The notion that Asian Americans are model minorities originated in the 1960s, mainly in reference to the socioeconomic gains of Japanese and Chinese Americans in particular. It did not take long, however, for that very idea to be applied to Asian Americans as a whole, especially as it continues to be perpetuated by the mainstream media. The claim is that Asian Americans (like Cubans and Jews), because of the wealth they’ve attained in America, have transcended racism and the social obstacles they have historically encountered and thus can serve as exemplars of progress for other minorities.
It goes without saying that this narrative easily obscures the willful, systemic and intricate nature of American racism: it’s a quick and false reference for those who want to argue that the social decline and regress of other minority groups are self-incurred and that opportunities for socio-economic progress is guaranteed for, if not awaits, all communities that play by the rules. According to this logic, if America is to be multicultural, it is to be multicultural without subverting the dominant socio-economic logic and realities of American culture.
This article offers an intervention into this simplified picture by providing an overview of the complexity of the current class dynamic of Asian America. It will proceed from two questions: Who are Asian Americans? And what is the context of their class development?
1. Who Are Asian Americans?
We can begin by questioning what the label “Asian American” really means. While it typically conjures immediate images of Northeastern Asians, that is Asians of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Koreans — to put it crudely, the “yellow” race as we were also once referred to as — it remains the case that more than half of Asians in America are in fact from South Asia (Pakistan and India) and Southeast Asia (Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos): to put it crudely again, Asians who are of “brown,” “black,” and “dark yellow” skin. According to the 2005 U.S Census Bureau, says Min Zhou, out of 13.5 million Asian Americans, Indians and Pakistanis (not including Nepalese, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans) together constitute 21.3 percent of Asian Americans while Southeast Asians makeup 35.8 percent of the group (Zhou, 2009, 26).
But even the subcategories do not tell the full story. Take the example of those who fall under the category of Chinese Americans. Many actually did not immigrate to America from mainland China but instead from the Chinese Diasporas across Asia, that is to say, among the historical émigré Chinese in Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and even the Americas. Min Zhou adds that Asians from the Indian subcontinent too “have arrived not only from India but also from Fiji, Uganda, Trinidad, South Africa, and the United Kingdom” (Zhou, 2009, Ibid). While considering this we should also keep in mind that as it stands relatively less information has been obtained of lesser known, although by no means invisible or insignificant, Asian communities such as Tibetans, Thais and Burmese.
It goes without saying then that the diversity of races and ethnicities also confirms the diversity of religious and linguistic affiliations within the demographic. To take just a few examples, Filipinos are predominantly Catholic. Pakistanis are predominantly Muslim. Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians are historically Buddhists although they are Buddhists of different sects. Filipinos and South Asians arrive to America with a relative linguistic advantage due to their likely knowledge of English, unlike Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese whose native countries have single official languages.
Another crucial thing to note is that Asian Americans are by and large transnational, that is, a population with regular contacts, long-term visits and citizenships in both America and their country of ethnic origin. Even by 2005, close to 60 percent of them were born outside America.
2. What Is the Context of Asian American Class Development?
A major turning point was the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which ended race-based immigration quotas and favored the entry of immigrants for white collar and professional work, which many Asians came to obtain; in particular the act encouraged the entry of “members of the professions and scientists and artists of exceptional ability” and “skilled and unskilled workers for which labor is in short supply” (Le, 2007, 16). There was also a business incentive: immigrants who would invest at least 40,000 dollars did not need a local sponsor for citizenship. This is historically significant in that it encouraged to the exponential growth of the Asian American population: the number of Asians from the Indian subcontinent rose, while the already present communities of Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans also grew dramatically (the annual quota for Chinese immigrants alone, for example, was raised from a mere 105 to 20,000). With this policy in place, the population of Asian Americans grew to 1.4 million by 1970; and by 2005, it was 14.4 million.
