Asian American “Success”: What Are the Dimensions, Causes, and Implications for Other Minority Groups?
We have seen in this chapter that the notion of Asian American success is a stereotype, an exaggeration, and, in many ways, simply false. Yet, the characterization is persistent and, for many, compelling. We have also seen that, like all myths, there is some truth to the notion: on many indicators that Americans would take as measures of “success,” Asian Americans are superior to national norms and much higher than other racial minorities.
In this installment of Current Debates, we consider several related questions: What are the sources of Asian American “success?” How accurate is this characterization? What are the political and cultural implications of applying the label of success to Asian Americans?
The readings for this debate include two selections that are consistent with the “cultural” explanation for Asian American success discussed in Chapter 9. The first article is by sociologist Harry Kitano, who argues that the success of the Japanese in America is due in part to their culture and in part to their strength of character, resilience, and flexibility. The second article, by journalist Lee Seigel, characterizes Asian Americans as successful and attributes their success as “driven by will and resolve.”
Next, we consider the “structural” explanation, as presented by sociologists Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou. They link the success of Chinese Americans to their enclave economy and also draw some provocative comparisons between Chinese Americans and African Americans, suggesting that the “thorough acculturation” of the African American community has weakened its economic vitality.
Finally, we consider two authors who dispute the notion that Asian Americans are more successful. Sociologist Pyong Gap Min points out the limits and qualifications that need to be observed when comparing Asian Americans with other groups. Min also argues that the image of success is harmful, both to Asian Americans and to other racial minority groups. Finally, sociologist Stacey Lee argues that the myth of Asian American Success has been developed to criticize other minorities, blacks in particular.
POINTS OF VIEW
The article by Kitano (edited)
The Success of Japanese Americans is CulturalHarry Kitano
Social interaction among Japanese Americans is governed by behavioral norms such as enryo and amae. These derive from Confucian ideas about human relationships and define the dimensions of interaction and exchange between superior and inferior members of a social group. Although these forms of behavior were brought over by Issei immigrants, they still survive in attenuated form among the Nisei and even the Sansei.
Enryo prescribes the way in which a social inferior must show deference and self-abnegation before a superior. Hesitancy to speak out at meetings, the automatic refusal of a second helping, and selecting a less desired object are all manifestations of enryo. . . .
Amae behavior softens a power relationship through the acting out of dependency and weakness, and expresses the need for attention, recognition, acceptance, and nurture. A child displays amae to gain the sympathy and indulgence of a parent. A young, anxious-to-please employee in a business firm will act with exaggerated meekness and confusion to give his superior an opportunity to provide paternal advice and treat him as a protégé. Through the ritual display of weakness and dependency, reciprocal bonds of loyalty, devotion, and trust are formed. In this way, amae creates strong emotional ties that strengthen cohesion within the family, business organization, and community.
Japanese Americans inherit an almost reverential attitude toward work. Their ancestors struggled for survival in a crowded island country with limited natural resources, and they placed great value on industry and self-discipline. Certain traditional attitudes encourage resilient behavior in the face of setbacks and complement the moral imperative to work hard. Many Japanese Americans are familiar with the common expressions gaman and gambotte which mean “don’t let it bother you,” “don’t give up.” These dicta, derived from Buddhist teachings, encourage Japanese people to conceal frustration or disappointment and to carry on. A tradition that places great value on work and persistence has helped many Japanese Americans to acquire good jobs and to get ahead.
The submerging of the individual to the interest of the group is another basic Japanese tradition, and one that produces strong social cohesion and an oblique style of behavior, one manifestation of which is the indirection or allusiveness of much communication between Japanese; another is the polite, consensual behavior expected in all social contacts. Both are common in Japan and visible among Japanese Americans. Today, even third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans are apt to be seen by others as agreeable, unaggressive, willing to accept subordinate roles, and reluctant to put themselves forward. . . .
The history of the Japanese Americans in the United States is one of both resilience and adaptation. Suffering from discriminatory laws and racial hostility in the first half of the 20th century, Japanese Americans were nonetheless able to create stable ethnic communities and separate, but vital, social organizations. Since the end of World War II, with the disappearance of legal discrimination and the weakening of social restrictions, they have assimilated more readily into American society and shown rapid economic progress. Scholars have searched for the key to their remarkable record of adaptation. Some have pointed to the Japanese family, others to a strong group orientation, and still others to Japanese moral training; all of these theories often tend to overemphasize the degree to which Japanese traditions have been maintained. Japanese Americans have displayed a pragmatic attitude toward American life. [Rather] than rigidly maintaining their traditions, Japanese Americans have woven American values and behavior into the fabric of their culture and have seized new social, cultural, and economic avenues as they have become available, extending the limits of ethnicity by striking a workable balance between ethnic cohesion and accommodation.
