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.
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.