Asian-Americans: The model minority is losing patience

(From the Economist)

Asian-Americans are the United States’ most successful minority, but they are complaining ever more vigorously about discrimination, especially in academia

MICHAEL WANG, a young Californian, came second in his class of 1,002 students; his ACT score was 36, the maximum possible; he sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration; he got third place in a national piano contest; he was in the top 150 of a national maths competition; he was in several national debating-competition finals. But when it came to his university application he faced a serious disappointment for the first time in his glittering career. He was rejected by six of the seven Ivy League colleges to which he applied.

Harvard-admission-and-Asians“I saw people less qualified than me get better offers,” says Mr Wang. “At first I was just angry. Then I decided to turn that anger to productive use.” He wrote to the universities concerned. “I asked: what more could I have done to get into your college? Was it based on race, or what was it based on?” He got vague responses—or none. So he complained to the Department of Education. Nothing came of it. “The department said they needed a smoking gun.”

In May this year Mr Wang joined a group of 64 Asian-American organisations that made a joint complaint to the Department of Education against Harvard, alleging racial discrimination. That follows a lawsuit filed last year against Harvard and the University of North Carolina by a group of Asian-American students making similar charges. The department rejected the claim in July, but another two complaints have since been filed by Asian-Americans, one against Harvard and one against nine other universities.

On October 3rd 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act into law, sweeping away a system that favoured white Europeans over other races. One of its main consequences was the beginning of mass immigration to America from Asia. By most indicators, these incomers have done better than any other ethnic minority group. Indeed, they have long been described as the “model minority”: prosperous, well-educated and quiescent. But there are problems, as a result of which they are becoming somewhat less quiescent than they once were.

Before the 1965 act, the experience of Asian-American immigrants had not been entirely happy. The largest mass lynching in American history, in 1871, in which 17 Chinese were murdered; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese immigration; the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in the second world war, when relatively few German- or Italian-Americans were interned: all were symptoms of a racism that was reserved not just for African-Americans.

Things changed after the war. The Chinese and Indians were seen as allies, and the internment of Japanese came to be seen as wrong. As the civil-rights campaign changed attitudes to race, the new immigration act enabled people to be admitted on the basis of skills and family relationships. Asia’s large population and fast-developing economies have meant an abundant supply of skilled aspirant Americans. In 2013 the numbers of both Chinese and Indian migrants overtook Mexicans for the first time.

Asia being a big place, Asian-Americans are a various lot, who came at different times, for different reasons and with different levels of education and prosperity. The Japanese mostly arrived before the second world war, the Chinese from the 1980s onwards. The Indians and Chinese are on average well educated and prosperous, whereas the (small numbers of) Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong are struggling. The Japanese—the only Asian group mostly born in America and more likely than not to marry a non-Asian—are closer in attitudes and educational level to the American population as a whole. But on average Asian-Americans are unusually well educated, prosperous, married, satisfied with their lot and willing to believe in the American dream: 69% of Asians, compared with 58% of the general public, think that “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard.”

It is their educational outperformance that is most remarkable: 49% of Asian-Americans have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 28% of the general population. Whereas Asian-Americans make up 5.6% of the population of the United States, according to the complaint to the Department of Education they make up more than 30% of the recent American maths and physics Olympiad teams and Presidential Scholars, and 25-30% of National Merit Scholarships. Among those offered admission in 2013 to New York’s most selective public high schools, Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science, 75% and 60% respectively were Asian. The Asian population of New York City is 13%. Surging immigration is likely to increase the disparity between Asians and other groups, because recent immigrants are even more highly qualified than earlier cohorts: 61% of recent immigrants from Asia have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 30% of recent non-Asian migrants. Read more

 



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