The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
As a follow up to my recent post titled “The Affirmative Action Debate Among Asian Americans,” these recently-published books provide some more details and sociological context regarding Asian American academic and socioeconomic success, as well as how these achievements affect their position in the larger U.S. racial landscape.
The Color of Success tells of the astonishing transformation of Asians in the United States from the “yellow peril” to “model minorities” — peoples distinct from the white majority but lauded as well-assimilated, upwardly mobile, and exemplars of traditional family values — in the middle decades of the twentieth century. As Ellen Wu shows, liberals argued for the acceptance of these immigrant communities into the national fold, charging that the failure of America to live in accordance with its democratic ideals endangered the country’s aspirations to world leadership.
Weaving together myriad perspectives, Wu provides an unprecedented view of racial reform and the contradictions of national belonging in the civil rights era. She highlights the contests for power and authority within Japanese and Chinese America alongside the designs of those external to these populations, including government officials, social scientists, journalists, and others. And she demonstrates that the invention of the model minority took place in multiple arenas, such as battles over zoot suiters leaving wartime internment camps, the juvenile delinquency panic of the 1950s, Hawaii statehood, and the African American freedom movement. Together, these illuminate the impact of foreign relations on the domestic racial order and how the nation accepted Asians as legitimate citizens while continuing to perceive them as indelible outsiders.
By charting the emergence of the model minority stereotype, The Color of Success reveals that this far-reaching, politically charged process continues to have profound implications for how Americans understand race, opportunity, and nationhood.
In 2012, the Pew Research Center issued a report that named Asian Americans as the “highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” Despite this optimistic conclusion, over thirty Asian American advocacy groups challenged the findings, noting that the term “Asian American” is complicated. It includes a wide range of ethnicities, national origins, and languages, and encompasses groups that differ greatly in their economic and social status. In Redefining Race, sociologist Dina G. Okamoto traces the complex evolution of “Asian American” as a panethnic label and identity, emphasizing how it is a deliberate social achievement negotiated by group members, rather than an organic and inevitable process.
Drawing on original research and a series of interviews, Okamoto investigates how different Asian ethnic groups created this collective identity in the wake of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Okamoto documents the social forces that encouraged the development of this panethnic identity. The racial segregation of Asians in similar occupations and industries, for example, produced a shared experience of racial discrimination, which led Asians of different national origins to develop shared interests and identities. . . . According to Okamoto, ethnic organizations provided the foundation necessary to build solidarity within different Asian-origin communities. Leaders and community members who created inclusive narratives and advocated policies that benefited groups beyond their own moved their discrete ethnic organizations toward a panethnic model. . . . As Okamoto shows, the process of building ties between ethnic communities while also recognizing ethnic diversity is the hallmark of panethnicity.
Redefining Race is a groundbreaking analysis of the processes through which group boundaries are drawn and contested. In mapping the genesis of a panethnic Asian American identity, Okamoto illustrates the ways in which concepts of race continue to shape how ethnic and immigrant groups view themselves and organize for representation in the public arena.
Forcing a fundamental rethinking of the Asian American elite, many of whom have attained top positions in business, government, academia, sciences, and the arts, this book will be certain to generate a good deal of controversy and honest discussion regarding the role Asian Americans will play in the new century as China and India loom ever larger in the world economic system. Not since the large-scale infusion of scientists and engineers fleeing Nazi Germany has there been such a mass importation of intellectual labor from U.S. client states in Asia.
One of the specialized tasks assigned to this group is to build the technetronic infrastructure for the new world order command and control system. Servitors of Empire is not intended to fan the flames of suspicion and paranoia aimed at Asian Americans, but serves to illuminate the way in which highly trained knowledge workers are being employed to bring sovereign nations such as the United States under centralized rule made possible through advances in bioscience, IT, engineering, and global finance.
Conventionally, U.S. immigration history has been understood through the lens of restriction and those who have been barred from getting in. In contrast, The Good Immigrants considers immigration from the perspective of Chinese elites—intellectuals, businessmen, and students—who gained entrance because of immigration exemptions. Exploring a century of Chinese migrations, Madeline Hsu looks at how the model minority characteristics of many Asian Americans resulted from US policies that screened for those with the highest credentials in the most employable fields, enhancing American economic competitiveness.
The earliest US immigration restrictions targeted Chinese people but exempted students as well as individuals who might extend America’s influence in China. Western-educated Chinese such as Madame Chiang Kai-shek became symbols of the US impact on China, even as they patriotically advocated for China’s modernization. World War II and the rise of communism transformed Chinese students abroad into refugees, and the Cold War magnified the importance of their talent and training. As a result, Congress legislated piecemeal legal measures to enable Chinese of good standing with professional skills to become citizens. Pressures mounted to reform American discriminatory immigration laws, culminating with the 1965 Immigration Act.
Filled with narratives featuring such renowned Chinese immigrants as I.M. Pei, The Good Immigrants examines the shifts in immigration laws and perceptions of cultural traits that enabled Asians to remain in the United States as exemplary, productive Americans.
