Asian Americans: An Uncritical Pew Center Report

Some 18 million Asian Americans make up today nearly 6 percent of the population, a figure than has grown from one percent before the 1965 Immigration Act replaced an openly racist immigration system set up in the 1920s. This reform law of the 1960s allowed into the U.S. a much greater diversity of immigrants.

A recent report titled “The Rise of Asian Americans” has been published on the Pew Research Center website, with much interesting – if somewhat poorly assessed – statistical data on Asian Americans, much of it from a 2012 survey Pew did.

Much of the tone of the report is a “model minority” one, as in this opening statement:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success. . . .

The report accents the “milestones of economic success and social assimilation.” There are no qualifiers in this opening Pollyanna-ism that signal the racial and other societal problems Asian Americans face, including discrimination from whites with power over them and extremely heavy outside pressures on them as “forever foreign” to “assimilate.” Some discussion of barriers appears much later in the Pew analysis, and it is insufficient. Oddly, too, there is little citation of the relevant social science literature on the reality of everyday racism for Asian Americans, such as this recent book that Rosalind Chou and I did.

Still, there is much interesting data in the report. It cites data indicating that three quarters of Asian Americans are foreign-born immigrants, and that half say they cannot speak English very well. Being immigrants means a reality that some social science literature indicates makes publicly noting and organizing against discrimination they face much more difficult. Just getting situated in jobs and housing, and getting adjusted to a new country takes precedence in many cases—as the data on half not knowing English well indicates–and thus conformity to white folkways, to a white-dominated society, can become a passive anti-discrimination strategy. If you talk, dress, and act as “white” as you can, perhaps you will suffer fewer racial barriers.

The report notes that Asian American immigrants are the fastest growing group of immigrants, now surpassing Latinos in that regard. Especially interesting is the large proportion that come from the middle and upper middle class of their home countries:

More than six-in-ten (61%) adults ages 25 to 64 who have come from Asia in recent years have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is double the share among recent non-Asian arrivals….

They average more educational attainment than the populations of their home countries as well. While there are significant numbers of legal immigrants who are not from these relatively affluent backgrounds, a great many do come from such backgrounds–and that is one reason they tend to do better than the average American in terms of upward socioeconomic mobility:

. . . especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49% vs. 28%), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).

The report fails to note, like many other commentators, that a great many come with very significant socioeconomic resources. In some sense, our legal immigration system often “creams off” from the world’s middle and upper middle classes. That is also one reason that Asian American immigrants do better on average that Latino immigrants, many of whom are relatively poor and undocumented. One does not need racialized notions of “Asian culture” and “Hispanic culture” to explain this differential socioeconomic mobility.

The report uses the 2012 survey of Asian Americans to play up certain common images of Asian Americans, such as their “strong emphasis on family”:

More than half (54%) say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life; just 34% of all American adults agree. Two-thirds of Asian-American adults (67%) say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life; just 50% of all adults agree.

The survey also used some rather simplistic questions about “hard work,” and found that “Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard, a view shared by a somewhat smaller share of the American public as a whole (58%).” More than 90 percent thought their country-mates were very hardworking.

Down in the report they finally note significant socioeconomic differentials and problems faced within the “model minority”:

Americans with Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and “other U.S. Asian” origins have a higher poverty rate than does the U.S. general public, while those with Indian, Japanese and Filipino origins have lower rates.

Not much discussion is devoted to this important finding, nor to the reality that large percentages of these Asian Americans do not yet know English very well (and thus do not seem to easily fit the “high assimilation” tone of the article).

The report offers some important summaries of variations in geographic patterns of residence, and religious identifications. There is also significant variability in how the immigrants came to the United States. The Vietnamese mostly came as political refugees, while

half of all Korean and Indian immigrants who received green cards in 2011 got them on the basis of employer sponsorship, compared with about a third of Japanese, a fifth of Chinese, one-in-eight Filipinos and just 1% of Vietnamese.