SOURCE: Kitano (1980, pp. 570–571). Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright © 1980 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Selection by Portes and Zhou (edited)
The “Success” of Chinese Americans is StructuralAlejandro Portes and Min Zhou
[What lessons for ethnic poverty can we find in the experiences of Chinese Americans and other groups that have constructed ethnic enclaves?] A tempting option—and one to which many experts have not been averse—is to resort to culturalistic explanations. According to these interpretations, certain groups do better because they possess the “right” kind of values. This view is, of course, not too different from assimilation theory except that, instead of learning the proper values after arrival, immigrants bring them ready made. A moment’s reflection suffices to demonstrate the untenability of this explanation. . . .
The very diversity of [the] groups [that have constructed enclave economies] conspires against explanations that find the roots of economic mobility in the unique values associated with a particular culture. If we had to invoke a particular “ethic” to account for the business achievements of Chinese and Jews, Koreans and Cubans, Lebanese and Dominicans, we would wind up with a very messy theory. In terms of professed religions alone, we would have to identify those unique values leading Confucianists and Buddhists, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics into successful business ventures. In addition, culturalistic explanations have little predictive power since they are invoked only after a particular group has demonstrated its economic prowess. . . .
There is no alternative but to search for the relevant causal process in the social structure of the ethnic community. [Several] common aspects in the economic experience of the immigrant communities [are] relevant. . . .
[First is] the “bounded solidarity” created among immigrants by virtue of their foreignness and being treated as [different]. As consumers, immigrants manifest a consistent preference for items associated with the country of origin, both for their intrinsic utility and as symbolic representations of a distinct identity. As workers, they often prefer to work among “their own,” interacting in their native language even if this means sacrificing some material benefits. As investors, they commonly opt for firms in the country of origin or in the ethnic community rather than trusting their money to impersonal outside organizations.
Bounded solidarity [is accompanied by] “enforceable trust” against malfeasance among prospective ethnic entrepreneurs. Confidence that business associates will not resort to double-dealing is cemented in something more tangible than generalized cultural loyalty since it also relies on the ostracism of violators, cutting them off from sources of credit and opportunity. [Enforceable trust] is the key mechanism underlying the smooth operation of rotating credit associations among Asian immigrant communities.
Bounded solidarity and enforceable trust as sources of social capital do not inhere in the moral convictions of individuals or in the value orientations in which they were socialized. [These benefits] accrue by virtue of [the group’s] minority [status] in the host country and as a result of being subjected to mainstream pressure to accept their low place in the ethnic hierarchy. Such pressures prompt the revalorization of the symbols of a common nationality and the privileging of the ethnic community as the place where the status of underprivileged menial labor can be avoided. . . .
Black Americans, Mexican Americans, and mainland Puerto Ricans today lag significantly behind the immigrant groups in their entrepreneurial orientation. [This] lack of entrepreneurial presence is even more remarkable because of the large size of these minorities and the significant consumer market that they represent. . . .
We believe that the dearth of entrepreneurship among these groups is related to the dissolution of the structural underpinnings of the social capital resources noted above: bounded solidarity and enforceable trust. A thorough process of acculturation among U.S.-born members of each of these groups has led to a gradual weakening of their sense of community and to a reorientation towards the values, expectations, and preferences of the cultural mainstream. [Complete] assimilation among domestic minorities leads to identification with the mainstream views, including a disparaging evaluation of their own group. . . .
[Even] groups with a modest level of human capital have managed to create an entrepreneurial presence when the necessary social capital, created by specific historical conditions, was present. This was certainly the case among turn-of-the-century Chinese. [It] was also true of segregated black communities during the same time period. The current desperate conditions in many inner-city neighborhoods have led some black leaders to recall wistfully the period of segregation. [As one black leader said]:
[T]he same kind of business enclave that exists in the Cuban community or in the Jewish community existed in the black community when the consumer base was contained [i.e., segregated from the larger society] and needed goods and services that had to be provided by someone in the neighborhood. Today, blacks will not buy within their neighborhood if they can help it; they want to go to the malls and blend with mainstream consumers.