During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda highlighted U.S. racism in order to undermine the credibility of U.S. democracy. In response, incorporating racial and ethnic minorities in order to affirm that America worked to ensure the rights of all and was superior to communist countries became a national imperative. In Citizens of Asian America, Cindy I-Fen Cheng explores how Asian Americans figured in this effort to shape the credibility of American democracy, even while the perceived “foreignness” of Asian Americans cast them as likely alien subversives whose activities needed monitoring following the communist revolution in China and the outbreak of the Korean War.
While histories of international politics and U.S. race relations during the Cold War have largely overlooked the significance of Asian Americans, Cheng challenges the black-white focus of the existing historiography. She highlights how Asian Americans made use of the government’s desire to be leader of the “free world” by advocating for civil rights reforms, such as housing integration, increased professional opportunities, and freedom from political persecution. Further, Cheng examines the liberalization of immigration policies, which worked not only to increase the civil rights of Asian Americans but also to improve the nation’s ties with Asian countries, providing an opportunity for the U.S. government to broadcast, on a global scale, the freedom and opportunity that American society could offer.
You may have heard that a coalition of about 60 Asian American organizations recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that Harvard University and other Ivy League schools systematically discriminate against Asian American applicants using affirmative action. This complaint follows two similar lawsuits filed in federal court last November that allege the same charges of discrimination against Asian Americans using affirmative action.
Specifically, the complaints allege that Harvard and other universities around the country that use affirmative action policies ultimately discriminate against Asian American applicants by, among other things, imposing a quota that artificially limits the total number of Asian Americans admitted, and by forcing Asian American applicants to achieve higher GPAs and SAT or ACT scores in order to have an equal chance of admission compared to non-Asian applicants.
Before I continue, I want to reiterate that I strongly support affirmative action. Rather than detailing the multiple reasons why affirmative action ultimately benefits the Asian American community, I refer you to the recent post on AsianAmericanCivilRights.org that contains a concise summary of the arguments in favor of affirmative action, along with a list of more than 135 Asian American organizations that support affirmative action. Further, you can download copies of two studies by academics that provide even more detailed arguments about affirmative action and specifically, how “negative action,” rather than affirmative action, explains the inequalities Asian Americans face in college admissions:
Chin, Gabriel, Sumi Cho, Jerry Kang, and Frank Wu. 2003. “Beyond Self-Interest: Asian Pacific Americans Toward a Community of Justice.” (PDF)
Kidder, William C. 2006. “Negative Action Versus Affirmative Action: Asian Pacific Americans Are Still Caught in the Middle.” (PDF)
These articles also get into how claims of discrimination play into the model minority image of Asian Americans, how affirmative action has been used repeatedly as a ‘wedge’ issue to divide communities of color by conservative actors, and to impart a superficial “honorary White” status onto Asian Americans and to use our community as an example that African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native American Indians should follow. So instead of elaborating on these aspects in detail, the purpose of this post is to provide an historical and sociological context for us to understand why some Asian Americans oppose affirmative action.
As I have written on previously, affirmative action is one of, if not the most divisive issue within the Asian American community (up there with interracial dating and marriage). As such, I am not surprised that many Asian Americans are passionately opposed to affirmative action. I also understand why they are so opposed.
The first factor that helps us to understand why many Asian Americans are against affirmative action is that, more than likely, those Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action tend to be recent immigrants. This is an important distinction because, as recent immigrants, they are less likely to be familiar with the U.S.’s unfortunate history and ongoing legacy of systematic inequality and discrimination against groups of color, particularly African Americans.
Instead, these recent immigrants are more likely to see the U.S. in very idealized ways, specifically as the “Land of Opportunity” where, if they just work hard enough and achieve the highest test scores and GPAs, they will be able to achieve “The American Dream” of economic, if not social, success. In other words, many recent Asian American immigrants see the U.S. as a pure meritocracy, where those with the highest ‘objective’ qualifications should reap the biggest rewards.
Unfortunately, this view of the U.S. as a pure meritocracy is rather simplistic, naive, and fails to consider the multitude of institutional mechanisms that historically, have given members of certain groups a systematic advantage over others, and how such advantages (and disadvantages) have accumulated and become reinforced year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation. As many supporters of affirmative action would rightly point out, even if a student is extraordinarily intelligent, motivated, and hard-working, s/he may not have access to certain economic resources and educational opportunities to maximize their talents and skills to succeed.
Based on this idealized, simplistic, and meritocratic view of U.S. society, these recent Asian American immigrants who oppose affirmative action are likely to think that if their child has higher SAT or ACT scores and/or a higher GPA than other applicants, then their child should be admitted, end of discussion. To them, any other factor besides ‘objective’ measures such as test scores and GPA are irrelevant. They would scoff at suggestions that factors such as applicant’s life experiences, increasing demographic diversity in the student population, or racial identity can be considered (even though the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently concluded that it is constitutional to consider all such factors in college admissions).
Many of these recent Asian American immigrants who oppose affirmative action also come from professional or upper-income backgrounds. This tends to reinforce and perpetuate their meritocratic mentality of how the world, and U.S. society in particular, should work. In other words, they are likely to think, “If I worked hard and became successful, then why can’t everybody else can do the same.” Also perhaps because these Asian immigrants tend to come from a racially homogenous country, they are not likely to be aware of, or even care about, the history of systematic racism against African Americans, Latino Americans, Native American Indians, and other Asian Americans (such as those from refugee backgrounds in Southeast Asia from and therefore do not have the same levels of human capital) here in the U.S., and how the legacy of racism still hurts the chances of these groups of color even today.
