There is no “Asian Advantage” – there are only skewed stats to purport the model minority myth and a divide within the racial justice movement.
Even while recent articles by Nicholas Kristof for New York Times and Jennifer Lee for CNN attempt to offer a nuanced argument for Asian-American success stories, their titles alone are problematic: “The Asian Advantage” and “The secret to Asian Americans’ Success” immediately generalize and frame Asian Americans as the model minority. Stop, we are not.
First off, when people say “Asian American,” please remember that this describes a massive conglomerate of 48 countries, with distinct cultural differences and political histories in the United States (from exploited railroad labor, to the brain drain, to war refugees). By nature, anything that describes “Asian America” will essentially be a broad generalization.
Perhaps the two most buzz worthy phrases in this conversation are “Asians are the fastest growing racial group in the country” and taken from Kristof’s article, “Asian Americans have higher educational attainment than any other group in the United States, including whites.” Cue fear of the “Asian Invasion” and resentment towards Asians for being the alleged model minority.
In case people have forgotten how to understand statistics, the rates behind “fastest growing” and “higher educational attainment” are proportional to the Asian population in America, not to whites. That being said, Asian Americans make up 5.4 percent of the U.S., population, while whites make up 77.4 percent; that means there are 17.2 million Asian Americans and 246.8 million white people in the United States – so everyone worried about “Asians taking over” can calm down.
Why are Asian Americans considered the fastest growing racial group in America right now? It’s not because they’re reproducing more rapidly than other groups. No. (Especially since Asian men are generally emasculated in mainstream America). As Jennifer Lee suggests, the growth is largely attributed to immigration law “which favors highly educated, highly skilled immigrant applicants from Asian countries,” – to ultimately benefit capitalist interests and enhance America’s economy.
In 2012, India and China (the two largest Asian ethnic groups in the U.S.) made up 71.6 percent of America’s brain drain, which would skew statistics that generalize Asian Americans as economically and academically more successful. Included in the top ten countries of the U.S.’s brain drain are also the Philippines, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan – which, in addition to family-sponsored visas for unification, partially explains why Asians are the “fastest growing racial group in America.” This description essentially means that the 5.8 percent Asian American population is almost at 10 percent – but still dramatically less than the black population (13.2 percent), Latino population (17.4 percent) and white population (77.4 percent).
In addition to the brain drain, the United States offers special visa programs (EB-5)for wealthy individuals outside of the country: if people invest $500,000 or $1 million in American development projects, they receive green cards for themselves and their families. While there are 11.3 million undocumented people living in the U.S. with the threat of deportation and family separation, wealthy individuals can buy their way in. Already, 25 percent of Chinese individuals worth more than $16 million have emigrated, with the United States as their top choice.
So when people talk about the “Asian Advantage” like it’s a truth, they are inadvertently talking about the “white agenda.”
Why did I say “white agenda” and not just “capitalist agenda”? Because it’s the (white dominated) U.S. government that encourages migration of wealthy & skilled Asians into the country, while simultaneously positioning Asian Americans as a “threat” to others. In addition, white males dominate CEO seats of Fortune500 companies, white males dominate seats in Congress, white males dominate Hollywood director seats, white males dominate University presidential seats and white males dominate U.S. Presidential seats. I don’t even need to show you a bar graph to prove these correlations – just look around. Perhaps people should be talking about the “white advantage.”
This article is not to discredit the success or talent of Asian Americans, it is to completely dispel the idea of the “Asian Advantage” because it is an ineffective approach to understanding the community’s nuances. Just like in every other community, there are people who are ridiculously successful (Oprah, Jay-Z, etc.) and there are people who are still sleeping on the streets.
The overall poverty rate in the U.S. is 14.3 percent; relative to their unique populations, the poverty rate for whites is 11.6 percent and Asian Americans is 11.7 percent. Yet no one is talking about the fact that Asian Americans have a higher poverty rate than whites. Why not? Probably because it doesn’t fit their portrayal of Asians as the model minority. Average per capita income for whites is $31k, while for Asian Americans it’s $24k. Asians make up 12 percent of the undocumented population (that’s 1.3 million undocumented Asians), while whites make up a reported zero percent. But nobody wants to talk about the poverty, unemployment and immigration problems when it comes to the Asian American community, because to do so would accurately align us in the fight for racial justice and hurt the white supremacist agenda (which historically, thrives with divide and conquer tactics).