Educational and family reasons account for most of the others.

After noting in a cursory way that much Asian immigrants faced large-scale racial discrimination and being “othered,” the report concludes that the (problematical) Pew survey data questions show that Asian Americans do not face much racial discrimination. Only one in five said they faced “discrimination” because they were Asian, and only 13 percent said that “discrimination” against their group was a major problem.

One would have thought that these researchers might have looked at the research literature and realized that “discrimination” is often an intimidating word for (especially newer) Americans of color, and that there are much better ways to ask about the specific racial barriers they face—including often using softer language and, most importantly, asking about a significant list of possible racial mistreatments that have been reported in previous studies. The report also operates from a white racial frame in talking about the “perception of discrimination” on the part of their Asian American respondents–a common white-generated way to downplay the importance of discrimination as somehow just “in the minds” of those people of color who are targeted by it. And the white perpetrators of racial discrimination targeting Asian Americans , past and present, are never mentioned.

The report also discusses, as many other commentaries to, the relatively high level of outmarriage for Asian American newlyweds, a figure about 29 percent for those married from 2008 to 2010, more than for any other racial group. Women are much more likely to out-marry than men, a reality linked partially to the negative images of Asian American men in this society ( and ignored in this report) and fully explained in a new book by Rosalind Chou.

A very interesting report that deserves much more critical analysis and assessment in regard to immigrants and the U.S. future than the Pew researchers provide.


  1. cordoba blue

    Working with Asian Americans extensively, I have found much more bias against African Americans than Asian Americans. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before, many Asian Americans themselves are biased against African Americans. And they aren’t even politically correct about it. They’ll just come right out and say, “I don’t like black people.” I think it’s fear of the unknown. I doubt there are too many people of African descent in China, for example.
    Plus, the Asians I know are very proud of their ancestry and are totally committed to raising their children bi-culturally. Many of my Chinese students attend “Chinese School” on Sunday mornings. They already speak Chinese fluently, but the parents don’t want them to forget how to write using Chinese characters.
    They also celebrate every Chinese holiday such as Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival. They bring me “Moon Cakes”, which are cube-shaped cookies with Chinese characters on top filled with figs. They also shop at Chinese grocery stores, and their homes are filled with all these mysterious (to me anyway) items in Chinese character covered boxes. Plus, they cook Chinese food constantly. They give me gifts of Chinese rice and chicken wrapped in big leaves.Inside the home, the usually speak Chinese only.
    The point is, I believe there is racism directed at Asian Americans, but nowhere near the extent directed at African Americans. Plus, white America seems to place more value on Asian culture than black African culture.Also, it’s easier for Asians to celebrate their culture because it wasn’t taken away from them, like the culture of African slaves was.
    In 2012 I doubt there are many African Americans who could tell you exactly which part of Africa their ancestors were originally from. It benefitted the plantation owners to rob the slaves of as much of their former identity as possible.

  2. Rosalind

    @cordoba blue

    I am concerned that you are making the same assumptions that the Pew Research Center is being currently criticized for by many race scholars. ALL Asians Americans don’t share the same experience. ALL Asian Americans are not CHINESE. In your post, you talk about what you have experienced from Asians and they are all Chinese specific examples. There are Asian Americans that represent almost 50 different nations, not one.

    Secondly, white racism creates alienating relationships within groups, so this is not an argument of who has suffered the WORST oppression. I would hope you would agree that ALL racial oppression is unjust. The anti-black sentiment that my Asian American respondents carried was directly related to the white racial frame. It was formed, shaped, and supported by our white racist history. Equally, there other groups of color hold anti-Asian sentiment, again related the white racial frame.

    The more that we argue about who suffers more, and stereotype groups, the further we get from the source of racial oppression. I’m somewhat saddened that your post seems to reinforce false assumptions and furthers us from racial coalitions. I really encourage you to take the time to read my first book that I wrote with Joe. It will really help explain some of these issues and why so many Asian Americans are suffering and why many activists are upset with the Pew Research Report.

