Asian merchants are prospering in America's inner cities-and facing the pent-up frustration of blacks.
Late in September 1986 Sarah Carter, a black resident of Washington, D.C.'s economically pressed and nearly all-black Anacostia neighborhood, got into a quarrel with Cheung Hung Chan, the owner of a local Chinese-American carryout restaurant. The argument, which began as a mix-up over a food order, was the latest in a series involving Mrs. Carter and Mr. Chan, and it soon escalated. According to a local resident who was an eyewitness, Mrs. Carter angrily announced that she was going to get her son and have him "blow the joint up." At about that point, Chan pulled an unregistered .38-caliber handgun from under the counter and chased Mrs. Carter from the store.
Within half an hour local blacks had manned a picket line outside the store. Chan was arrested for firearms violations and eventually sentenced to 100 hours of community service. But his store was closed down for several months by picketing, vandalism, and threats. It soon became clear that the gun incident had touched off a much deeper resentment. A witness to the incident reported that when she asked Carter why she was arguing with Chan, Carter replied that "she wanted to see the store closed anyway because Chinese don't suppose to be owning all these stores in the community."
The Rev. Willie Wilson, a local minister who became the leader and spokesman of the protest, put the argument directly: "The Asian community is the latest of a series of ethnic groups that have come into our community, disrespected us, raped us economically, and moved out at our expense." He urged blacks to "support our own" and called for the removal of nonblack businesses from black neighborhoods.
"Another Asian tenant in that location will not satisfy us," Wilson stated. "We're not saying we want to put all the Asians out of business, but we would like them to do their business elsewhere. Residents of Anacostia want to see Afro-Americans reclaim ownership of part of their community."
Several black leaders disavowed the protest, its anti-Asian sentiment, and its suggestion that small-business owners ought to be subject to political controls. The Rev. Lorren Hackett of the Anacostia Bible Church, for instance, decried the attempt to close the store as "a racial thing."
But Nadine Winter, the elected legislator representing the Anacostia district, declared in an October television interview that "the day of the Asian community occupying or getting the majority of business in a [black] neighborhood is over.…We are not going to burn down our community.…We are going to use our clout in city hall." She then advocated a government program to purchase businesses from nonblacks at their appraised price and install black "role models" in them.
Further evidence of how unabashed anti-Asian expressions have become in the black community came nine months later when Willie Wilson spoke at an outdoor political rally of prominent black supporters of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Calvin Rolark, president of the United Black Fund (a national organization that works in tandem with the United Way) and husband of another of Washington's city council members, introduced Wilson as "the man who had to get the boat people straight."
Similar incidents between Asian ghetto merchants and blacks have occurred in cities across the country. Nineteen eighty-five saw a series of confrontations between Korean businessmen and blacks in Harlem, where Korean-Americans own about a quarter of the shops on the main strip. Los Angeles has had a number of tense encounters, and in 1986 the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP called for a "selective buying campaign" against Asian merchants.
Dozens of other incidents have been reported in cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle Tacoma, and Providence. Some disputes have sprung from competition between blacks and Asians over jobs, social services, and housing. But in the greatest number of cases the troubles have centered on the opening and operation of small businesses.
The frictions between inner-city blacks and Asians also exist to varying degrees among other groups in close proximity across the country. There has been conflict between blacks and Cuban entrepreneurs in Miami, for instance, and between white blue-collar workers and Asians in Massachusetts and Texas. But the broadest, deepest, and most sustained economic animosity in American cities today—and the only conflict clearly getting worse, not better—is between blacks and Asian-American entrepreneurs in low-income neighborhoods.
The specific grievances put forth by blacks against Asian merchants are several, and they are virtually identical wherever they surface.
Blacks often claim that Asians are stealing business opportunities in America's inner cities. A series of articles in 1984 in The Sentinel, an Afro-American newspaper in Los Angeles, condemned Asian shopkeepers' "takeover" of businesses in black areas. In a letter responding to the series, the executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations objected that throughout the articles, the term "Black community" was used "to describe a geographical area in which it seemed to be suggested that nonblack businesses were unwanted, almost an encroachment on private property."
A corollary to this charge is the claim that Asian businesses are unlikely to employ blacks. In some cases this is simply inaccurate. (Mr. Chan, who was so charged, numbered two blacks among his four employees.) The real problem, however, is in the nature of these operations: 8 out of 10 Asian-American businesses have no paid employees and rely exclusively on family members as workers.
