Asian-American success and the pitfalls of generalization | Brookings Institution

“There is but one race—humanity.” So says Millicent, paramour of the Irish protagonist in George Moore’s 1900 play, The Bending of the Bough.But Millicent does not run the U.S. Census Bureau. Data on a myriad of economic and social factors can be analyzed by self-defined racial or ethnic category. The huge inequalities between people in different racial categories are one of the most pressing challenges for public policy in the 21st century.

Simple racial categories bring both benefits and risks

The distinctions drawn by statistical categories inevitably simplify a complex kaleidoscope of history, culture, and lived experience. For one thing, there is a growing mixed-race population, as our colleague Bill Frey shows in his book, Diversity Explosion. In 2010, for example, 15 percent of black children under five were actually defined as both black and white. Analysts can also be insensitive to the great diversity that exists within a particular racial category, as well as between them.

Simplistic racial categories can also provide fuel for racial stereotypes. One of the strongest is the idealization of Asian-Americans as a “model minority”—hard working, studious, committed to family, and so on. There are a number of problems with this characterization. First, it misses the huge heterogeneity between different Asian-American groups. People of Bangladeshi and Korean origin, for instance, cannot be easily lumped together. Second, even the “positive stereotype” applied to Asians can carry a cost for young people by artificially inflating expectations or narrowing life choices, as Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou show in their excellent book, The Asian American Paradox.

Third, holding up one racial or ethnic minority as a “model” can too easily become an implicit criticism of other minorities. “If Asians can do it, why can’t you?” is the thought process lying not far below the surface of some commentaries on race and racism in the U.S. This is perhaps the most dangerous byproduct of the model minority stereotype, and a form of racism in and of itself.

Asian-American successes in perspective

It is certainly true that treated as a whole group, Asian-Americans appear to be doing well. Relative to other racial and ethnic minorities, they live in wealthier neighborhoods, have high marriage rates, high levels of educational achievement, and are successful in the labor market.

The most striking success of Asian-Americans, and the one most commonly highlighted in the media, is in educational attainment. While 36 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks, and 16 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or more, 54 percent of Asians do. Furthermore, while 14 percent of whites have advanced degrees, 21 percent of Asian-Americans do.

Why? For many, the answer is simple: culture. The New York Times columnist David Brooks points to a “Chinese attitude toward education” that aims to “perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.” Kay Hymowitz points to “a cultural trait that has become a cliché in the model-minority discussion: a zealous focus on education. For Chinese immigrants, education for the next generation is close to a religion.” Amy Chua, of “Tiger Mom” fame, suggests that “strikingly successful groups…share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex—a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite—insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.” Psychologists have tested Chua’s “triple package” empirically, however, and found little support for her thesis.

In these discussions, there is a danger that scholars and commentators miss the diversity that exists within the Asian-American population, and over-emphasize the importance of a quasi-mystical “Asian-American cultural attitude,” as opposed to more prosaic explanations for success—like school quality.

Belief in hard work, rather than just in education

A common refrain is that Asian-Americans value education more, on average, than other groups. But the evidence for this is not wholly convincing. In a College Board/National Journal survey of 1,272 adults ages 18 and older, the majority of members of all ethnic and racial minorities agreed with the statement, “young people today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful.” (It was white students that were more skeptical.) However, Asian-Americans are more likely to believe that academic achievement results from greater effort, rather than greater skill. This belief can in fact explain a large part of the superior academic outcomes for Asian-Americans, according to some studies. Continue reading..

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