That America’s demand for labor effectively encouraged the growth of its Asian citizens also meant a widening of the class gap within the Asian American demographic. The first wave of major Asian migration in the 19th century saw the arrival of Chinese and Japanese cheap laborers in the west. The Act of 1965 brought in a large wave of Asians for high-skilled employment (doctors, scientists, engineers, technicians) and commercial investment, in other words already middle-class and educated Asians, which effective placed many of them in an advantageous position to assimilate into mainstream America. What is less often noted and researched is that the growth of the Asian middle class occurred concurrently with the migration of cheap labor to service ethnic enclave economies, that is employment aided by family ties and connections with acquaintances within the ethnic community (for example, “the archetypal Chinatown restaurants and Garment factories”) (Toji & Johnson, 1992, 88). In that context, we must also distinguish entrepreneurs who claim profit with wage laborers who typically, as immigrant workers with little knowledge of English, earn lower wages and end up with little or no opportunity for upward economic mobility (Nee & Sanders, 1985).
Another major turning point in Asian American migration was the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which, for reasons too complex to explain here, affected Vietnamese as much as Hmongs and neighboring Laotians and Cambodians (Ling, 2008, 4). Thus, unlike their more successful Asian counterparts, over a million Indochinese Americans arrived as traumatized and displaced refugees. It was in essence “the uprooting of nonliterate, agrarian peoples and forced them into an alien environment where they would be ill-prepared to withstand the traumas of dislocation” (Hamamoto & Torres, 1997, 2). Needless to say that circumstance was not conducive to a smooth process of assimilation and integration into American society, an experience that many other Asian communities in America did not have to encounter and overcome.
The most recent numbers will give a clearer description of this state of affairs: according to the 2000 census, only 9.1 percent of Cambodian Americans aged over 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher while 29.3 percent live below the poverty line (4 percent above the poverty rate of African Americans). In the case of the Cambodian community in Long Beach, for example, half of the population lives below the poverty line (Ong & Umemoto, 2000, 238). 19.1 percent of Laotian Americans live below the poverty line with only 7.6 percent of Laotians aged over 25 holding a bachelor’s degree or higher (Reyes, 2007, 13). Only 22.8 percent of Vietnamese Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher while a total of 16 percent live below the poverty line (Li & Wang, 2008). As Roger Daniels writes, “while the media delight in reporting the success story — ‘Vietnamese Girl Wins Spelling Bee’ — the reality is that a very large proportion of the Vietnamese American population has joined the underclass” (Daniels, 1997, 86).
A 2003 study by Hmong National Development concluded that “only 1.3 percent of Hmong Americans between 18-24 years old have a bachelor’s degree or above, as do 3.2 percent of those age 25 and older.” Additionally only 30 percent of Hmongs are employed as 37.6 percent live below the poverty line. According to Angela Reyes’ 2007 study, “African Americans are more likely to graduate from high school than all Southeast Asian-American groups” (Reyes, 2007, 14). As Bill Ong Hing notes, “Nationwide, 64 percent of all Southeast Asian households headed by refugees arriving after 1980 are on public assistance, three times the rate of African Americans and four times that of Latinos” (Ong Hing, 1997, 319).
At any rate we must also note that financial advancement does not necessarily confirm cultural acceptance. Since 9-11, many Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Muslim Indians continue to face discrimination, harassment, and racial profiling at work and public spaces across America. Non-Muslim South Asians too have had to face the brunt of this backlash due to their racial association with their other South Asians. This has even contributed to the potential fragmentation of inter-South Asian harmony and communication as some South Asian Americans may “use strategies of disidentification or assertion of difference from Muslim South Asian Americans in an effort at self protection of widespread distrust and suspicion of Islam that exists in the United States and has been exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks” (Kibria, 2006, 216).
The model minority has become the default image America has assumed for Asians in America. While it is true that many Asians have attained economic success, this quick intervention shows that the default image is not even half of the picture (Japanese Americans, who can claim much of the success of Asians in America, constitute only 7% of the Asian-American population). Asia is an immense continent of cultural and geographic complexities, and as politics in Asia evolves along with the growth of capital that is sweeping countries from India to China, we can only expect the communities of Asians in America, who as discussed above are by and large transnational, to reflect some of those changes. Therefore, any attempt to properly grasp the multitude that is the Asian Americans must take into account, with accuracy, that global and local interplay of cultural complexity.
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Ahmad Fuad Rahmat is a lecturer in Ethics at Marquette University.
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