There is an overarching complaint that Asian small-business competition is "unfair." Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese—they work "unfair" (meaning very long) hours. As the director of the Vietnamese Fishermen Association in Oakland, California, put it, "They don't go in for a beer. They don't go in to watch football. That makes other people mad."
And their expenses are "unfairly" low—not only do they spend little on leisure, they live very simply and share houses. One commonly hears variants of the statement by one black truck driver that "they move one in, and within a week's time, they've got 10 of them living in one room."
For many inner-city blacks, the felt cumulative effect of all these factors is to make Asian entrepreneurs impossible to compete with. There is a widespread feeling among American blacks that economically hypermobile Asian Americans must be getting special assistance of some sort that is not available to other minority groups. Barrington Nicholas, a black Washingtonian who is himself a small-store owner, expresses a common sentiment when he says, "I know they get some kind of breaks, because I've seen it." Time and again an investigator will be told in whispered tones of federal programs, easy bank loans, special benefits of all sorts.
Perhaps tied to the perception among blacks that Asian merchants have an insuperable set of social advantages is the sensitive issue of "respect." Blacks sometimes complain that Asian businessmen, Koreans in particular, are arrogant and rude. Referring to Asian-American storeowners in her low-income area of Washington, daycare-center operator Yvonne Stewart says, "They can't seem to separate me from the men who hang on the corner."
The disrespect blacks feel from some Asian shopkeepers may grow partly out of language barriers or differences in cultural style. It may stem partly from the constant harassments any ghetto merchant, of any race, comes to resent: repeated hold-ups, pilferings, graffiti, burglaries, vandalism, and so forth. (Shortly after the Chan-Carter incident in Washington, a Korean shopkeeper was shot dead a few blocks away during a robbery.)
It also may well be that some Asian ghetto merchants simply are disrespectful. Incidents like the 1986 statement by Japan's Prime Minister Nakasone that minorities are a drag on American performance suggest that the societies from which some Asian immigrants come still harbor strong feelings of cultural superiority.
Whatever the case, there is no denying that wide cultural gaps often exist between Asian immigrants and their American neighbors. The proposed opening, in 1986, of an Asian-owned restaurant in a black area of Philadelphia led black radio personality and civil-rights activist Georgie Woods to denounce Korean merchants on his radio show. "They don't look like us, and they don't live like us, and they don't act like us."
In Revere, Massachusetts, the scene of ongoing conflicts between Southeast Asian immigrants and white blue-collar workers, a neighbor of one immigrant family says, "Immigrants used to come from countries nearly as civilized as the U.S. These people come from jungle communities." A former Revere city councilor confides in hushed voice that "the rumor, strictly a rumor, is that they eat dogs."
In Revere, these kinds of "they're not like us" sentiments have led to violence, including rock throwing, serious beatings, and the Christmas Eve 1986 burning of a house sheltering 28 Cambodian immigrants. In Washington, D.C., 10-year-old Chinese-American Ho Cheung tells of taunts and beatings and the refusal of his black classmates to use his real first name, calling him "Chop Suey" or "Ching Chong" or "Chinky" instead.
The Justice Department reports there was a 62 percent increase in anti-Asian incidents in 1985. In Los Angeles County, Asians were targets of 50 percent of the reported racial incidents in 1986 (versus 15 percent in 1985). In Boston, 29 percent of racial crimes were against Asian-Americans in the latest year, compared to 2 percent five years earlier. These are very high numbers considering that Asian-Americans constitute under 3 percent of the population nationally.
Anti-Asian animosity has a long and dark history in this country. Throughout the century and a half Asians have been coming here they have always been distinguished equally by their inventive economic accomplishments and the remarkable backlash those achievements have sparked. The first numerous Asian immigrants to this country were the Chinese, who came to San Francisco in the gold rush of 1848. Between 1850 and 1882 (when the Chinese Exclusion Act went into effect), over 300,000 Chinese entered the United States, most of them unskilled peasants.
Almost immediately, Chinese miners faced physical attacks and discriminatory taxes and regulations aimed at depriving them of gold claims. As a result they specialized in mining low-grade strikes and extracting ore from abandoned tailings. In the late 1850s, large all-Chinese work gangs were recruited to build the western railroads, in particular the Central Pacific transcontinental link. (This put them in direct and unpopular competition with the Irish laborers laying down the rival Union Pacific line.)