  3. cordoba blue

    @ Rosalind
    Thank you for your response. I know you and Joe have partnered together to write books concerning racism towards Asians and other minorities.
    One of the points I was making is that Asians can be biased against people of African descent without aid and encouragement from white people. I believe it’s a mistake to assign blame for all racism that exists on white people (the white racial frame). Surely, you must know that other cultures harbor racism against others because of ignorance and fear. It’s not just because white people have created the framework for racism.
    Certainly white people of European descent have practiced plenty of racism and have engaged in many acts of imperialism all over the world. This does not mean that other races engage in racism merely because whites do. They have their own reasons for practicing racism, and the reasons are as varied as stars in the sky. Most of it stems from fear of the unknown and unsubstantiated-in-fact myths. That is my personal opinion.
    And I totally agree that anti-black sentiment is supported by our white racist society and history.But why is it not a consideration that Asian people can be racist all of their own accord, even if they weren’t supported in these fallacious beliefs by whites? I mean this in no way as a criticism of Asians in particular. Many cultures for 25,000 years have engaged in some form of racism. If white people were eliminated from the planet, that does not mean racism will automatically disappear.
    Plus, I have tutored Asians from various parts of the Pacific Basin, not just China. I only used Chinese people as a reference because most of my customers are Asians from China.
    Please understand,I appreciate all the work you do combating racism Rosalind. I’ve seen some videos you’ve made on Youtube also. I totally support all the work you do. I just state my observations the way I see them. Not trying to be offensive.Thanks.

  4. Rosalind

    @cordoba blue

    You are absolutely correct that Asians, like all people, can be weary of people not in their groups. Race is a social construct so many Asians that immigrate do not understand the concepts of race, so I will argue on that particular concept on whether they are racist or not, there may be ethnocentrism or notions of national or cultural superiority, but what we’re talking about in this case is certainly a particular type of racism that is absolutely unique and rooted in the white racial frame.

    We cannot remove notions from newer immigrant Asians from the GLOBALIZED white racial frame. American media is so pervasive that these ideas have been transmitted across the oceans. For example, even newer immigrants from the continent of Africa, ie Kenya and Nigeria, will distance themselves from Black Americans because of the stigma attached. While, like some Asians new to the US, have similar circumstances for immigration and their children are high performing like what is constructed as Asian “model minorities” they may also hold anti-black American sentiment. This is because of the GLOBALIZED white racial frame.

    If these notions from newer Asians were just about in group/out group dynamics, then they would equally be weary and mistreat white Americans. And yes, some Asians and Asian Americans are anti-white, but not in the same way that they are anti-black. From my research, the stereotyping of black Americans comes from the white racial frame and whites are seen in higher regard. This goes for Asians in the US and Asians abroad. If we could simply explain it as an innate mistrust of people outside of our group, then we would see a more standard response to all outsiders.

    This is worth considering. Sure, there are Chinese that hate Japanese, Vietnamese that hate Cambodians. These rifts are related to socio-historical phenomenon. I am not saying that Asians that dislike blacks is all white people’s fault. What I am saying is that because of the way race and racism have been invented and embedded into society and the reach is far beyond the US, it is impossible to remove that as a factor influencing peoples across the globe. There is a reason there is a multi-billion dollar skin whitening industry in Asian and Africa. There is a reason that the most successful TV and film stars in all the corners of the globe tend to be those who are light skinned, even in countries where the average population is much darker. There is a reason I have respondents saying that ALL men of his race (which he was specifically talking about men from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) are ugly and their women are hot. His parents didn’t tell him those things, he picked it up from society.

    We have to be very honest that the particular struggles we have regarding race have their roots firmly implanted in European imperialism, but particular to how it was further shaped in the US. It’s quite different in Latin America. I don’t want to go into a long lecture about how the Spanish and the fact that they practiced Catholicism caused them to treat people of mixed races differently than the US, but it was quite different.