Here’s where everyone loves to sensationalize the model minority myth: 18.5 percent of whites have a bachelor’s degree (roughly 45.7 million people), while 30 percent of Asians have a bachelor’s degree (roughly 5.1 million people). But don’t forget everything I just described above about the brain drain; in addition, universities (especially public ones like the University of California, which have 40 percent Asian student population) are welcoming to wealthy international students who pay higher international tuition. Regardless, while 30 percent versus 18.5 percent may draw a scary picture that Asians are taking over university seats, the truth is white Americans still dominate college campuses dramatically in actual numbers.
Again, when people talk about the Asian American population and its “disproportionate level” of higher educational attainment, the two largest ethnic groups in this conglomerate are Chinese and Indian, the same two groups most targeted by the U.S. brain drain. A more nuanced approach would be to disaggregate the information, and recognize that only 17 percent of Pacific Islanders, 14 percent of Cambodians, 13 percent of Laotians and 13 percent of Hmong people have a bachelor’s degree in the United States. Marginalized communities within the Asian American umbrella become overlooked and underserved because of false notions such as the “Asian Advantage” and “model minority myth.”
In moving forward, my suggestion is to stop asking the wrong, misleading questions which paint a false picture of the Asian American community. If we want to better understand the diverse and complex Asian American community, we need to start asking better, more informed questions, such as, “How can we provide a solution for the 1.3 million undocumented Asian people in the U.S. to live safely with their families? How can we increase college access and retention rates for Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders? How can we better represent the the Asian American community through disaggregated data and locating non-identifying Asians whom struggle with language and cultural barriers? How can we better understand and support mental health issues within the Asian American community, also known for having the highest depression and suicide rates in the U.S.?”
How can we recognize when the narrative, regardless of whatever claimed attempt to be nuanced or liberal, is actually forwarding a white supremacist agenda over everything else? When white liberals pat Asians on the back and say “Good job at being the model minority,” who does that ultimately serve? Asian Americans have long been involved in the fight for racial justice, from demanding reparations for the Japanese Internment camps, to fighting for Ethnic Studies in San Francisco, to leading the Third World Liberation Front, and to marching alongside the Black Panther Party. The fight for racial justice must continue with more Asian Americans speaking their truths, rather than allow others to co-opt our narratives.
I celebrate the success, resilience, brilliance and hard work ethic of the Asian American community, while acknowledging that we have a long way to go before racial justice is achieved for ourselves and everyone else. So let’s continue doing what we’ve always done – working hard and knocking down walls.
Jennifer Lee is professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, with Min Zhou, of “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” published by the Russell Sage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter: @JLeeSoc.
(CNN)Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the country. But not for the reasons you think.
For too long, conservative pundits and the news mediahave pointed to Asian Americans as the “model minority.” They cite the Ivy League admissions and educational success of many children of blue-collar Asian immigrant workers as evidence of a superior culture — one of hard work and strong families — that puts Asian Americans on a sure path to success.
But it isn’t Asian “culture” or any other attribute of ethnicity that is responsible for this success. Instead, it’s a unique form of privilege that is grounded in the socioeconomic origins of some — not all — Asian immigrant groups. Understanding this privilege offers insights into how we can help children from all backgrounds succeed.
In our new book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox — based on a survey and 140 in-depth interviews of the adult children of Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles — fellow sociologist Min Zhou and I explain what actually fuels the achievements of some Asian American groups: U.S. immigration law, which favors highly educated, highly skilled immigrant applicants from Asian countries.
Based on the most recent available data, we found that these elite groups of immigrants are among the most highly educated people in their countries of origin and are often also more highly educated than the general U.S. population.
Take Chinese immigrants to the United States, for example: In 2010, 51% were college graduates, compared with only 4% of adults in China and only 28% of adults in the United States. The educational backgrounds of immigrant groups such as the Chinese in America — and other highly educated immigrant groups such as Korean and Indian — is where the concept of “Asian privilege” comes in.
When highly educated immigrant groups settle in the United States, they build what economist George Borjas calls “ethnic capital.”