If nothing else, this debate over affirmative action within the Asian American community should illustrate once and for all that Asian Americans are not a monolithic category and that instead, there are numerous differences across ethnicities, human capital and social class, generation, and political ideologies. With this mind, I completely understand why some Asian Americans are opposed to affirmative action. I just think that their arguments are misguided, too narrowly-focused, and completely miss the larger sociological and historical context that continues to frame the contentious dynamics of race and ethnicity in U.S. society today.
Recent news on the higher education scene has turned attention to the Asian American case, or cases we should say. A team of education researchers led by Dr. Robert Teranishi used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of California higher education system to make the case that Asian American ethnic groups are not all performing in the “model minority” way. As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.”
When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. Take for example, last year’s Pew report on Asian Americans. Using the American Community Survey, Pew shows an aggregate figure for bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income in 2010 for Asian Americans. As the title of their figure states “Asian Americans Lead Others in Education, Income.”
Teranishi and colleagues’ report disaggregates, that is, splits into smaller groups, the Asian American classification using the same data, and this is what they find. In this first graph we see bachelor’s degree attainment across multiple Asian American groups and we find surprising differences across the board. At the one end, Taiwanese and Asian Indian Americans report over 71% within each group with a bachelor’s degree. At the other end, about 12% of Laotian and 15% of Hmong Americans claim the same educational attainment. So while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level attainment.
Now let’s look at household income. Using the median household income ($66,000 according to the Pew report) for all Asian Americans, Teranishi et al. disaggregate that figure and show the following.
As you can see, at one extreme, Asian Indian Americans exceed the Asian American household income mean by over $21,000 on average. Hmong Americans are below that same mean by almost the same amount. In fact 9 out of the 15 groups are below the Asian American mean. And 7 of these groups are lower than the white American average.
What this suggests is that Asian Americans are highly diverse socioeconomically. To the extent that the model minority myth is applied to this collection of SES-diverse groups, it masks the evident differences among them. Read the full report here to find out more about the benefits of disaggregation especially in higher education within the University of California system. Similar kinds of analyses were conducted by Dr. Paul Ong and associates who disaggregated homeownership and cash public assistance rates across Asian ethnic groups in several different areas of the US.
The slide show report on some of their findings is here, and the regional reports are here. Like Teranishi et al.’s report, disaggregation of Asian American homeownership, other assets and public assistance shows that the rates of these socioeconomic patterns vary a lot by Asian ethnic group.
Some might ask: then why is the overall Asian American average so high to begin with. The answer is a matter of population size. Look back at the disaggregated figures. Pick out these groups: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. These groups take up 83% of all Asian Americans. Statistically, the other groups are not numerically large enough to alter the educational attainment or household income average of the largest six groups since they take up a greater share of the population. We should remember too, sizable numbers of Asian Americans in the larger groups do not share in the picture of “success” that their same-ethnic peers experience.
In our racialized society, we like our groups to be simple; we prefer to ignore the diverse realities within the groupings we create. By using “Asian American” as shorthand for “the successful minority” we mask major differences in the outcomes that presumably all Asian Americans share. Notably, our social programs often utilize this assumption and give next to nothing for vulnerable Asian Americans. This in turn makes Asian American inequalities invisible.
Hopefully more leaders and concerned citizens will grow aware of the problem we create when we use the stereotype of “the high –achieving, hard-working minority.” Reports and studies, like the one produced by Dr. Teranishi that disaggregate the Asian American data story expand our own understanding that this story is not just diverse culturally, but socioeconomically as well.
For those who missed it, the Pew Research Center recently released a report titled, “The Rise of Asian Americans” that, among other things, attempted to provide a demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural summary of the Asian American population, using a combination of Census data and the Pew’s own telephone survey of over 3,500 Asian American respondents. Some of the report’s notable findings are:
In terms of total population, there are over 18 million Asian Americans as of 2011 and they represent 5.8% of the total U.S. population.
Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S. in terms of percentage growth. This is also reflected in the most recently-available data from 2010 that shows that 430,000 Asians (legal and undocumented) immigrated to the U.S., compared with 370,000 Latinos.
Confirming current patterns, Asian Americans also have the highest proportion of adults 25 years or older who have a college degree and have the highest median household income.
The Pew report also spends much of its time discussing the “cultural” characteristics of Asian Americans and unfortunately, it is at this point where things start to hit the fan. As the New York Times summarizes:
In the survey, Asians are also distinguished by their emphasis on traditional family mores. About 54 percent of the respondents, compared with 34 percent of all adults in the country, said having a successful marriage was one of the most important goals in life; another was being a good parent, according to 67 percent of Asian adults, compared with about half of all adults in the general population.
Asians also place greater importance on career and material success, the study reported, values reflected in child-rearing styles. About 62 percent of Asians in the United States believe that most American parents do not put enough pressure on their children to do well in school.
Soon after its release, numerous Asian American scholars, community organizations, and academic associations began roundly criticizing the report. For example, the Japanese American Citizens League stated, “While our community reflects diversity, this research does not; instead, it sweeps Asian Americans into one broad group and paints our community as exceptionally successful without any challenges. This study perpetuates false stereotypes and the model minority.”