With the completion of the major railroads, low-wage Chinese laborers began to disperse. Some went back to mining. Some became share croppers, others raised vegetables on reclaimed land and peddled them themselves. The Chinese also became factory workers, especially in the garment, shoemaking, and cigar industries. Early on, Chinese entrepreneurs established companies and workshops of their own in each of these industries. As a result, when anti-Chinese agitations came along, resulting in the firing of Chinese workers, most of those laid off could be absorbed by Chinese owned firms.
Anti-Chinese agitation never abated, however, and in 1882 union leaders, nativists, and groups in economic competition with Chinese entrepreneurs convinced Congress to cut off Chinese immigration. The move was a crushing blow to the Chinese presence in America, owing to the demographic peculiarity of Chinese immigration: it was made up almost exclusively of adult males. In the late 1800s, males outnumbered females in the Chinese-American community by about 25 to 1. As a result, there were few families, and without continued immigrant flows the number of Chinese soon dropped precipitously.
The exclusion of Chinese labor was an artificial edict of government, and soon American farms and industry were searching for a substitute. In the three or four decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act, approximately 300,000 Japanese arrived on American shores. Most replaced old and infirm Chinese as agricultural laborers in California. (Although never constituting more than a tenth of California's population, Chinese formed about a quarter of the state's labor force, since they were nearly all males of working age.)
The Japanese too soon learned how to translate low-wage labor into self-employment. Typically an immigrant would start as an agricultural field worker, progress to contract farming, then to sharecropping or leasing, and finally to land ownership and truck farming, an undertaking in which the Japanese quickly became preeminent. (In 1919, more than 10 percent of all California crops by market value were being raised by the relatively few Japanese farmers.) In cities, too, the small family-run business became a foundation of Japanese-American economic life. Japanese immigrants operated small shops, cafes, laundries, rooming houses, and the like. Others worked as domestics, which can serve as a kind of self-employment.
As Japanese economic success spread, demagogues pressed for further Asian business proscriptions. In the first two decades of this century California laws banned foreign-born Japanese from employing Caucasian women; made it illegal for Japanese to buy, inherit, or even lease land; made fishing license fees higher for Asians than for non-Asians; blocked foreign-born Asians from being licensed as realtors, beauticians, and so forth; and set special taxes on Asian immigrants. In addition, Chinese and Japanese-American children were banned from certain public schools, and Asians were forbidden from giving testimony against whites in courtroom trials.
This ever-tightening noose of restrictions on Asian presence and enterprise—Asian immigrants barred from citizenship in 1870, Chinese forbidden even to enter the country in 1882, informal quotas on Japanese immigrants starting in 1907, multitudinous state and local laws obstructing Asian business activity—culminated in the Alien Quota Act passed by Congress in 1924, which almost completely excluded Asian immigrants. (Except Filipinos, who as residents of an American territory had immigration rights, and so became the next wave. The ancient beat of legal restriction and market substitution went on.)
How is it that Asian immigrants to this country have prospered, in some cases mightily, in the face of these extraordinarily concerted efforts to block their economic progress? There has been no universal formula. Historically, for example, the Chinese have tended to retreat in the face of persecution, while the Japanese have pressed on.
Chinese immigrants often migrated when they became unpopular in a particular area. They tended to segregate themselves in urban Chinatowns wherever they settled. They hewed fairly closely to one of several lines of employment—laundries and restaurants being favorites—where they were not likely to be competing with Caucasian businesses. These factors tended to enhance the physical safety of Chinese immigrants and provided the cohesive cultural and family environment most conservative Chinese wanted—but at the cost of ghettoization. It sometimes became difficult for Chinese to take the second step in the economic cycle, away from the laundries and cheap restaurants and into the economic mainstream.
The Japanese, on the other hand, many of whom excelled early on as businessmen-farmers, were much more vulnerable. They were scattered across large areas of the rural west. They were in direct, and often successful, competition with powerful native economic interests. They did not hesitate to exert their advantage when available, for instance by conducting strikes. For these reasons, the Japanese were much less likely than the Chinese to remain in low paying service occupations. At the same time, the combination of political vulnerability and economic assertiveness helped produce cultural resentments against Japanese-Americans that were easily translated into internment demands after the sting of Pearl Harbor.
