Constructing Race: Pew Center Report On Asians

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,

  1.  lumping us together tends to trivialize the very real service needs of those who are less well-off and,
  2. 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.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

11 replies on “Constructing Race: Pew Center Report On Asians”

Hey, I *am* an exotic, potentially dangerous Other!

Hopefully a couple more decades of intensive immigration will help the Pews of the world figure out that talking about people from the Asian half of the world as though they’re a meaningful grouping doesn’t make sense.

Where do I sign up??? (Actually, I think I met Scot at an exotic dangerous other event!)

And they don’t explain why they did not include Near East Asians (Jews, Arabs), other non-Indian Aryans (Afghans, Iranians,Tajiks, Uzbeks) and Turko-Asians (Azerbaijanis, Turks).

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.”[…] 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.

This is a really important distinction—and thank you for speaking it so clearly, Scot. These labels that we Brown people wear feel so natural and innate that’s easy for us to forget their origins as tools of plutocracy and racist junk science. Even many Brown folks today believe that racial identities are inherent, biological traits—which makes it tough as hell to raise Brown consciousness about systemic white supremacy and hegemony. That’s what makes the idea of Asian exceptionalism so damn easy to believe.

A friend reminded me that Pew’s research is mainly targeted at the nonprofit industrial complex, so this study will likely be used by social justice nonprofits to compete for foundation dollars. Still, I worry about the possible effect of sensationalist, uninformed corporate media coverage of the study, and how reading stupid headlines like “Study: Asian Americans value hard work, family” (actual USA Today headline) will affect the self-esteem of non-Asian Brown youth. Do we really want Black, Native, or Latin@ kids thinking that their parents don’t “value” family as much as Asian parents do? It’s a frightening thought.

Reblogged this on Ginger and Korea… and commented:
This blog gives a great perspective about the dangers of broad categorizations of race in America.

What was really interesting about part of my time in Korea, is that Koreans do not necessarily refer to themselves by means of “race”…. why would they? Everyone is Asian in Asia. In Korea specifically, the majority of people in Korea are Korean. The term or descriptor “Korean” is used to identify nationality, and not race. In America, race matters. Diversity matters. Difference matters. For now, and probably for forever, Americans will need to describe themselves by means of categorization. For us, it’s a sociological reminder that we need to be cognizant of difference.

However, once I returned to the States from Korea, I find myself preferring Korean-style categorization, as it simply makes better sense. I am not “Korean” in the sense that I identify with the culture or nation as a whole. And I am not really “Asian,” which is a really over-simplified grouping that broadly categorizes many many cultures into one huge demographic which renders the heritage and actual culture of each subgroup nearly irrelevant.So, once I returned to the States, I have felt most comfortable identifying myself simply as American or Korean-American, or as an American born in Korea. But most often, I’ve been trying to avoid the label altogether…

To be continued, I guess…

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