The Asian American Paradox: “Model Minorities” and Outsiders

Asian Americans are among the fastest growing demographics in the United States, yet they receive little attention in the study of racial inequality. This is especially surprising because Asian Americans occupy a paradoxical position in American society — simultaneously successful and marginal.

On average, Asian American educational attainment, income, and wealth is equal to, or surpasses, whites, yet Asians remain on the social periphery in many respects. For example, Asian American stereotypes are pervasive in the media, and social advancement for Asian Americans has stalled in some areas of social life. Asian Americans earn less and are less likely to occupy managerial positions than whites with similar educational backgrounds.

How are Asian Americans perceived by other racial groups, and what can that tell us about their social standing?

Drawing on two decades of the General Social Survey, Jun Xu and Jennifer Lee examine perceptions of Asian Americans among black and whites.

Some scholars in the racial stratification literature have attempted to situate Asians within the black-white continuum (“are they perceived more like whites or like blacks?”), but a more persuasive theoretical framework places Asians in a distinct position. They are valorized as a “model minority” (hard working and successful), but are marginalized as outsiders. Decades after the Asian Exclusion Act and Japanese internment, Asian Americans continue to be regarded as foreigners in the United States.

The Field of Racial Positions in Racial Triangulation (reproduced from C. Kim 1999:108) Source: Claire Kim, Politics & Society 27(1):105–38, copyright 1999 by Sage Publications; reprinted by permission of Sage Publications.

Testing this theory of “racial triangulation”, Xu and Lee compare how whites and blacks rate Asian Americans in terms of family commitment, intelligence, nonviolence, wealth and work ethic (measures of racial valorization) and in terms of patriotism, acceptance within one’s neighborhood, attitudes toward intermarriage, and general feelings toward.

Many respondents on the GSS rate all racial/ethnic groups as being equal on all dimensions (perhaps reflecting some social desirability bias). Among those willing to discriminate, Asian Americans are frequently given superior ratings on family commitment, intelligence, non-violence, wealth, work ethic. Consistent with triangulation theory, however, Asians fare less well on a “feeling thermometer” (which measures general affect toward Asians), desire to have Asians inter-marry or be in the same neighborhood, and perceived patriotism.

In multivariate analysis, blacks were more likely to express egalitarian views. However, among those willing to discriminate, blacks were more likely than whites to discriminate against, rather than to discriminate in favor of, Asian Americans compared to whites.

This study is another reminder that economic mobility does not guarantee social inclusion.  In the case of Italian and Irish immigrants — who were once pervasively discriminated against in American society — assimilation was followed by acceptance by the majority population. Yet the experience of Asian Americans is likely be different.

European immigrants were less distinct by their physical appearance relative to native-born whites than Asian immigrants are today. This made intermarriage and neighborhood mixing less overt, and more acceptable. Moreover, European immigrants in the late 19th century were followed by a long period of no migration from Europe (as American closed off its borders). By the second generation, most people experienced only assimilated Italian and Irish-Americans. Asians in the United States — particularly Southeast and South Asians — are much more likely to be immigrants, and therefore less likely to be linguistically and culturally assimilated. This immigration wave promises to continue into the foreseeable future.

Will sentiment toward Asians harden as their numbers grow in the population? One could argue that civic inclusion of Asians is going to actually be facilitated by population growth. In cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, Asian Americans are deeply intertwined into the social and political fabric. We forget that in such cities, Asians were once so reviled and discriminated against that “Chinatowns” were created as much as havens for mutual support as they were areas of forced exclusion. On the other hand, whites and blacks toleration for Asian Americans in their midst may depend on whether they are viewed as a threat for resources. Demographers, political scientists and ethnographers will be watching the next wave of immigration carefully for signs of changing social sentiment.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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10 Responses to The Asian American Paradox: “Model Minorities” and Outsiders

  1. MichaelWStory says:

    Great post! I am surprised though that you didn’t include educational marginalisation; the overt discrimination against Asian applicants in college admissions and schools, which is a huge contributor to some of the effects you describe here.

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  3. Great post – very notable point on the contrast of Europeans immigrants migration patterns vs. current and projected Asian immigration patterns affecting cultural assimilation of the community more broadly. The comment above is also a good point, but I would also argue that the discrimination of college admissions it is more of an outcome of the biases you described.

  4. An American says:

    Technically, parts of the “Middle East” (which in itself is not a continent but a region of the world) are in Asia. Were Middle East Asians, such as Turkish, Armenians, India and those in the -*stan countries included in the study, and are “Middle Easterners” classified as/do they identify as “Asian”? Is there overlap allowed for in the study, in terms of people of partial “Asian” background and “something else”?

  5. Rob says:

    Thomas Sowell wrote three books on migration that very completely discusses how populations perceive minorities that immigrate near to them.

  6. Kat Smith says:

    Interesting post but I agree with the comment by ‘An American’ that ‘Asian’ is too broad a term to be that clear in research terms – the term tends to mean something completely different in a European context (where it is largely used to refer to South Asian groups such as people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage) than in an American context. For these reasons, Bhopal and colleagues suggested (back in 1991 – that ‘Asian’ was an inappropriate term to use in research. This research would have been more interesting if it had unpacked how people were interpreting the term ‘Asian’ when they gave their responses (e.g. in the current climate of public and media concern about Islam and Muslims, it’s easy to imagine that people could have responded quite differently if they had in mind Muslim populations when confronted with the term ‘Asian’). I found the original article on which this blog draws really strange in that regard – it reflects that, because ‘East Asian groups’ seem to be treated as ‘honorary whites’ whilst ‘disadvantaged Southeast Asian groups’ are treated as part of a larger “collective black’ group in some research, that this suggests ‘most Asian Americans tend to fall in between whites and blacks’. An alternative interpretation might be that the term ‘Asian’ is, as Bhopal and colleagues say, too broad to be meaningful.

  7. I appreciate these comments. I agree with Kat and “An American” that the term “Asian American” problematically blurs together groups of people that are socially, economically, phenotypically, and culturally extraordinarily distinct. The researcher’s dilemma is that there remain very few surveys that distinguish between the country of origin for respondents. For this kind of research, it probably would be useful to know whether survey respondents imagine a person with a particular profile when they are asked to think about “Asians.” Probably they tend not to think about Middle Easterners and Central Asians, since the “Asianness” of these groups remains very hazy in the American public’s mind, but I could be wrong. The more that Asian populations grow in the United States, and the more diversity that they embody internally, the more problematic it will be to not draw out these distinctions more clearly.

  8. cpanel vps says:

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  9. Hiroshi Osaka says:

    I totally hear you ! It’s so true. Something really went wrong, because Asians are punished for doing well in academia, business, medicine and politics. But there aren’t many Asians in USA to complain about it nor are they outspoken enough to fight aggressively for their right in this society. Asians should put there differences aside and organize to become more influential in political arena and mass media in Hollywood. People who gain power and money in this world are people who can related themselves to the majority of the populations. Most successful ethnic groups in the USA dominate the world of sports, acting and entertainment where they find access to power to influence people through mass media. Mass media is so powerful. Asian community had invested too much effort in very skewed area that consists of minor populations- Science and Math and Musical Instruments- that most general population are not interested in investing time to be good at. You can see everywhere these days and all you see is young kids more inclined into sports and socially involved business such as mass media to get their face shown all over the world by doing outrageous thing for quick easy publicity, which equates to power and money to influence more people. More Asians should get into NFL or NBA or baseball or Ice Hockey.
    More asians should participate

  10. Pingback: Health Equity- A Dream or an Achievable Goal? | Public Health at Penn

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