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The Asian disadvantage

Asian America is no more ‘monolithic’ than white America

October 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

In the first Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13, Anderson Cooper questioned Jim Webb’s stance on affirmative action, citing a 2010 op-ed by the then-Senator that called the practice discriminatory and referred to white privilege as a myth.

“Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America, and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government,” Webb notes in the article, adding that this makes them unworthy “beneficiaries of special government programs ... in a wide variety of areas including business startups, academic admissions, job promotions and lucrative government contracts.” Resting his case on the false premise that class and race-based affirmative action are mutually exclusive, Webb maintains that these programs harm impoverished whites. “Contrary to assumption in the law,” Webb writes, “white America is hardly a monolith.”

In the debate, Cooper posited that Webb’s stance against affirmative action would alienate minority voters. “I have always supported affirmative action for African-Americans,” Webb clarified. But he went on to question the legitimacy of “diversity programs that include everyone, quote, of color,” accompanying the phrase with skeptical air quotes that minority voters surely found welcoming and inclusive.

A recent New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof titled “The Asian Advantage” comes to similar conclusions: Asian-Americans are uniquely situated to succeed in America, but other groups face tougher odds. Kristof attributes the supposedly universal success of Asian-Americans to a variety of factors, such as a “Confucian emphasis on education” and a belief in the value of hard work. He further argues that “positive stereotyping” is a net good that helps Asian-American students succeed in the classroom in part because teachers expect them to excel at math.

Kristof is correct that the average income and education level of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders is relatively high, but he doesn’t note, for instance, that the percentage of Asian-Americans living below poverty is slightly greater than the national average. Poverty and dropout rates among Southeast Asians are staggeringly elevated, with poverty rates among some ethnic Asian groups over three times the national average, and high-school dropout rates ranging from 35 to 40 percent for Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmongs. Asian America is thus no less monolithic than white America.

The positive stereotyping Kristof applauds can be especially alienating to members of these groups. Asian-Americans who don’t live up to academic expectations face greater social stigma and are less likely to get the help they need. The model minority myth fails to view Asian-Americans with this much-needed granularity, and prevents us from addressing the unique challenges facing the community today. After all, as Kristof himself notes, “because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can.”

Positive stereotyping can also present difficulty for Asian-American students who do perform well academically, but are less likely to be recognized as exceptional than, say, a white peer with comparable abilities. This proves problematic on both an individual and an aggregate level. Writing in the New York Times, Harvard political theorist Yascha Mounk points out that Asian students must outperform their white peers by 140 SAT points to win admission to elite universities.

Asian-Americans often face a damned if they do, damned if they don’t scenario.

Kristof does briefly pay lip service to concerns of discrimination against Asian-Americans, but then blithely dismisses them:

[Scholars] say Asian-Americans work hard to succeed in areas with clear metrics like math and science in part as a protection against bias — and in any case, many Asians still perceive a ‘bamboo ceiling’ that is hard to break through. To me, the success of Asian-Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education. Bravo!

Kristof may be celebrating, but these are not mere trifles. The so-called bamboo ceiling, which prevents Asian-Americans from rising through the ranks to the upper tiers of management, is not just a perception; it’s a well-documented social trend. Further, the fact that Asian-Americans are driven en masse towards industries most likely to mitigate the effects of prejudice hardly represents a progressive victory.

If anything, Asian-Americans often face a damned if they do, damned if they don’t scenario. Those who do indulge an interest, however genuine, in math or science are more likely to be typecast. “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor,” wrote one Harvard admissions officer in evaluating an Asian applicant. Meanwhile, Asian-Americans’ entry to atypical fields is inhibited by bias. Kristof bolsters this view when he, without citation, claims that “Among Asians, there’s sometimes concern that there’s too much focus on memorization, not enough on creativity,” in a discussion of the downsides of positive stereotyping.

If there is actual evidence suggesting that quantitative and artistic ability are negatively correlated, or that race is a good proxy for the latter, he fails to present it.

Of course, Asian-Americans are not alone in facing discrimination. On Tuesday night, Webb took care to note that African-Americans have a “unique history in this country, with slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed,” and that this must be addressed with public policy.

Yet it’s possible to advocate for as much without using Asian-Americans as a foil. “As recognized by the Supreme Court, schools have an interest in recruiting … minority students to obtain ‘the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,’” Mounk writes. “This justifies … admissions standards that look favorably on underrepresented groups. … But it can neither explain nor justify why a student of Chinese, Korean, or Indian descent is so much less likely to be admitted than a white one.”

Pointing to policies such as favored legacy admissions, which tend to disproportionately benefit whites, he gets to the crux of the issue. “The real problem is that, in a meritocratic system, whites would be a minority — and Harvard just isn’t comfortable with that.” Indeed, thorough analysis has demonstrated that race-based admissions practices at elite universities present virtually no opportunity cost to white applicants (and significant opportunity cost to Asians.) Webb may be appealing to white Americans who see their race as a disadvantage, but this false sense of victimhood is not in line with statistical realities.

Having to cater to external biases to flourish in one’s academic and professional life is by no means an advantage, nor is that discrimination felt less acutely merely because some level of success is achieved. Similarly, that some Asian-Americans demonstrate a willingness and ability to work hard enough to overcome prejudices does not make the weight of racism less of a burden, or transform it into a privilege. It is certainly no true realization of the American dream.

Silpa Kovvali is a New York based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Salon.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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