2012-06-22 07:30:00

Asian Americans: We’re Not Your ‘Model Minority’

Photo: May Day Immigrant Rights March, Los Angeles Photo: Creative Commons/Korean Resource Center

It’s not every day that deep and rigorous research about Asian Americans is released to the public. So when the well-respected Pew Research Center released “The Rise of Asian Americans,” last Tuesday, it should have been reason enough to celebrate. Instead, the report drew widespread criticism from Asian American scholars, advocates and lawmakers.

We are “deeply concerned about how findings from a recent study by the Pew Research Center have been used to portray Asian Americans,” the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice (AACAJ), a network of civil rights advocacy groups said on Wednesday.

Pew Answers

Although the Pew Research Center was not initially available to answer to criticisms of its report, "The Rise of Asian Americans," Cary Funk a Pew senior researcher, responded to the article following its publication by Colorlines: "[The report] is a detailed analysis of the census data combined with a nationally representative survey of all Asian Americans."

Funk said one of the "strengths" of the Asian-American population, its diversity, was a key hurdle for designing the survey. "It literally took talking with 65,000 households in order to reach enough Asian Americans to complete the survey with 3,500 U.S. Asians," she explained.

"We do have a lot of information there that tries to look at the averages, and the extent to which there is diversity and range among groups," Funk said, adding, "If you are going to talk about Asian Americans as a whole, then the facts are what the facts are." 

Funk said that survey questions about Asian Americans' cultural attitudes and values were developed "with our panel of external advisors," and that topics were general lifestyle questions Pew regularly covers in its surveys of other groups.

When asked about the narrative framing of the report, with which Asian-American advocates and academics were most concerned, Funk said, "What we're trying to do is portray the information and present it in a way that is clear to everyone. And one of the things we're not trying to do is take a stand. We're not advocates one way or another, and we're not in the business of trying to tell people what to think about this information."

Funk was emphatic that Pew did not exclude any group in its survey: "If you were an Asian American you were included in this survey."

Simplistic Portrayals

The report’s authors, AACAJ said, “paint a picture of Asian Americans as a model minority, having the highest income and educational attainment among racial groups. These portrayals are overly simplistic.”

The Pew report included both census data and social-trend polling of the six largest Asian-American ethnicities—Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese. These communities make up 85 percent of the roughly 17 million Asian Americans.

According to Pew, half of Asians in the United States graduated from college, compared with just 30 percent for the general population, and they report a median annual household income of $66,000, when Americans as a whole make $49,000.

Pew’s results are filled with nuggets of information that cement the idea that Asians are exceptional in other ways. They report the greatest satisfaction with their lives and are more invested in traditional markers of success.

Pew found that Asian Americans place a higher value on having a high-paying profession and a successful marriage than other ethnic groups. They also care more than the general public about “being a good parent.” Asian Americans make up only six percent of the U.S. population, but are actually the country’s fastest-growing racial group.

Critics say the Pew report mixes some fact with too much mythology about what people imagine Asians to be. Although a portrayal of Asian Americans as highly achieving and adept at overcoming humble beginnings to reach great financial and educational success seems flattering, many Asian Americans say this frame is not only factually inaccurate, it’s damaging.

The Real Story

“Our community is one of stark contrasts, with significant disparities within and between various subgroups. The ‘Asian Pacific American’ umbrella includes over 45 distinct ethnicities speaking over 100 dialects, and many of the groups that were excluded from this report are also the ones with the greatest needs,” said U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

More than a third of all Hmong, Cambodian and Laotian Americans over the age of 25 lack a high school degree, for instance. While some Asians may report incomes at or higher than whites, Cambodian and Laotian Americans report poverty rates as high as or higher than the federal poverty level of African Americans, according to the 2010 census.

Even among those that Pew included in its study, such as Chinese and Vietnamese Americans, these groups report a below-average attainment of high school diplomas, said Dan Ichinose, director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s (APALC) Demographic Research Project.

The more complex--and far less exciting explanation--for Asian American’s relatively high levels of education has more to do with immigration policy. It has driven selectivity about who gets to come to the U.S. and who doesn’t, said Ichinose. But a focus only on those in the upper echelons of the community renders everyone else invisible.

At the start of the recession, Asian Americans may have been more well situated to ride out the worst of the downturn. But as the recession has stretched on, Asian Americans have actually suffered the worst from long-term unemployment, the Economic Policy Institute found earlier this year.

And 2.3 million Asian Americans have no health insurance, said Deepa Iyer, head of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together.

Other indicators that supposedly show Asian Americans as comparatively well off can be misleading, Ichinose said. Although Pew used median household income to measure the community’s economic power, APALC prefers to go by per capita income.

Asian American households tend to be larger than average American households, with more workers and several generations living under one roof. With per capita income measures, some Asian American communities start looking more like Latinos than non-Hispanic whites in terms of their income, he said.

“It’s hard to comport Pew’s statistics about Asian Americans’ supposed happiness--and the we [have such] great stats--with all the other stats we know,” said Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

Asian American women, in particular, are more likely than the general U.S. population to contemplate and attempt suicide, and are more likely to suffer from depression. Referring to the Pew study’ conclusions, Yeung stated, “Something just doesn’t add up.”

New Headlines, Old Tropes

Just as troubling for progressive Asian-American scholars and advocates was the mainstream media’s amplification of the Pew frame.

The headline from the Wall Street Journal’s writeup of the study announced: “Asians Top Immigration Class.” And the San Francisco Chronicle’s front page story proclaimed, “Group Has Highest Incomes, Is Best-Educated and Happier.”

This narrative fits neatly with a very American “bootstraps” ethos, where people rise and fall on their own skills and merits. It’s a convenient narrative for silencing groups who claim they’ve been impeded by institutional racism and racial discrimination, Yeung said.

“There’s this aspect of the media coverage where races are being played against each other,” she observed. “The not so implicit message is Asians are the better people of color, whereas blacks and Latinos are seen as having all these kinds of problems, so why can’t all people of color be like us.”

It is telling, Yeung noted, that Pew chose to focus so much of its polling on cultural attitudes toward parenting, success and home ownership. That framing smacks of the tired fascination with supposedly superior Asian cultural values, which can explain Asians’ relative success in the U.S. “I do think it’s important to look at how questions were asked,” she said.

Numbers without context don’t help readers understand what kind of meaning they should place on the information they’re given, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside. Ramakrishnan served on Pew’s advisory council, but alongside other members of the board, has raised concerns about the report’s narrative.

“What’s really unfortunate is you have studies done by Asian Americans that are very rigorous that get no attention,” he said, citing the National Asian American Survey and the Advancing Justice organization’s 2011 study “Community of Contrast."

They aggressively dig in to the nuances and diversity of the community.

Ramakrishnan added, “Then you have an organization like Pew that has a lot of credibility on other things that gets instant recognition.” He continued, “The danger in framing the study the way Pew did, and the way the media picked up on it, is that folks who are in the general public and institutional stakeholders and policy makers might get the impression that they don’t necessarily need to dig deep into our communities to understand that any sort of disparities that exist,” Iyer said.

“It’s a constant struggle to educate others, including Asian Americans, about the diversity within the community,” said APALC’s Dan Ichinose. “But we are not a monolith. We have needs. Hopefully policy makers will recognize that and respond.”

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