Another nationally-recognized Asian American group, the Organization of Chinese Americans, wrote:
“What is particularly disturbing is that these types of broad generalizations can have serious implications in public policy, civil rights, as well as perpetuation of bias, discrimination, and racial tension between communities of color. Even though the study fills a void for more statistics and information on the APA community, the framing of the contextual data in the report is troublesome. . . . The assertions that our community enjoys an exaggerated level of privilege are simply and unfortunately not the case.
Other statements of criticism and even condemnation of the Pew report came from organizations such as the Association for Asian American Studies, the Asian American Pacific Islander Policy and Research Consortium, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, and numerous Asian American Studies departments and programs around the country, to name just a few.
Perhaps the best critique came from Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California Riverside, and ironically, a member of the Pew’s faculty advisory board on Asian American issues:
Unfortunately, [the report] prioritized questions asked of Asian Americans — regarding their parenting styles and their own stereotypes about Americans — that seemed more concerned with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother than with the priorities of Asian Americans themselves, either as revealed in past surveys or as articulated by organizations serving those communities. . . .
More concerning than the Pew report, however, was the sensationalist headline on the press release that introduced the study to news media: Asians Overtake Hispanics in New Immigrant Arrivals; Surpass US Public in Valuing Marriage, Parenthood, Hard Work. These few words carried sway in hundreds of newspaper articles in the first two days of the report’s release, provoking outrage among broad swaths of the Asian American community, including many researchers, elected officials, and community organizations. . . .
As one of 15 advisors to the project, I felt blindsided by the press release. Words failed me as I read it for the first time, as we had not gotten a chance to review it. The dominant narrative in the release reinforced the frame of Asians as a model minority, stereotypes that the advisors had strongly objected to in the only meeting of the group two months ago.
Generally, the Pew Research Institute produces useful, informative, and reliable data and reports. However, as Prof. Ramakrishnan points out in the full text of his critique, this is not the first time that Pew has mischaracterized, sensationalized, or even misinterpreted its own data. Further, as I pointed out before, on occasion, Pew has inexplicably excluded Asian American respondents in some of its previous studies.
With that point in mind, I suppose we should be somewhat thankful that Pew has been more inclusive of Asian Americans as a valuable source of study lately. Nonetheless, simply including Asian Americans is not the same as accurately representing our community.
Pew might argue that their methodology and data are valid. Technically, I suppose they are. But as the above-referenced criticisms consistently point out, many of the questions they asked were sensationalist and not representative of the real, substantive issues and concerns that the Asian American community have identified themselves.
In the end, this Pew report teaches us a couple of valuable lessons. First, that biases can come in many different forms. That is, most of us thinking of biases in the form of direct and blatant statements that clearly favor one ideological viewpoint over another. But the Pew report shows us that biases can also manifest themselves in the questions researchers ask and how they frame the results of their data, based on the misfocused questions, to emphasize certain interpretations over others.
Second, the Pew report shows us that even something that is initially framed as a positive portrayal of Asian Americans can turn out to be just the opposite — a skewed misrepresentation that actually reinforces negative and damaging stereotypes. This lesson is at the core of the model minority image of Asian Americans and how some naively think that they are paying Asian Americans a compliment by commenting how well-educated we are, or how we’re so good at math or science, or how hard we tend to work. While there is obviously some truth to these observations, the problem is that such characterizations are easily and often generalized to the entire Asian American population. When that happens, they mask the demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity among Asian Americans and marginalize the continuing discrimination, inequalities, and injustices we still experience.
The Asian American community deserves to be represented better than this and research organizations such as Pew need to do a better job at asking us about the issues that we, not they, care about.
I presume that by now, you have heard about the furor surrounding UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her ill-advised video that she posted to YouTube in which she “complains” about Asian Americans talking in the library by mocking them with such offensive phrases such as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and makes light of the natural disasters and human suffering in Japan (the video in its entirety is below).
For various reasons, there quickly followed a big backlash and firestorm against her — UCLA’s Chancellor, Dean G. Block, issued a statement condemning the video (but later and separately adding that she would not be expelled because she did not commit a violation of the school’s code of ethnics):
I am appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments of a UCLA student posted on YouTube. Like many of you, I recoil when someone invokes the right of free expression to demean other individuals or groups. . . . I believe that speech that expresses intolerance toward any group of people on the basis of race or gender, or sexual, religious or cultural identity is indefensible and has no place at UCLA.
[T]his rant — beyond the action of an individual — is clear evidence that we still have much work to do before we can claim to live in a “post-racial” society. . . . “Asians in the Library” is a travesty on many levels, representing an attack on Asian and Asian American students and their families and undermining UCLA as a global university with deep ties to communities and institutions in Asia and other parts of the world.
It entails a “new racism” by foregrounding students who speak Asian languages and have different family traditions, as it insidiously groups and attacks UCLA’s American-born as well as our international students of Asian ancestry. As the only University of California campus without a diversity requirement, UCLA surely needs to implement a diversity requirement that will expose every student to the task of living civilly with people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, and beliefs, whether they are born here or come from abroad.
I would like to highlight and expand on some of the points raised in UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center statement. Specifically, I see this video rant as another unfortunate and dangerous example of what happens (and is likely to continue happening) when institutional factors intersect with each other, as they are doing right now: White privilege, colorblindness, Asian Americans seen as the quiet ‘model minority,’ and ‘yellow peril’ fears of the rise of Asian countries.
