Paragons Or Pariahs?

Arguing with Asian-American success

Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, edited by Herbert Barringer, Robert W. Gardner, and Michael J. Levin, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 384 pages, $42.50

The Asian American Movement: A Social History, by William Wei, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 355 pages, $34.95

Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990, by Bill Ong Hing, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 340 pages, $45.00

Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society, by Gwen Kinkead, New York: HarperCollins, 215 pages, $12.00 paper

Asian Americans: Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans, by Joann Lee, New York: The New Press, 235 pages, $11.95 paper

A recent Los Angeles Times poll asked Asian Americans in Southern California about their job opportunities and living conditions. Eighty-three percent described them as good or very good, compared with 77 percent of whites, 55 percent of Hispanics, and 33 percent of blacks. Little wonder. Their satisfaction springs from many sources. Asian Americans have the highest median household income, the highest percentage of managerial and technical jobs, the lowest unemployment rate, and the lowest crime rate of any racial or ethnic group in the country, including whites.

As entrepreneurs, they have reinvigorated dozens of urban areas. Their achievements on the education front are epic. In college student lingo, MIT is now "Made in Taiwan" and UCLA is the "University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians." New immigrant waves make these gains increasingly visible–Asian Americans are the country’s fastest growing racial or ethnic group. They currently make up 3 percent of the general population, including 10 percent of California’s. Who can really doubt that Asian Americans have "made it" in America?

These purported accomplishments threaten to throw the country’s black-and-white race debate out of kilter. In reaction, Asian-American civil-rights leaders try to debunk the Asian-American success story. Anti-Asian sentiment is on the rise, say the critics, from auto assembly lines in Detroit to the Broadway hit Miss Saigon, in which characters refer to Asians as "slits" and "greasy Chinks." Economic indicators touting Asian-American success are misleading: Per-capita income has always lagged behind that of whites, professionals hopelessly bang their heads against a glass ceiling, and many inner-city merchants, especially Koreans, now face an increasingly hostile clientele resentful of their prosperity. The "model minority" myth, which promotes Asian-American achievement, covers up genuine problems in the community and serves merely to pit racial and ethnic groups against each other. As an oppressed minority, Asian-Americans both need and deserve the same special governmental protections accorded to other disadvantaged groups.

There are elements of truth to both of these views, but neither is completely accurate. Asian Americans are neither paragons nor pariahs, to use Smith College sociologist Peter Rose’s apt terminology. For the real scoop on the state of Asian America, turn to the Russell Sage Foundation’s excellent Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. The best recent demographic overview, it makes a strong case for Asian-American success without overlooking genuine problems.

With all the talk about the model minority, it’s easy to forget that there’s really no such thing as an "Asian American." Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Asian Indians, Vietnamese, and others share no common tongue, faith, or history. Enormous differences in education, employment, and income separate these groups. To assume Asian Americans have a pan-ethnic identity–as politicos and professors do when it’s to their advantage–is often futile and misleading.

Some Asian ethnic groups certainly do make the United States look like a land of unlimited opportunity. The mostly native Japanese-American population, for instance, seems "to have reached essential parity with whites." The largely refugee Vietnamese-American population, on the other hand, displays "characteristics more typical of ‘castelike’ minorities–blacks, American Indians, and Hispanics." Many differences exist even within ethnic groups. East Coast Filipinos look like a socioeconomic elite; on the West Coast, they more closely mirror Hispanics The reverse is true for Chinese.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with success, no matter how generalized it may be. Asian Americans can boast of extraordinarily stable families, very little divorce, and high levels of education. Most (but not all) of their per-capita income disadvantage can be explained by immigrant status. Whatever trouble, remain–even for the problematic Southeast Asian cohorts–might simply require patience: "The longer immigrants had resided in the United States, the more they resembled white Americans socially. Or outdid white Americans." The editors stick close to their numbers and refrain from making even modest predictions, but this book makes it easy to believe that almost complete economic and social assimilation will ultimately embrace the vast majority of Asian Americans.

Assimilation has never lacked Asian-American opponents, however. During the heady days of the 1960s liberation movements, "Asian Americans became acutely aware that they had more in common with African Americans than with European Americans," writes activist-turned-author William Wei in The Asian American Movement. Of course, not all Asian Americans shared this sentiment. In fact, most didn’t, a point Wei conveniently skips over. He does admit, however, that the movement sprang from a handful of Chinese- and Japanese-American student radicals who tried to mobilize under a pan-ethnic banner. Only by forging "a new sociopolitical entity"–the "Asian American"–could their otherwise small and divided sub-ethnic populations gain the numerical clout to hop on the civilrights bandwagon and grab some attention.

The Asian American Movement, disorganized and quarrelsome from day one, spent much of its energy protesting the Vietnam War, which Wei interprets as a racist effort to keep Southeast Asia colonized by Western powers. The war particularly concerned Asian-American radicals, Wei says, since it promoted something he calls "Gookism"–white America’s inability to distinguish between "the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians (among other Asians) encountered overseas and Asian Americans at home." Wei never considers whether his beloved movement’s attempt to manufacture a pan-ethnic identity might have exacerbated the rest of America’s alleged inability to see the diversity of Asian America.

Predictably, the movement floundered. It lacked "a nationally known leader" and even "a set of specific aims." Wei’s chronicle, though it assumes a tone of high seriousness, actually reads like a parody of radical-left incompetence. Members of the movement participated in Maoist purges like sport, battled among themselves over poetry readings, and regularly hurled silly invectives against the United States, which Wei calls "one of the most oppressive systems of racial prejudice and class domination that has ever existed in any democratic country." Despite these problems, the movement limps along. Wei reports that younger soldiers have "emerged to participate in the multicultural education movement."

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