This capital includes ethnic institutions — such as after-school tutoring programs and after-school academies — which highly educated immigrants have the resources and know-how to recreate for their children. These programs proliferate in Asian neighborhoods in Los Angeles such as Koreatown, Chinatown and Little Saigon. The benefits of these programs also reach working-class immigrants from the same group.
Ethnic capital also translates into knowledge.
In churches, temples or community centers, immigrant parents circulate invaluable information about which neighborhoods have the best public schools, the importance of advance-placement classes and how to navigate the college admissions process. This information also circulates through ethnic-language newspapers, television and radio, allowing working-class immigrant parents to benefit from the ethnic capital that their middle-class peers create.
Our Chinese interviewees described how their non-English speaking parents turned to the Chinese Yellow Pages for information about affordable after-school programs and free college admissions seminars. This, in turn, helps the children whose immigrant parents toil in factories and restaurants attain educational outcomes that defy expectations.
The story of Jason, a young Chinese American man we interviewed, is emblematic of how these resources and knowledge can benefit working-class Chinese immigrants. Jason’s parents are immigrants who do not speak English and did not graduate from high school. Yet, they were able to use the Chinese Yellow Pages to identify the resources that put Jason on the college track.
There, they learned about the best public schools in the Los Angeles area and affordable after-school education programs that would help Jason get good grades and ace the SAT. Jason’s supplemental education — the hidden curriculum behind academic achievement — paid off when he graduated at the top of his class and was admitted to a top University of California campus.
This advantage is not available to other working-class immigrants.
Mexican immigrants, for example, are largely less-educated, low-wage workers because they arrived to the United States as a result of different immigration policies and histories. Theirs is a largely low-wage labor migration stream that began en masse with the 1942 Bracero program and continues today.
Based on the most recent census data, about 17% of Mexico’s population are college graduates compared with 5% of Mexican immigrants in the United States. As a less-educated immigrant group, they lack the resources to generate the ethnic capital available to Chinese immigrants, and they rely almost exclusively on the public school system to educate their children.
Yet, despite their lack of ethnic capital, the children of Mexican immigrants make extraordinary educational gainsand leap far beyond their parents. They double the high school graduation rates of their immigrant parents, double the college graduation rates of their immigrant fathers and triple that of their immigrant mothers.
The legal status of parents is key to success.
On average, the children of Mexican immigrant parents who are undocumented attain 11 years of education. By contrast, those whose parents migrated here legally or entered the country as undocumented migrants but later legalized their status, attain 13 years of education on average, and this difference remains even after controlling for demographic variables.
The two-year difference is critical in the U.S. education system: It divides high school graduates from high school dropouts, making undocumented status alone a significant impediment to educational attainment and social mobility.
Undocumented status affects other immigrant groups, including Asians. There are currently more than 1.5 million undocumented Asians in the United States, accounting for 13.9% of the total undocumented population in the United States. This comes as a surprise to many Americans, who equate undocumented status with Mexicans.
The children of Mexican immigrants who surmount the disadvantage of their class origins and legal status and graduate from college pointed to an influential teacher, guidance counselor, coach or “college bound” program that helped them make it to college.
Camilla, a second-generation Mexican woman we interviewed, is a case in point.
No one in Camilla’s family had attended a four-year university, but a guidance counselor at her community college encouraged her to transfer to a four-year university and helped her with her application. As a result, Camilla ultimately went on to attend a top private university and later pursued a master’s degree in social work.
Her educational mobility shows what is possible when schools provide adequate resources to support children’s ambitions and potential. It is worth asking how much more Camilla and other children of Mexican immigrants might have attained had they had access to something like the “Asian privilege” of the children of Chinese immigrants.
How do we extend this privilege to students of all races and ethnicities?
Our research has made it clear to us that pundits should stop talking about Asian culture and start making supplemental education available to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Asian ethnic groups that lack ethnic capital and don’t get a boost from this privilege, such as Hmong, Laotians and Cambodians.
Increasing funding for guidance counselors, coaches and college-bound classes is a start, but creating affordable after-school academies and tutoring programs in neighborhoods, for example, Los Angeles’ Koreatown — which is home to Angelenos from diverse background — could give children of immigrants across racial, ethnic and class lines the resources they need to succeed.