Lesson 1: White Privilege
Let’s start with White privilege. However difficult it is for many White Americans to hear, examples like this video clearly show that many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Whites implicitly think there’s nothing wrong with invoking cultural stereotypes to portray an entire group of color. I have written about this dynamic many times before, but needless to say, this is certainly not the first time that Whites have tried to “make fun” of Asian Americans or other groups of color on college campuses and elsewhere in society.
In her video, Alexandra Wallace unconsciously invokes White privilege by assuming that she can say whatever she wants about Asian Americans. For the sake of argument, I might accept that she is not aware that such phrases as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and calling them “hordes” are deeply offensive and conjure up historical examples of Asians as faceless, sub-human invaders and villains.
But unfortunately, this “lack of awareness” is at the heart of the problem and in fact, forms the basis for much of the racism that Asians and Asian Americans encounter on an everyday basis. In other words, most non-Asians (most of whom are admittedly White) don’t purposely intend to be racist when make jokes or casual comments about Asians.
But when they do so, based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. That privilege also gives them the ability to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups.
That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive. Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.
Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that it was just a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously. The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context and that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.
Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions. Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.
In this case, the institutional backdrop to Alexandra Wallace’s rant is the misguided belief that we now live in a colorblind society in which everyone and every racial group is now politically, economically, and socially equal, and that racial/ethnic discrimination, inequality, and racism no longer exist. Further, being colorblind also means that it’s impolite to discuss race or the U.S.’s history of racial oppression and domination — let’s just forget about them since they’re not important anymore, right?
Suffice it to say, and as this video shows, race and racial differences are clearly still very important today. They are still relevant because inequalities still exist and discrimination still takes place, and because colorblindness still provides a crucial foundation upon which White privilege can exist. In other words, if everybody is the same and on an equal playing field, it’s perfectly fine to joke about them however we want, right?
Lesson 3: The Model Minority Image
Another factor that comes into play is the image of Asian Americans as the model minority: smart and high achieving, but also quiet, passive, and obedient. While it is true that on the aggregate level, Asian Americans as a collective group outperform Whites on many measures of socioeconomic achievement, when we look beneath the surface, we see that there are notable differences between ethnic groups (some Asian immigrant groups are more self-selective in terms of their human capital while others are more likely to be involuntary refugees). Further, generalizing the seemingly positive belief that Asian Americans are successful puts extraordinary pressure on all Asian Americans to live up to those standards.
In this particular case, I will hypothesize that Alexandra Wallace (and many others like her) presume that almost all Asian Americans are smart ans successful but also passive and therefore, won’t care if she complains and mocks them. Also, I cannot rule out some degree of resentment about the success of Asian Americans as well, particularly at a university where 40% of the student population is Asian American.
This resentment leads me to my final lesson . . .
Lesson 4: Yellow Peril and Fears About Rising Asia
At the risk of being redundant, again I have already highlighted numerous examples in which U.S. society and U.S. citizens are increasingly feeling destabilized by demographic changes in the U.S. population, the negative effects of globalization, and increased competition with the rising economies of Asian countries such as China and India.
The latter is often referred to as the new “yellow peril” image of Asians “invading” the U.S. and taking over or destroying its institutions and society. It is an image that frequently gets conjured up in times of economic recession and especially when Americans perceive others to be benefiting and prospering at their expense. With the economic and political emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, China, and India in recent decades and the concurrent decline of U.S. superiority, this yellow peril image has gained new life and indeed, seems to be a growing fear, consciously and unconsciously, for many Americans these days.
When people feel that their standard of living or “way of life” is being threatened, they are likely to get defensive, consciously and unconsciously. In that situation, one way to react is to draw a more rigid cultural boundary between “us” and “them.” In this case, Alexandra Wallace invoked this nativist sentiment clearly when she said, “In America, we don’t talk in the library.” Inside Higher Education has a very well-written analysis of this entire episode and journalist Allie Grasgreen quotes Professor Joe Feagin, former President of the American Sociological Association and well-respect expert on White privilege research, on this emerging distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”:
For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from — and less important than — white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others — you know, racial framing — but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”
Taken together, all of these factors form the sociological context within which Alexandra Wallace publicly expressed her anti-Asian sentiments. The sad part of this episode is that she is certainly not the first person to engage in racism against Asian Americans and alas, she will not be the last.
I presume that by now, all of you have heard about the debate and controversy over Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her accompanying article in the Wall Street Journal provocatively titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” and the resultant backlash throughout American society and on the internet from Asian Americans and non-Asians alike.
Although I have not yet read her book, from her various public appearances lately and based on other people’s summaries of her points, I understand that her main arguments are that American parents tend to be too lax in their parenting styles, particularly when it comes to not emphasizing hard work, persistence, and total commitment to education and other tasks necessary for your child to be a high achiever in contemporary American and global societies. In her own words on the Wall Street Journal article, she writes:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:
attend a sleepover
have a playdate
be in a school play
complain about not being in a school play
watch TV or play computer games
choose their own extracurricular activities
get any grade less than an A
not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
play any instrument other than the piano or violin
not play the piano or violin . . .
To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.
