children lose some of their dearest friends. Our Parent Teacher Association loses valuable leadership. The local middle and high schools tell a similar story. When the subdivisions in our community first opened, white families were among the first to move in. They are among the first to move out, leaving behind brand new homes they built themselves, the paint barely dry.

I bump into former neighbors at the grocery store, the bookstore, the bakery. They tell me how much they save annually in property taxes, but in the same breath, admit how many thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, they lost in the sales of their homes at the height of a brutal recession. They rave about their new, friendly neighborhoods, compliment the stellar academics of their children’s new high school, which has the same number of Advanced Placement courses, the same intense preparatory curricula, as the old high school.

Except it’s whiter.

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White flight from highly concentrated Asian immigrant communities or “ethnoburbs,” a term first coined by Wei Li, is nothing new. Take Cupertino, California, a San Francisco suburb of 60,000 residents. Beginning in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the small, predominantly white Silicon Valley city birthed thousands of technology firms, which soon brought a wave of Asian immigrants. The region’s significant affluence (Cupertino’s median annual household income nears $130,000) did not inoculate Cupertino from white flight. Two area high schools, Monta Vista and Lynbrook, experienced precipitous drops in enrolled white students. Parents blamed Cupertino for becoming too Asian.

In the past decade, Johns Creek, which mirrors Cupertino in population size (80,000), distance to a large urban center (25 miles north of Atlanta), median household income (approximately $107,000) and industry (surrounded by 900 tech companies), has experienced the same kind of white flight.

Her lips disappear into a thin line. “It’s just, you know, changed.”

Sociologist Samuel H. Kye, the author of Segregation in Suburbia: Ethnoburbs and Spatial Attainment in the Urban Periphery, examined segregation patterns in 150 middle class metropolitan black, Hispanic, and Asian ethnoburbs from 1990 to 2010. By focusing on middle-class, as opposed to lower-class ethnoburbs, he hoped to eliminate poverty as a factor for white flight. In a phone interview, he relays that the relative economic prosperity of an ethnoburb does not diminish white people’s decisions to abandon it. “Across the board, any time you see a significant presence of minority residents, there is a near perfect predictor of exodus of white residents,” he says.

While the term “model minority” substantiates a myth about how whites value Asians, Asians are only “model minorities” when they are small in number with minimal influence on a community. When Asians “set the norms of academic achievement by which whites are evaluated [and] ultimately usurp those previously in place,” once heralded Asian achievements are critiqued with suspicion. In a school district near Princeton, New Jersey, last December, parents claimed that the academic tutoring Asian students received outside of school resulted in the “elementary school curriculum … being sped up to accommodate them.”

Whites often blame the demographic shift on Asian achievement instead of the forces behind it: skyrocketing college costs, with fierce competition for grants and scholarships, the excessive weight given to standardized test scores, an arguably unhealthy fixation on STEM, and the College Board, the organization that administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test and Advanced Placement exams. Little attention is given to the fact that Asians must earn anywhere from 50 to 140 points higher on the SAT to have an equal chance at college admission as whites. Or that many students are the first in their family to attend college in the United States, and, as a result, do not possess “legacy” preferences in admissions like some of their more privileged white classmates. Moreover, not all Asians share the same education or economic advantages. Southeast Asians, particularly Hmong, Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese, have far lower college attendance rates than other Asians. Only 21 percent of Hmong Americans have a high school degree compared to the U.S. average of 28 percent.

Stereotypes may also be a catalyst for white flight. In a seminal essay about discrimination against Asians in literature, Jenny Zhang writes, “Asian American success is often presented as something of a horror — robotic, unfeeling machines psychotically hell-bent on excelling, products of abusive tiger parenting who care only about test scores and perfection, driven to succeed without even knowing why.”

Indeed, Asian ambition is cast as an inherent evil. Blame, not praise, abounds. Though predominantly white school administrators, such as district superintendents and principals, design a school’s curricula, white fury is directed at Asian students for taking full advantage of it.

These attitudes aren’t antiquated relics; these beliefs are permeating communities even now. In a 2013 study consisting of a series of interviews with both parents and children in Cupertino, one white mother expressed her concerns about the largely Asian high school:

Looking again at a lot of this as a parent, even though I grew up here, we don’t want our kids to go to the high school that we’re zoned for … which is an excellent school. It produces amazing graduates.… All of this stuff over there that’s, again, left out of a whole piece of the development of the child. So we want our kids to go to [another high school], which is right over the bridge here…. But to track our kids for the right schools that aren’t so over the top with kind of just a real risky, negative approach to success — we don’t want our kid to be in that.

Kye suspects the media plays a role in white people’s belief in stereotypes about Asian parenting, particularly its recent fixation on the Asian “Tiger Mom.” “The term ‘competition’ becomes a racial code for the tensions that develop between whites and Asians when Asians succeed,” he says. He speculates that, although the U.S. will become a minority-majority country in a few decades, these trends of segregation and white flight from ethnoburbs will persist for some time. “Segregation has historically been part of the fabric of America,” Kye says.

