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The Myth of the Model Minority

From August 31st, 1987: Time Magazine's expose on high-performing Asian students.
Time Magazine’s cover story on Asian students, August 31st, 1987.

American culture characterizes the narrative of the Asian American as being highly educated, disciplined, wealthy, successful, and assimilated. Data from the Pew Center reveals that Asian Americans have a higher median income than the general population—$66,000 a year versus $50,000. Or so it seems. That being said, how can it be that the Asian American community has a poverty rate of 12.1% compared to the white community’s 9.9% poverty rate? How can it be that among Asian American Pacific Islanders in America, over 2 million people are in poverty? Analyzing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Americans Advancing Justice L.A. (a civil rights group) reported that from 2000 to 2010, the Asian American community was growing the fastest in L.A. County. More importantly, their report revealed that Asian American poverty and unemployment rates have been growing rapidly, especially in cities like El Monte, Long Beach, Pomona, Alhambra, and Rosemead.

An essential fact that must not be overlooked is that the Asian American community in the United States is ethnically diverse, encompassing over 45 nations and about 28 different languages. While Asian Americans generally appear well off in statistics, a breakdown of specific ethnic groups, like the Hmong, Cambodian, and Bangladeshi, shows that their poverty rates rival that of African Americans, which is 27.4%. Unfortunately, without specific data about different ethnicities, Asian Americans have been traditionally seen as one monolithic group, making it more difficult to convince public agencies and private donors to give money to specific communities.

The problem at hand is very complex, but there are several, distinguishable factors that shape the Asian American poverty rate. To begin with, 64% of Asian Americans are foreign born and 25% struggle with speaking English. Adjusting to a new culture and struggling to learn a new language make finding jobs a difficult task. Secondly, reasons for immigration are plentiful, ranging from job and educational attainment to seeking refuge from political instability in their homeland. So across the board, educational and income levels of Asian Americans vary. Many Southeast Asians, like the Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, and Vietnamese, emmigrate because of war, bringing with them different circumstances that are intrinsically tied to their level of educational attainment and income in the United States.

Specifically, many are “uneducated, and worked as farmers or fishermen before reaching the US,” says Lian Cheun of Khmer Girls in Action, an organization that helps Cambodian American students. A number of Cambodian survivors of the Khmer Rouge also suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. Thus, Cambodian immigrants struggle with English and finding work, often living in poverty and contending with financial barriers that prevent their children from going to college. Thirdly, Asian American and Pacific Islanders facing poverty are also concentrated in metropolitan areas, 30% living in only three metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. So if Asian Americans were to move elsewhere, would they be better off? Apparently not. According to Algernon Austin, the director of the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute, Asian Americans experience higher rates of poverty because of the cost of living. Asian Americans also earn less than non-Hispanic white males with the same education attainment. The difference is steepest between white and Asian men who have a high school diploma. With a high school diploma, white men earn about $10,000 more than Asian men.

Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, says that “For Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, the poverty level is still at a very high level—over 25%. What is also alarming is that there is a rapid increase in unemployment and poverty in the overall Asian American community.”

Such an intricate issue requires not only practical policies, but also a more nuanced, theoretical framework for understanding issues of culture, identity, and race. According to Advancing Justice-LA, more policy-based measures to counter institutionalized racism are needed. Challenging English-only policies by cities and employers, working on immigrant access to government programs and benefits, advocating for voting rights, and imposing accountability on the exploitative practices of industries like the garment industry are all possible avenues of activism on behalf of the Asian-American immigrant community. Rosalind Chou, a sociology professor at Georgia State University, suggests moving past the idea of a post-racial society. Chou argues that the consequences of living in a country with a racial hierarchy are serious and quite visible, as evidenced by the alarming rates of depression and suicide in the Asian American community. Moreover, a dialogue about the inequalities that Asian Americans experience is necessary for their progress in a country where institutionalized racism is subtle, yet still alive.

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