Hence, thorough acculturation and the formal end of segregation led to the dissipation of the social capital formerly present in restricted black enclaves and the consequent weakening of minority entrepreneurship. As blacks attempted to join the mainstream, they found that lingering discrimination barred or slowed down their progress in the labor market, while consumption of outside goods and services undermined their own community business base.
SOURCE: Portes and Zhou (1992, pp. 513–518).
Selection by Min (edited)
A Critique of the Model Minority ThesisPyong Gap Min
Probably the most frequently cited thesis . . . in the Asian American social science literature over the past two decades is the model minority thesis. . . . Many Asian American community leaders might have felt appreciative of the success image, taking it as a positive acceptance of Asian Americans by U.S. society. Yet, Asian American scholars, teachers, social workers, and activists have never appreciated the success image. Instead, they have provided harsh criticisms of the so-called model minority thesis, examining its inadequacies and its political basis and negative consequences. . . .
Median Family Income Not a Good Measure of Asian Americans’ Economic Well-Being
The success image of Asian Americans is partly based on the fact that the median household . . . income of Asian Americans is higher than that of white Americans. However, many . . . social scientists have . . . argued that the median family income is not a good measure of the economic success of Asian Americans because they have more workers per family and residentially concentrate in large cities, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, where living costs are very high.
The critics of the model minority thesis have also indicated that the thesis . . . distorts the . . . socioeconomic diversity [of Asian Americans]. While many college-educated Asian immigrants make high earnings . . . many others struggle for economic survival trapped in low-level, service-related jobs [and in] . . . the secondary labor market or the ethnic market. . . . [There is] a greater diversity in class among Asian Americans than among white Americans.
Issues of Lower Rewards to Human Capital Investment
The critics . . . do not consider Asian Americans successful mainly because Asian immigrants do not get rewards for their educational investments equal to white Americans. . . . Many college-educated Asian immigrants engage in low-status, low-paying occupations as taxi drivers, gas station attendants, or cleaners. Many Korean immigrants engage in labor-intensive small businesses to avoid low-paying service and blue-collar jobs. Some studies have indicated that even Asian immigrants who hold professional and government jobs are concentrated in periphery specialty areas or less influential positions. . . .
It is important to examine foreign-born Asian Americans separately from native-born, because the latter have a language barrier and other disadvantages for employment in the United States. [Some] studies . . . have found that native-born Asian American workers receive more or less equal rewards from their human capital investments to white Americans, while Asian immigrants get much lower returns. . . .
[Various studies] support the view that foreign-educated Asian immigrants’ language barrier and their lack of job market information, along with the difference in quality of education between Asian countries and the United Sates, are mainly responsible for their lower returns for human capital investments. However, [the studies also show] that Asian immigrants do . . . experience discrimination, whether based on racism, nativism, or both, in the U.S. labor market. . . .
The Glass Ceiling Problem
Another important issue . . . is the underrepresentation [of Asian Americans] in upper-level administrative, executive, and managerial positions in corporate and public sectors. [Although they] are well represented in professional occupations . . . Asian Americans may be at a disadvantage for these upper-level administrative positions because they lack communication and leadership skills, a result of more authoritarian child socialization techniques practiced in many Asian immigrant families. But it is also true that some well-qualified Asian Americans are not given these desirable positions because Asians are stereotyped as lacking leadership skills. . . . However, as native-born Asian Americans have come of age, more and more of them have been able to move into high-ranking positions during recent years. . . . As more and more Asian Americans occupy upper-level managerial and administrative positions, the stereotype of Asian Americans as lacking leadership skills will change too.
Asian Americans’ High Academic Achievement
The model minority image assumes that nearly all Asian American children are successful in school performance and that Asian cultural norms emphasizing children’s education are mainly responsible for their educational success. The critics of the model minority thesis have challenged both of these assumptions. . . . Asian Americans outperform whites in the rate of college degree attainment almost 2 times [see Exhibit 9.13] and statistics [like these] may have led . . . reporters and some researchers to overgeneralize Asian Americans’ educational success. But . . . Vietnamese Americans, especially foreign-born Vietnamese, [and some other groups] have a substantially lower level of education than white Americans. . . .
