Asian-Americans Reject ‘Model Minority’ Image Painted by Pew Report

Marchers participate in the May Day march for immigrant rights in Los Angeles. (Photo from Creative Commons/Korean Resource Center via Colorlines)

A Pew Research Center study, "The Rise of Asian Americans," has received criticism from Asian-American advocates for its oversimplification of a diverse population.

A recent Pew Research Center report, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” examined data showing that Asians are immigrating to America at a higher rate than Latinos, and that Asian-Americans are the highest-earning and most-educated group in America.

But amid the flurry of press attention to what appears to be good news for Asian-Americans, some Asian-American groups have criticized the report, WNYC reporter Arun Venugopal explained in a recent live chat with experts.

“Some of that attention, interestingly enough, has been negative,” he wrote. “That the Pew researchers made the Asian American community look TOO GOOD.”

A Colorlines article by Julianne Hing dug into this criticism from Asian-American advocates, academics and leaders, who criticized the report for a lack of nuance when it comes to describing a population comprised of immense diversity and disparities.

The Pew study, released on June 19, used census data and polling, and did not include all Asian ethnicities but rather the six largest groups — Chinese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Indian-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Korean-Americans and Japanese-Americans — which account for over 83 percent of the more than 17 million Asian-Americans in the United States.

The Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, a civil rights advocate group, said the authors of the report, “paint a picture of Asian Americans as a model minority, having the highest income and educational attainment among racial groups. These portrayals are overly simplistic.”

Congresswoman Dr. Judy Chu (D-CA), chairperson of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, pointed out that the grouping of “Asian Pacific American” includes a vast diversity of “over 45 distinct ethnicities speaking over 100 language dialects, and many of the groups that were excluded from this report are also the ones with the greatest needs.” The director of the Demographic Research Project at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center provided examples of discrepancies among the different Asian-American groups.

More than a third of all Hmong, Cambodian and Laotian Americans over the age of 25 don’t have a high school degree, for instance. While some Asians may report incomes at or higher than whites, Cambodian and Laotian Americans report poverty rates as high as, and higher than, the poverty rate of African Americans, according to the 2010 census. Even among those that Pew included in its study, like Chinese and Vietnamese Americans, these groups report a below average attainment of high school diplomas, said Dan Ichinose, director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s Demographic Research Project. The more complex and far less exciting explanation for Asian Americans’ relatively high rates of education has more to do with immigration policy, which has driven selectivity about who gets to come to the U.S. and who doesn’t, said Ichinose. But a focus only on those in the upper echelons of the community renders everyone else invisible.

At the start of the recession, Asian Americans may have been more well-situated to ride out the worst of it, but as the recession has stretched on, Asian Americans have actually suffered the worst from long-term unemployment, the Economic Policy Institute found earlier this year. And 2.3 million Asian Americans are uninsured, said Deepa Iyer, head of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together.

Asian-American advocates faulted the mainstream media for spreading generalizations. Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, described the media’s role in pitting groups of color against each other.

Indeed, just as troubling for progressive Asian-American scholars and advocates was the mainstream media’s amplification of the Pew frame. The headline from the Wall Street Journal’s writeup of the Pew study announced: “Asians Top Immigration Class.” And the San Francisco Chronicle made the Pew’s findings about Asian Americans its front page story, proclaiming: “Group has highest incomes, is best-educated and happier.” The media coverage reminded many of a 2012 version of decades old media reports about Asian Americans which paint the community as uniformly high achieving, and especially adept at overcoming humble beginnings to reach great financial and educational success.

The narrative fits in neatly with a very American “bootstraps” ethos, where people rise and fall on their own skills and merits. It’s a convenient narrative for silencing other groups who try to make claims of institutional racism and racial discrimination. “There’s this aspect of the media coverage where races are being played against each other,” said Yeung. “The not so implicit message is Asians are the better people of color whereas blacks and Latinos are seen as having all these kinds of problems, so why can’t all people of color be like us.”

Hours after Hing’s article went up, Pew’s senior researcher, Cary Funk, responded that the diversity of Asian-Americans — what she called one of its “strengths” — was a major hurdle when putting the survey together, saying that it “literally took talking with 65,000 households in order to reach enough Asian Americans to complete the survey with 3,500 U.S. Asians.”

Funk said that survey questions about Asian Americans’ cultural attitudes and values were developed “with our panel of external advisors,” and that topics were general lifestyle questions Pew regularly covers in its surveys of other groups. When asked about the narrative framing of the report, with which Asian-American advocates and academics were most concerned, Funk said, “What we’re trying to do is portray the information and present it in a way that is clear to everyone, and one of the things we’re not trying to do is take a stand. We’re not advocates one way or another, and we’re not in the business of trying to tell people what to think about this information.”

Funk was emphatic that Pew did not exclude any group in its survey. “If you were an Asian American you were included in this survey,” she said.

In the WNYC live chat, Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist, and Jeff Yang, a Wall Street Journal columnist, blamed some of the backlash on an overly simplistic press release accompanying the Pew report — and on journalists who failed to digest the whole report:

Karthick Ramakrishnan: What is fascinating to me is how much journalists take the cue from the headline and the lede of a press release, because that was the dominant frame driving the week. And, understandably, advocates who work for disadvantaged communities responded.

Jeff Yang: Joking aside, I agree with Karthick; a lot of the controversy is due to the un-nuanced publicity and press reports around the study. But honestly–nuance is not often the province of PR and/or much of the mainstream media.


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