    Again, cultures for thousands of years have engaged in outcasting groups, I wouldn’t call it racism because they didn’t have races in the way we understand them now. Even still, it’s about power, domination, and privilege. Just because it’s existed for a great length of time doesn’t mean that deconstructing the racism of today is pointless. It’s like when people bring up the fact that Africans were part of the slave trade and that we’ve had slaves throughout history, it’s a tactic to minimize the current situation. Even though I know that it’s much more complex than that and many of the Africans involved practiced a different type of slavery much more like indentured servitude. Conversations like “it’s just human nature” and “this group has it worse” does not move us forward in our fight for racial progress.

  5. cordoba blue

    @ Rosalind
    Merely because racism has existed for 25,000 DOES NOT mean by observing this that one is trying to “minimize the current situation”. That was never my intent and I’ve read this on here before. It’s called derailing. If some people see this as a tactic to to minimize the situation, please believe that’s NOT ME.
    I merely believe in historical accuracy as much as possible so discussions of racism can be viewed with total legitimacy. It’s true that there have been global images of black Americans trasmitted all over the world, and these images have been negative. It’s also true that Asians have been biased against people of different cultures for thousands of years. You can’t explain this with watching movies, because obviously movies were available for thousands of years.
    I think it’s totally over-simplifying, once again, the study of racism to assign blame for all racism on the planet soley to the white race. White people began racism, white people perpetuated all over the world, if white people vanished from the face of the planet, then racism by this logic would also vanish. Do you really believe this Rosalind? Are you going to say, “White people’s racism will continue even after they disappear because they planted the seeds of racism and those seeds will flourish.” That is, again, a determined attempt to place the origins of racism, fear of “the other” on the shoulders of whites, and whites alone.
    From a historical and anthropological standpoint, this argument does not hold water. The fact that racism has been endemic for 25,000 absolutely does not minimize it’s destructive force. That’s like saying viruses that harm humans, because they’ve been around for 25,000 years, can be ignored today. No Way! That’s not what anybody believes, regarding viruses. And if anybody believes this about racism, they are very much in error.

  6. Rosalind

    @ cordoba blue

    As stated earlier in my previous reply, “I am not saying that Asians that dislike blacks is all white people’s fault. What I am saying is that because of the way race and racism have been invented and embedded into society and the reach is far beyond the US, it is impossible to remove that as a factor influencing peoples across the globe” and “Again, cultures for thousands of years have engaged in outcasting groups, I wouldn’t call it racism because they didn’t have races in the way we understand them now. Even still, it’s about power, domination, and privilege.”

    I’m talking about this particular type of racism that is rooted in this particular socio-historical moment.

  7. Seattle in Texas

    Dr. Chow, I had to swing by and give you a high five on the new book 😀 I have read the first and of course feel it is an absolute “must read” for anybody interested in racial and ethnic studies, regardless of specific areas or focus within the studies. I look forward to reading the new book and wish you the best of luck with it! I’m assuming with will go hand-in-hand with Dr. Hill-Collin’s book in the studies. Best Wishes!!!

  8. NDiv

    Asian anti-black racism is primarily or entirely due to western culture? I don’t buy it. The Nanjing anti-African protests took place in 1988, before the opening of Chinese media to the west. At that time, the exposure of most mainland Chinese people to western media consisted of a few movies at most.

    Furthermore, from all the research I’ve done, anti-black racism is also prevalent in North Korea. There is no nation further removed from western culture – it is a serious crime to even view a western movie. Yet over the decades there are numerous examples of North Koreans exhibiting a virulent anti-black sentiment, more extreme than there anti-white sentiment.


  1. Pew Report on Asian Americans: A Cautionary Tale : Asian-Nation : Asian American News, Issues, & Current Events Blog

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