The June 19 release of the Pew Research Center report, The Rise of Asian Americans is generating buzz that is, frankly, giving me a headache.
The report summary opens with the following:
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….
Asian Americans trace their roots to any of dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each country of origin subgroup has its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values, and pathways into America.
But despite often sizable subgroup differences, Asian Americans are distinctive as a whole, 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 National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) responded with a statement summed up by the line,
We need to move beyond one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism about Asian Americans in order to better understand and address the diverse experiences facing our community members…
NCAPA’s response is a good start, but I’ll take it a step further.
The problem with the Pew report is that it constructs an idea about race that is very problematic. Bear with me here and I’ll explain.
The racial category Asian lumps together widely diverse groups with no common language, phenotype, or culture who come to the U.S. under vastly different circumstances. How, exactly, do you arrive at a “distinctive whole” from which you can deduce an average experience of, say, Japanese Americans and Laotian Americans?
The first wave of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. came through Hawaii in the 1800s as contract laborers lured by lies about grand opportunity and riches. The more recent wave of Japanese immigrants is being recruited to the U.S. as highly skilled workers or business investors.
The vast majority of Laotian immigrants on the other hand, came to the U.S. since 1973 as refugees of war. Here’s what that means for them, according to the Laotian American organization Legacies of War,
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. The bombing was part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government…
Today, about one third of Laos, a country about the size of Utah, is contaminated with unexploded ordinance. Civilian contact with these unexploded weapons has resulted in 20,000 casualties since the war ended.
How do you mash together Laotian war refugees and Japanese business investors and come up with an average or mean experience?
Much ink is also spilled on the subject of how highly educated the new wave of Asian immigrants are. But this statistic reflects bias within the immigration system as much as anything else. Visas are fast tracked for highly skilled workers and business investors. The elite immigrants who come to the U.S. on these visas are from economically diverse countries, many with extraordinary levels of poverty. Yet the suggestion is that high levels of education are the product of racial or cultural characteristics.
So let’s get it straight. The term “Asian” in the U.S. was chosen by Asian American activists as an alternative to the pejorative “Oriental.” The Oriental is the creation of Europeans for whom the Orient was an object of curiosity and a source of riches to be studied and exploited. In modern times, the study of the Orient, especially in contrast with the civilized world of the Occident (aka Europe), solidified an idea of Orientals as exotic, potentially dangerous Others.
Activists back in the 1960s decided they wanted to reject the label Oriental and call themselves Asian American instead. Subsequent generations of Asian Americans have gathered as a coalition under the Asian American banner in order to resist being treated like Orientals. But don’t get it twisted, the idea of an Asian or Oriental race is a creation of white people, not of Asians.
There are many problems with the Pew report. Chief among them,
- lumping us together tends to trivialize the very real service needs of those who are less well-off and,
- reports like this are powerful molders of Asian racial identity, popularizing ideas about Asian traits, capacities (and threats), and, of course, always in comparison with the supposed failures of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.
On that first point, Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants are among the poorest ethnic groups in the U.S. There are real consequences to characterizing them as part of a “distinctive whole” with more successful groups when it comes time to seek funding for poverty alleviation programs.
That’s not to say that Asians don’t enjoy racial privilege over other groups of people of color. We do. The widely divergent histories of how different people of color entered the U.S. (or in the case of Native Americans, how the U.S. entered them) have resulted in very different contemporary realities. But studies like this marginalize those important historical differences and strengthen racist stereotypes and racism, not just against Asians, but against all our interests.