On June 19, the Pew Research Center released “The Rise of Asian Americans,” a study that purports to be a “comprehensive new nationwide survey” on Asian American social trends. Since its debut, the study has elicited as much optimism as it has ire.
On the bright side of things, there is the increased visibility the report has brought to the Asian American community. The study affirms that Asian Americans, once sidelined as an assuming minority group, are an invaluable strand of the greater American cultural fabric. In numbers alone, Asians Americans now make up close to 6% (or 17 million) of the population. Socially, culturally and economically, Asian Americans also represent a growing influence: the report asserts that Asian Americans are the “highest income, best-educated and fastest growing racial group in the United States.” (Additional statistical insights, on Asian Americans collectively and on Chinese Americans in particular, are summarized below).
The study is also the first large-scale survey on Asian Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center, one of the most reputed and oft-cited think tanks in America. So while It may seem like a no-brainer, for the Pew Center to acknowledge that “Asian Americans trace their roots to any of dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent” and that “each country of origin subgroup has its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values, and pathways into America” is a potentially course-changing moment. Public discussions of Asian Americans can begin to shift away from talk of a uniform racial group to discourse on the issues unique to different segments of the community.
But, despite itself presenting evidence to the contrary, the report ultimately falls back on sweeping generalizations that uphold the model minority myth. While the study acknowledges that 14% of Chinese Americans live in poverty (more than the general American population), while it it concedes that just 26% of Vietnamese Americans hold bachelor degrees (less than half that of other Asian groups), and while it confirms that 13 – 15% of Asian immigrants were in this country illegally in the past decade (among other departures from the model minority trope), these disparities are never truly assessed. Instead, they are glossed over to preserve a convenient up-by-the-bootstraps narrative of immigrant success.
Many Asian American advocacy groups have already pointed to data that completely undermine many of the study’s conclusions. The study strongly implies that the “bamboo ceiling” is a fading issue, but a report by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP) finds that Asian Americans make up just 2% of executive officers in Fortune 500 companies. Writing for the Bay Citizen, Nichole Wong of the Asia Pacific Fund refutes the claim that Asian Americans are the best educated by citing Census data that reveals that 40% of Southeast Asians have no college degrees and over a third of Hmong, Cambodia and Laotian Cambodians adults did not graduate from high school. Highlighting these statistics is not meant to downplay the accomplishments one Asian American group or deride another, but to show how the Pew Research Center’s blithe conclusions can do a disservice to the community. Challenges in the Asian American community can only be confronted insofar as they are recognized as challenges.
Other Asian American bloggers and scholars have found fault with the report’s methodology and framing. Calvin Ho, a graduate student in sociology at UCLA, notes that the study’s self-reported data comes from the 6 most populous Asian American groups: Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese. He writes that extrapolating the experience of 6 groups onto an entire racial group “completely overlooks differences between the groups selected for the study and the smaller, poorer, less educated, and likely less happy groups that were excluded.”
Meanwhile, Professor Larry Shinagawa of the University of Maryland is perturbed by how the report is constantly framed in terms of competition. He points out that the report authors constantly apply “battle words” that pit racial groups against one another. Phrases like “Asians overtake Hispanics” feel all too charged when they ought not to be. To add to Professor Shinagawa’s analysis, even the report’s title feels faintly xenophobic, feeding into anxieties over American decline and Asian ascension.
We applaud the efforts of the Pew Research Center and find value in macro analyses, but the Rise of Asian Americans is not the definitive study on Asian Americans many may have hoped it to be. For now, it is a springboard into a greater conversation on Asian American identity and history. We hope for and await future research that will help us better understand this 17 million-strong community.