I’ve been meaning to comment on her points for a while and I also know that there are plenty of other writers and bloggers who have already weighed in on this subject. However, I’ve been occupied with preparing for the start of the new semester and have not been able to read many of their responses yet. Therefore, I apologize if I am restating points that others have already brought up.
As I describe in more detail below about the specific arguments Chua makes that I agree and disagree with, the main point that I want to emphasize is that parenting does not have to be an “either-or” proposition — there does not have to be a rigid line drawn between “rigorous” and “permissive” styles, nor does there have to be a complete separation of “Chinese” and “American” styles. As I have consistently emphasized throughout this blog, frequently there is an artificial division between these two identities that inevitably creates unnecessary barriers, misunderstandings, and tensions between all those involved.
Instead, I want to emphasize that it is possible to achieve a balance between these two identities. This is what Asian Americans have been doing for a while now — taking different elements of each culture to meld and synthesize them into their own style that includes the best of each. As I discuss below, I believe this applies to parenting styles and the drive for achievement and success as well.
In Defense of Chua
One of her points with which I agree is that for whatever reasons, it is very common and indeed beneficial for many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Asian, Asian American, and immigrant parents to place a very strong and heavy emphasis on educational achievement and success. Many native-born American parents do so as well, but I am reminded of an article that I used for a previous course on racial/ethnic demography, “Test-Score Trends Along Racial Lines, 1971 to 1996: Popular Culture and Community Academic Standards,” written by Ronald F. Ferguson (a chapter in America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, 2001). The article described data to show that when it comes to parental expectations of their children’s academic performance, Asian parents who were high school dropouts still had higher expectations of their children than White, Black, and Latino parents who had a college degree.
My point is, it is not necessarily a bad thing to expect your children to not just perform well, but to excel, academically or otherwise. Particularly in this age of globalization, the need for advanced educational and professional skills in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace is readily apparent and increasingly stressed by almost everyone from all backgrounds. We also know that, as it currently stands, the American educational system needs much improvement in terms of preparing our young people to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In other words, as a society, we as Americans should not and cannot settle for mediocrity if we expect to retain our standard of living.
As other sociological research as also shown, many Asian and Asian American parents also understand that as a racial minority in American society, almost by necessity, they need to push their children a little further to make sure that they are able to overcome some of the hurdles and barriers that stand in our way when it comes to socioeconomic success and full institutional integration into American society, especially in tough economic times when competition for jobs and other resources is even more intense and potentially filled with racial tension and hostility.
With this in mind, I also find it quite unfortunate that some of the criticism directed at Chua includes elements of racism that link her to China’s recent emergence to become the new “yellow peril” threat to the U.S. and even death threats against her personally. Time magazine’s recent article on this debate summed up the global context of this debate nicely:
The tiger mother’s cubs are being raised to rule the world, the book clearly implies, while the offspring of “weak-willed,” “indulgent” Westerners are growing up ill equipped to compete in a fierce global marketplace. . . .
These national identity crises are nothing new. . . . In the 1980s, we fretted that Japan was besting us with its technological wizardry and clever product design — the iPod of the ’80s was the Sony Walkman — and its investors’ acquisitions of American name-brand companies and prime parcels of real estate. . . . [Now] our rivalry with the Japanese has faded as another one has taken its place: last year, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy.
The U.S. is still No. 1 — but for how long? We’re rapidly reaching the limit on how much money the federal government can borrow — and our single biggest creditor is China. How long, for that matter, can the beleaguered U.S. education system keep pace with a rapidly evolving and increasingly demanding global marketplace?
Such fears about the U.S. losing its position as the unquestioned political, economic, and cultural superpower are real and valid. At the same time, it is one thing to criticize Chua for her parenting style, but it’s a different matter altogether to reinforce and perpetuate anti-Asian stereotypes and advocate committing violence towards her and others who are perceived to be threats to the “American” way of life. In fact, for many Asians and Asian Americans, such racism only confirms the ongoing challenges we face and the need to overachieve as a reaction to such racial hostility.
More generally, I also feel that Chua unnecessarily and unfortunately reinforces this artificial distinction between “Chinese/Asian” and “American.” Beyond the inherent overgeneralizing that Chinese mothers do this while American mothers do that, Chua does not seem to give much credence to the possibility that many Chinese Americans and Asian American parents do both — that we combined the best elements of the different cultures with which we’re familiar. In fact, this is just another example of the kind of “transcultural” assimilation that Asian Americans have done ever since we first arrived in the U.S.
As this CBS News video shows, even parents in China are increasingly rethinking their “success at any cost” approach to parenting that Chua insists is “superior”:
As it relates to parenting, I also do not believe it is not a contradiction to instill a drive for achievement and excellence while also nurturing a sense of independence and an understanding that there is more to life than just material success. Toward that end, I personally do not feel that, in order to stress the importance of personal achievement, parents need to berate, criticize, or shame their child. Chua’s “tough as nails” methods may eventually instill a sense of confidence and achievement in her daughters but I am pretty sure there are less harsh and extreme ways to accomplish the same thing. They might include letting our children work out herself many of the interpersonal difficulties that they encounter everyday and explaining to the child the various individual and institutional challenges that lie ahead of her them and that if they expect to have a comfortable standard of living, they will need to accomplish and at times, master certain tasks toward that goal.