This will help prepare them for the diverse college environments and workplaces that many will enter. Making supplementary education available to other working-class children will do more than level the playing field to make it to college; it will also help today’s students succeed once they are there.
Given that Asian Americans demonstrate the highest median family income of any racial group in the country, it is not surprising that “the Asian advantage” is being addressed by many Americans.
In a weekend op-ed for the New York Times, columnist Nick Kristof attributed the economic success of Asian Americans to “East Asia’s long Confucian emphasis on education.” According to this viewpoint, Confucian values create a special environment in which Asian-American parents make extraordinary sacrifices to ensure their children go to the best public schools and relentlessly remind them of the importance of education.
Yet, the idea that Asian-American success is the result of a unique cultural inheritance ignores the role of U.S. immigration policy in creating Asian-American success. In the mid-1800s Asian immigrants were recruited as laborers to work as farm laborers and on the first transcontinental railroad. They were despised laborers who toiled for low wages in the harshest of conditions. Confucian values were not seen as the key to success, but as a marker of racial and religious differences. Eventually, most Asians were excluded from immigration altogether due to fears of racial contamination.
But what a difference a law can make. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act changed the way Asians were seen in this country–from uneducated and unwanted scourge to hardworking students and examples of economic success. How did we go from backwards laborers to a so-called “model minority”? Too many people assume the community’s educational and economic success is due to the cultural traits of Asian Americans. Like Kristof, they believe Asian Americans care more about education than the average American.
There is another explanation. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act ended Asian exclusion and created two immigration priorities: high skills and family reunification.
After 1965, the U.S. started to recruit high-skilled immigrants from Asia. More than half of the Asian-American population immigrated after 1990, when these efforts were ramped up even further. Today, fully 72 percent of all high-skilled visas are allocated to immigrants from Asia. And the majority of international student visas go to Asian immigrants.
This mode of selective recruitment challenges the idea that Asian success in the U.S. is due to Asian values. That is too simple. If Asian cultural values were the explanation, why don’t we see the same kind of educational achievement in Asia as in the U.S.? We don’t. As Jennifer Lee points out, more than 50% of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree. In China, the rate is about 5%. About 70% of Indian immigrants have a bachelor’s degree, while in India, less than 15% of Indians of college-age enroll in college. (India, by the way, has never been a stronghold of Confucian values.)
So, U.S. immigration policy creates a highly educated Asian-American class and this group sponsors highly educated family members. And the model minority stereotype is given life. As Kristof states so compellingly, this stereotype takes on a remarkable life of its own.
Last week, I asked the 70 students in my class, “Has someone ever assumed you were good at math because of your race?” Nearly every Asian-American student raised their hand. I then asked, “Has someone assumed you were not a good student because of your race?” Every black student in my class raised his or her hand.
Experimental research shows again and again that the more a teacher expects and treats students as capable and smart, the more they show growth on and score higher on I.Q. tests. These are controlled experiments. Stereotypes matter. They can even make you smarter. On this point I agree with Kristof that Asian Americans have an advantage.
Perhaps these stereotypes matter more than cultural values. What group in the U.S. does not value education? In fact, by one measure, belief that a college degree is necessary for success, Latinos (70%) value education more than Asians (61%). Blacks are more likely to believe college is necessary than whites. Valuing education is not an Asian thing. Some might counter that Asians don’t just value education, they also value hard work. Ideas about hard work and race go hand-in-hand, though. For Asian Americans, hard work is recognized. That’s not the case for all groups. A new study suggests that when black workers’ productivity exceeds their white counterparts, even by a wide margin, they still receive lower wages and promotions at slower rates.
There is a real downside to the idea that Asian cultural values drive Asian-American success. Asian subgroups–like Cambodians, Burmese, and Hmong–have higher high school drop-out rates than any other racial group in the United States. But they are not seen by policymakers because they are made invisible by the model minority stereotype and its assumed cultural advantages.
We must not let the advantages of immigration policy and positive attitudes from teachers fuel the myth of cultural superiority. That risks ignoring the structural disadvantages that some Asian and other non-white groups face and implying that those who have not benefited from U.S. immigration laws and attendant positive stereotypes should follow a dubious cultural lead.
Janelle S. Wong is Director of the Asian American Studies Program and Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.