The model minority image includes the assumption that the Asian immigrant parents’ cultural norms emphasizing their children’s education are mainly responsible for the high academic achievement of Asian American students. This assumption is problematic, although it has some element of truth. . . . Contemporary Asian immigrants include a significant proportion of highly educated people who held professional and managerial occupations prior to immigration. Because of their parents’ highly educated background, Asian American students have a huge advantage in school performance over other minority children and even white students. This background of Asian immigrants should be emphasized as the most significant determinant of Asian American students’ academic success. Moreover, . . . immigrants . . . are self-selected in that those who are more . . . achievement oriented have taken the risk of immigrating to the United States. . . .
However, in addition to these class and selfselection effects, cultural factors contribute to Asian American students’ academic success, and this is why I have indicated that the Asian cultural norms interpretation has some element of truth. People in other countries, especially Asian and Caribbean countries, tend to put more emphasis on education . . . than people in the United States and Western European countries. . . . I have seen many students from Asian and Caribbean countries . . . working exceptionally hard to advance to a graduate school despite their financial difficulty and language barrier, while many native-born white American students . . . were attending college simply to get a college degree. The high achievement orientation of Asian and Caribbean students in the United States reflects the values in their home countries. . . .
No doubt, Asian immigrant parents’ emphasis on their children’s success . . . and . . . the perception of Asian American children as model students have positively affected their academic performance. But they have also had negative effects on their psychological well-being by putting too much pressure on them. Although academically successful children are well rewarded in the family and the community, the students who perform at below-average or even average levels are not rewarded and are sometimes neglected by their parents. . . .
Negative Effects of the Success Image on Asian Americans’ Welfare and Other Minority Groups
Asian American critics of the model minority thesis have argued that the success image . . . is not only invalid but also detrimental to the welfare of Asian Americans. . . . The critics point out that . . . Asian Americans have frequently been eliminated from affirmative action and other social service programs designed for disadvantaged minority groups. For example, the poverty rates of Chinese residents in New York Chinatown and Korean residents in Los Angeles Koreatown in 1990 were 25% and 26%, respectively. . . . Yet, those poor Chinese and Korean residents were not eligible for many welfare programs for which poor African Americans were eligible. The critics have also indicated that the success stories . . . stimulated anti-Asian sentiment and violence on college campuses and in communities. . . .
Asian American social work and mental health professionals in particular have been concerned about the negative implications of the success image for various social services to Asian Americans. . . . Policymakers and non-Asian social workers tend to assume that Asian Americans generally do not have serious juvenile, elderly, and other family problems. However, Asian American social workers have argued that Asian Americans’ underuse of social services does not imply that they have fewer . . . problems . . . [but] rather . . . their help-seeking behavior patterns. . . . Moderately disturbed Asian Americans are reluctant to seek help from mental health services because of their cultural norms emphasizing shame and family integrity. Several studies reveal that Asian immigrants have a higher rate of stress and other mental health problems than white Americans. . . .
Finally, . . . the model minority thesis . . . negatively affects other minority groups as well. . . . By emphasizing the importance of cultural factors for the successful adjustment of Asian Americans, the success image in effect blames other less successful minority groups for their failure. It thus legitimates the openness of American society and leads people to fail to recognize social barriers encountered by other minority groups.
SOURCE: Min (2006, pp. 81–87)
Selection by Lee (edited. References have been omitted)
The Model Minority Myth is a Way to Criticize Other Minority Groups, Especially BlacksStacy Lee
The term "model minority" first appeared in the popular press in January 1966 in William Peterson's New York Times article, "Success Story Japanese American Style," in which he praised Japanese Americans for not becoming a "problem minority." Within the year, U.S. News & World Report published an article lauding the success of Chinese Americans. … The article went on to praise the good citizenship of Chinese Americans and the safety of Chinatowns. The fact that the stereotype first appeared in the middle of the Civil Rights movement was no coincidence. Just months before the Peterson article was published…, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed and the 1965 Watts riots occurred. Critics of the model minority stereotype have argued that the emergence of the stereotype at this moment in history represented the attempts of the status quo to silence the charges of racial injustice being raised by African Americans …
It was also during the mid-1960s that social scientists began to talk about poverty as a cultural phenomenon. Poor people were described as living in a culture of poverty that shaped their actions and behaviors in ways that trapped them in poverty. Significantly, poverty became associated most closely with urban blacks during this period. … Since then, blacks have been equated with urban blight, cultural deficiency, and dysfunctional families. … In contrast to the representation of blacks …, Asian Americans were heralded as model minorities with strong families and good cultures. Indeed, the rhetoric of the model minority stereotype emphasized the role of Asian culture and families in the success of Asian Americans.