Perhaps I am being too idealistic to think that my daughter has the ability to truly understand these multi-level and long-term issues about what she needs to do now in order to have certain things later. But then again, isn’t that what Chua is basically telling her daughters as well?
Have you heard the hub-bub about the National Football League’s (NFL) decision to postpone the recent game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings due to the snowstorm that hit the east coast over the weekend? There’s a lot of debate about whether whether that was the right call — the NFL argues that they postponed the game due to concerns about fans safely getting to and leaving the stadium in the middle of a snowstorm.
On the other hand, others argue that football has a long history of being played in rough weather, with fans braving the elements in order to enjoy the experience involved in attending such games. For example, the Governor of Pennsylvania, Edward Rendell (a Democrat if it matters) said that the NFL’s decision shows that we’re becoming a nation of “wusses.” But as shown in the video clip from NBC News below, what got the attention of many Asian Americans was his comment comparing the U.S. to China:
We’re becoming a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”
I’m still trying to decide what to make of Rendell’s comments. In the meantime, let me ask you (you can answer in the online poll below): Are Rendell’s comments about the Chinese offensive to Asian Americans?
I don’t always have enough time to write full posts and sociological explanations about every news story or media article about Asian Americans that comes my way, but I would like to at least mention some of them to keep you, my readers, as updated as possible. So below is a sampling of some recent news items concerning Asian Americans.
Federal Authorities Find Merit in Students’ Claims Against School
In a letter to the district, the Justice Department advised school officials to take steps to settle the matter. It was not immediately clear what form a settlement might take, though it would require the district to improve the treatment of Asian students, who say they have been mocked, harassed, and beaten at the school.
The action follows a formal civil rights complaint filed in January by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, an advocacy group. Such complaints do not result in criminal penalties, but can bring broad changes provided that violations are found to have occurred. . . .
News of the Justice Department letter comes as South Philadelphia High readies for a new school year with a new principal, its fifth in six years. Southern, as the school is known, has long failed to meet state academic standards and has been labeled “persistently dangerous” under federal law. The settlement talks indicate an approaching end to a seven-month investigation.
Similar cases generally conclude in one of three ways: The subject of the complaint enters into a written agreement with the government to fix certain deficiencies; the Justice Department requires the signing of a formal consent decree, a court-monitored settlement backed by the threat of a lawsuit; or the Justice Department opts to sue to force change.
Why Abortion Rate Among Asian-American Women Is So High
New America Media reports that recent data show that 35% of all Asian American pregnancies end in abortion, which is the second-highest percentage among the major racial groups after African Americans, and is almost double the 18% rate for Whites. The article goes on to describe many possible reasons for the relatively high rate and also presents several details personal stories to illustrate the cultural conflicts involved in such decisions.
Asian Americans are at risk for unintended pregnancies in part because their knowledge about sex remains pitifully low (which is curious, considering that Asian-American teens start having sex later than other American teens). Clifford Yee, youth program coordinator at Asian Health Services in Oakland, CA, has been asked whether douching with Mountain Dew prevents pregnancy. . . .
A few were so inexperienced that they didn’t know what the withdrawal method was, the program’s former research director Amy Lam says. Unawareness about sexual health combines with risky contraception practices. The withdrawal method has been popular among Asian-American women, who tend to eschew both hormonal birth control and consistent condom use. . . .
The problem begins at home, according to Lam, who has researched sexual behavior in the Asian-American community. “When you come from a culture where your family doesn’t talk about sex, how can you talk to your partner about safe sex when you don’t have that role model?”
Linked to this point is . . . the model minority myth: Asian parents refuse to think their well-mannered, studious children are having sex. Yee remembers one angry mother who found her 15-year-old’s birth control pills and still claimed her daughter was too young to be sexually active. “There’s a little bit of stubbornness there,” Yee says. “Some parents truly don’t want to believe their child can be out there having sex.” . . .
Lam says, “In many Asian-American cultures, it’s not the abortion that’s taboo; that’s a white thing. Having sex is [what’s] taboo. Abortions are the strategies used to cover up that you’re having sex. At all costs, you’re not supposed to have sex.”
Fiorina addressed a crowd of about 400 during a voter-education forum hosted by the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association at California State University, Sacramento. She noted California is home to more Asian-American-owned small businesses than any other state. The former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive said Boxer supports policies that have stifled private-sector job growth. She went on to say opportunities are no longer as plentiful in California because of high taxes and government regulation. . . .
[Boxer’s] campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, questioned Fiorina’s commitment to small businesses. She noted the Republican nominee opposes a bill designed to assist small businesses and give them greater access to credit. She said Boxer backs the entire small-business jobs bill, which will provide incentives to expand and hire.
Fiorina said she objects to a $30 billion fund that would be created under the bill and administered by the Treasury Department to increase lending. She said it amounts to another bank bailout. . . .
A Field Poll released last week showed Boxer with 52 percent collective support among Asian-Americans, blacks and American Indians, compared with 22 percent for Fiorina. About a quarter of those voters remained undecided.