When we first moved to Johns Creek, at least a few white families lived in most subdivisions. Today, many subdivisions are now entirely Asian. The white flight shows no signs of letting up.

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A mother of two children at our elementary school gripes about a recent article in the local paper about racial diversity in Johns Creek. I know the article, read it with great interest, appreciated the fact that the local media picked up on the international environment of our town. “This area is full of nothing but Asians!” she pouts. “How on Earth is this place diverse?”

Asia is not a single, solitary country. Eight countries make up the South Asian subcontinent. Over a dozen comprise East and Southeast Asia. Asian Pacific Islanders are a people who represent over 40 ethnic groups with a range of customs, foods, languages, politics, and faiths.

Her question is rhetorical. She’s not searching for answers. She’s simply exasperated by the omnipresence of Asians, so consumed by this fact that she fails to censor herself in front of me, a brown, one-half Indian woman.

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Historically, residential segregation has occurred within cities with individual racial communities divided by parks, roads, or other landscape markers. This type of intra-city segregation has been decreasing in recent years in favor of a new strain of segregation that occurs outside of city centers: segregation between suburbs.

For several of the largest cities in the U.S., ethnic minorities now make up the majority suburban population. In 1980, 1.2 million Asians, just under 5 million Hispanics and 6 million blacks lived in the suburbs. Today, 8.3 million Asians, 23 million Hispanics, and 16 million blacks live in the suburbs. This trend of increasing diversity is surging through the suburbs of Atlanta as well. Gwinnett and Cobb counties have more racial diversity than most of the City of Atlanta. Johns Creek, in the northeast corner of Fulton County, still has a majority white population of 60 percent, with 23 percent Asians, according to the most recent census in 2010. Twenty-five percent of the population in Johns Creek is foreign-born.

Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism.

One might believe, based on these statistics, that suburbs are becoming more inclusive. The reality is that they are undergoing a “massive white depopulation” and are increasingly more segregated than ever.

Last year in New York City, the white parents of one of the most highly segregated cities in the country, P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, clashed with the predominantly African-American parents of color at Dumbo’s P.S. 307, when the school board announced a possible re-zoning of some of the residences in P.S. 8 to P.S. 307. The re-zoning meetings, rife with angry parents from P.S. 8, some of who argued that their children would have inferior resources despite their own school’s severe overcrowding, made national news. Parents for P.S. 307 also voiced concerns that their children would be forced out of the community school they helped to build.

An understanding of white flight from Asian ethnoburbs with high-quality schools sheds light on the hard truth of all forms of racial segregation, a truth that people of color have always known: race, not education, is the fuel for white flight. Some whites will simply avoid living near people of color, as has been the case since the early 20th century. Parents would prefer a cut in education programs to having their children sit alongside children of color.

Why else would whites flee the high-performing schools of Johns Creek for other high-performing schools in similar suburbs, except to get away from the Asians?

Whites continue to flee Johns Creek at a relatively constant rate until the summer before high school, when panic leads to the sort of widespread evacuation that recalls the white flight from black neighborhoods in the 1960s and ’70s.

The white parents in Johns Creek, who in the same breath decry the police killings of unarmed African Americans, do not hesitate to tell me they do not want their children measured against Asians during the critical four years of grades that will make up the bulk of college application materials. This white fragility informs their decisions to insulate themselves from the “racial stress” of living next to Asians by moving to a different suburb.

Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism. They’ve defined the term so narrowly, their own individual acts of prejudice don’t meet it.

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I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that Asians possess a sort of primal urge to self-segregate, that they choose to live in clusters, that these clusters of predominantly Asian neighborhoods make whites feel uncomfortable, so they leave. The so-called “choice” to live together ignores the very real social and economic realities of Asians who immigrate to the U.S.

Some Asian immigrants have limited or no English language proficiency. The ability to live among others who speak the same language absolves one of the primary hurdles of immigration — communication. Johns Creek public schools provide ample instruction for students in English as a second language. At a recent high school orientation, parents gave school tours in multiple Asian languages. These language support programs are vital to a child’s academic success.

The ability to secure affordable housing and childcare is another significant hurdle for Asian immigrants, one they overcome by living together in multigenerational homes. Mobility, a particularly problematic issue in the suburbs of Atlanta where public transportation is virtually non-existent, can be solved by living near Asian businesses, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and bakeries, allowing Asian patrons the option of walking to shops that cater to their needs. Who wouldn’t want this kind of support?

Wealthy Asian ethnoburbs, like Cupertino and Johns Creek, provide the kind of class privilege many American families dream of. The children of these suburbs will fare far better than most. In Johns Creek, the increase in segregation has not diminished the quality of the schools or the city’s infrastructure.

At neighborhood gatherings, white flight comes up frequently in conversation. Parents shrug their shoulders. Teenagers crack jokes, but at the same time mourn the absence of some of their closest friends at school functions.

These Asian students graduate high school with the knowledge of a singular truth. Even with few white people around, the racism still cuts so deep.

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