The prescriptive nature of the model minority stereotype is striking in both the Peterson article and the U.S. News & World Report piece. Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans were singled out as good citizens and good minorities precisely because they were seen as quiet, uncomplaining, and hard-working people who achieved success without depending on the government. According to these authors, the success of Asian Americans proved that all groups could achieve the American dream through hard work. That is, Asian Americans as model minorities were used to exemplify the achievement ideology. … African Americans were implicitly being told to model themselves after Asian Americans. While Asian Americans were held up as shining examples of hard work and good citizenship, African Americans were positioned as loud, complaining, and lazy. Put differently, there can be no model minority without the concomitant lazy, underachieving black “other." Thus, as a hegemonic device the model minority stereotype maintains the dominance of whites in the racial hierarchy by diverting attention away from racial inequalities and by setting standards for how minorities should behave.
During the 1980s the model minority stereotype reached beyond Chinese and Japanese Americans to include Southeast Asians as well. … The popular press began to recognize the potential negative implications of the model minority stereotype during the 1980s [but] it continued to portray Asian Americans as exemplary minorities who gain success through sheer effort and determination. The cover story for Time's August 31, 1987, issue illustrates [the] point. The article, "The New Whiz Kids: Why Asian Americans Are Doing So Well, and What It Costs Them," lauded the academic achievement of Asian American students … . It included stories of Southeast Asian refugees who overcame extreme obstacles to achieve academic success. … Once again, Asian Americans are depicted as brave, silent, and long-suffering people. The implicit message is that individual effort will be rewarded by success and that failure is the fate of those who do not adhere to the value of hard work. …
In the traditional family values rhetoric espoused by neoconservatives during the 1990s, Asian American families were held up as exemplars of old-fashioned, traditional, good families. Not insignificantly, the traditional Asian family was contrasted with the stereotypical dysfunctional black family headed by a single black mother on welfare … In the 1992 riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, the conservative press depicted Korean Americans as hardworking, self-made immigrants whose property was threatened by the unlawful anger of black America. Here, Korean Americans became stand-ins for white, middle-class America …
The model minority stereotype persists into the early 21st century without any signs of disappearing. The continuing dominance of the model minority stereotype reflects the fact that the stereotype continues to support the rhetoric of the achievement ideology. Asian Americans as model minorities are the ideal … subject [for the achievement ideology] – motivated, self-sufficient, and successful. The model minority success of Asian Americans is interpreted as evidence that [American society is] neutral and color-blind. Similarly, Asian Americans as model minorities represent the ideal neoconservative subject – traditional, family-oriented, and hard-working. The stereotypical image of the Asian family, with the strict patriarchal father, the dutiful mother who lives solely to guide her children's education, and the obedient children who do well in school, serves the rhetoric of traditional family values espoused by neoconservatives. As in the Civil Rights era, the model minority stereotype pits Asian Americans against other groups of people of color and supports the rhetoric of meritocracy. …
Finally, the stereotype has persisted because there appears to be some evidence to support the idea that Asian Americans are successful. … However, the success of [some Asian American] student mask the growing academic struggles of other Asian American youth. By describing Asian Americans as model minorities, the diverse and complex experiences of Asian Americans remain hidden.
DEBATE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- If Kitano and Seigel are correct, what could other minority groups learn from Asian American experience? Are cultural factors (such as determination and resilience) more important than structural factors (such as colonization and discrimination)? Could other minority groups (such as African Americans and Native Americans) have countered their oppression with “good values?” How?
- If Portes and Zhou are correct, what could other minority groups learn from the Chinese experience? Do Portes and Zhou use cultural factors as part of their explanation? How? Are Portes and Zhou advocating segregation? Pluralism? Assimilation?
- According to Min and Lee, what are the limitations of the “model minority” image? What specific sociological concepts do Min and Lee use in their critiques? What is the “glass ceiling” problem for Asian Americans, and how does it compare with similar problems faced by women (see Chapter 11)? What “self-selection” factors affect the academic performance of Asian Americans? What are some of the negative effects of the model minority image for Asian Americans and for other minority groups?
- Which of these views are consistent with traditional assimilation theory? How? Which are consistent with human capital theory? How? Which views are consistent with the thinking of Noel and Blauner? How?