Southeast Asians in Sacramento Area Making Strides
Taken as a whole, Southeast Asian Americans (particularly Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians) have struggled in attaining socioeconomic mobility in the U.S., not from a lack of effort or hard work, but mainly due to their refugee experiences and relatively low rates of formal education, English fluency, and formal job skills. However, as the Sacramento Bee reports, new data and examples show that at least in Sacramento area that contains a large Southeast Asian American population, there are signs of progress and success.
In 1990, half the Sacramento region’s Southeast Asians were poor. Today, 52 percent own homes, according to a Bee analysis of census data. They enjoy a median household income of $50,000 annually, up from $17,350 in 1990 – about $28,500, adjusted for inflation. The regional average is $61,000. . . .
Most started at the bottom – without English or job skills – but through teamwork and the will to succeed have gone from roach-infested apartments in gang-controlled neighborhoods to suburban homes. Their children – including those at Florin High that hot August morning – have gone to America’s top universities and become doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers.
Indeed, the Southeast Asian American population in the Sacramento area have a lot to be proud of and should be congratulated. They are living examples of how the :American Dream” is still possible, despite the many inevitable challenges along the way. At the same time, their experiences cautions us to remember that there are still many members of their community who are still struggling and that we should not forget about them.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience, and for readers who like to keep on top of the latest sociological research, I highlight new research and studies in academic journals about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. An article’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.
The following articles focus on different aspects of Asian Americans portrayed as the “model minority” and how such perceptions on the part of White society and social institutions affect how Asian Americans are treated in daily life.
Chao, Melody Manchi, Chi-yue Chiu, and Jamee S. Lee. 2010. “Asians as the Model Minority: Implications for US Government’s Policies.” Journal of Social Psychology 13:44-52.
Asian Americans are often perceived as a ‘model minority’– an ethnic minority that are high achieving, hardworking, self-reliant, law-abiding, as well as having few social and mental health problems. Although the impact of the model minority image on the US government’s redistributive policies is a widely contested topic in public discourses, there has been little research on the association between the model minority image, people’s worldviews, and attitudes towards the US government’s redistributive policies.
In an experiment that measured American participants’ worldviews and manipulated the salience of the model minority image, we have demonstrated that those who believed in a malleable social reality were relatively unsupportive of government policies that help the Asian American (vs African American) communities. Theoretical and practical implications of this finding are discussed.
Brettell, Caroline B. and Faith Nibbs. 2010. “Lived Hybridity: Second-Generation Identity Construction Through College Festival.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 16:678-699.
Recent research suggests that the children of recent immigrants, the so-called second generation, no longer choose to emphasize one identity over the other but that their identities are more fluid and multifaceted. College campuses are often the arenas in which a new hybrid identity develops.
This article addresses how South Asian American college students make sense of and control their various identities through the celebration of Diwali, an event sponsored each year by the Indian Students Association (ISA) on a college campus in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. South Asian students use performative space to help them make sense of their backgrounds in ways that both differentiate them from and allow for association with the majority student population.
They also use this space as a safe place for ‘coming out,’ that is, for communicating their hybrid identity to their parents. This hybrid identity is expressed through a discourse of ‘brownness’ that marks something distinctive and that reflects the process by which the children of immigrants choose among a range of identities to create integrated selves. The campus Diwali festival is the expression of those selves.
Johnson, Brian D. and Sara Betsinger. 2009. “Punishing the “Model Minority”: Asian-American Criminal Sentencing Outcomes in Federal District Courts.” Criminology 47:1045-1090.
Research on racial and ethnic disparities in criminal punishment is expansive but remains focused almost exclusively on the treatment of black and Hispanic offenders. The current study extends contemporary research on the racial patterning of punishments by incorporating Asian-American offenders. Using data from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) for FY1997-FY2000, we examine sentencing disparities in federal district courts for several outcomes.
The results of this study indicate that Asian Americans are punished more similarly to white offenders compared with black and Hispanic offenders. These findings raise questions for traditional racial conflict perspectives and lend support to more recent theoretical perspectives grounded in attribution processes of the courtroom workgroup. The article concludes with a discussion of future directions for research on understudied racial and ethnic minority groups.
Oh, David C. and Madeleine Katz. 2009. “Covering Asian America: A Content Analysis Examining Asian American Community Size and Its Relationship to Major Newspapers’ Coverage.” Howard Journal of Communications 20:222-241.
This study attempts to determine whether 4 decades after the Kerner Commission, newspapers report more accurately on an increasingly diverse population. Specifically, it studied whether the size of the Asian American population covered by a newspaper influences the coverage of Asian Americans in newspaper articles.
It appears that although newspapers situated within larger Asian American communities report more frequently, at more depth, and with more prominence on Asian Americans, the quality of that coverage is not influenced by the size of the Asian American community. In cities with larger Asian American populations, newspapers have responded with increased stories and length but not with increased quality of coverage.
This is likely because of newspaper fears of alienating European American readers, leading to a ‘White flight’ in circulation and because of news practices that lead to distorted reports of Asian Americans. These findings renew calls for the newspaper industry to more fairly represent the diverse range of its readership and not just its most favored demographic.
2005: Model Minority Expectations and Suicide The intense pressure from families and society of living up to standards of high achievement can be overwhelming and has led many young Asian Americans to take their own lives.
2004: Inter-Asian Sentiments Examples from popular culture in both Japan and South Korea illustrate the contradictory nature of inter-ethnic relations between Asians of different ethnic groups.