But, strangely, possibly even the trauma of the World War II relocation camps—and measured economically or, particularly, socially, the trauma was indeed massive—may have been turned by the Japanese to their own good. Sociologist William Petersen has suggested that the relocation, by breaking up and further dispersing the Japanese-American community, may have completed its integration into mainstream U.S. society. He points out that the Japanese in Hawaii, who were not interned, did not experience the same level of upward mobility after the war as did the mainland Japanese.
Despite important differences among various groups of Asian immigrants, there are distinctive common aspects of Asian-American economic success. Some immigrant groups have emphasized political organization, education, or other factors as the means to successful integration. Asians, while not neglecting these methods, generally placed them second in importance to financial success. Only economic security and self reliance, most Asian-Americans have believed, make other forms of social mastery lastingly possible.
And Asians are clearly energized by the experience of immigration itself. Cut off from all that is familiar and comfortable, immigrants have ever found solace, or at least forgetting, in overcompensating industry.
Moreover, an immigrant's very foreignness can help him get started in business. Immigrants have special consumer tastes that outsiders cannot easily satisfy: certain ethnic foods and groceries, specialized household goods and clothing, services—such as travel agency and insurance—transacted in an alien language. By filling these commercial niches in enclaves of their fellow foreign-born, a certain number of immigrants are able to become rapidly established as merchants.
The trick is to take advantage of those protected markets without becoming trapped in them. In Los Angeles, 46 percent of present Asian-owned businesses cater narrowly to other Asians, and the competition between them is often fierce. The likely pattern over time, however, is clear. Early in this century, more than two-thirds of Japanese retail trade was with other Japanese. By the 1920s, though, Japanese-American businessmen were doing a majority of their business with non-Japanese, and in a much broader range of industries.
Among the more recent arrivals, Korean-Americans have taken somewhat of a hybrid approach. By and large they have gone directly to general-market retailing, buying existing businesses with established non-Korean clienteles. Like most immigrant start-up entrepreneurs, they have found their own variety of a partially protected market: inner-city corner establishments that had been abandoned by other merchants because they were either too exhausting to run, too crime-plagued, or too low-revenue. By putting in long hours, using low-wage family labor, and being willing to bear often difficult conditions, Koreans have been able to squeeze reasonable profits out of these businesses.
Also contributing to Asian economic success is that they often work almost heroically hard. Chi Loi, a young Vietnamese who opened an Orange County fish market with her husband in 1982, says, "Some Americans don't like us, they think we came with gold and diamonds. I try to explain that we're not that kind of people. We work very hard, to save money." Referring specifically to the black-Korean cultural gap, a Washington, D.C., Korean merchant states, "The blacks, they think you just make money easy. It's not true. We never off a day."
Jerome Winegar, the principal of a mixed-ethnicity South Boston high school, argues that "for the American poor, it doesn't take too much hot weather [before] people are sitting around, drinking beer and feeling sorry for themselves." The "problem" with Asian immigrants has sometimes been the opposite. In response to complaints from white fishermen in Texas and Florida of round-the-clock trawling by Vietnamese, state laws have been passed restricting the hours, zones, even net sizes allowable for commercial fishing. It is argued this is necessary to prevent over-harvesting.
Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan, who has studied school performance of Asian-American children, maintains that "there are no clear indications that Asian kids are smarter than anyone else. There are lots of indicators that they work harder."
Resilience has also helped Asian-American business efforts. As the Japanese proverb exhorts, "Six times down, seven times up!" Each new external pressure would produce a clever response: having had their prime gold claims stolen, they became expert secondary miners. When alien land ownership was forbidden, titles were transferred to front men. When other opportunities were denied them, Chinese and Japanese laborers and miners worked as strike-breakers in place of Greek or Irish workers. When established retailers abandoned certain neighborhoods, Koreans stepped in.
Asian-American success also owes much to extraordinarily close-knit community structures. Asian-Americans have extremely low rates of divorce and family break-up. What's more, they are disproportionately likely to live in extended families with relatives. Kin groups—the fong, kenjinkai, and so forth—have always been important. And blood or clan relationships allow a strength of connection in business undertakings that a simple cash nexus could never provide.
For example: Tina Nguyen was born in Vietnam and came to this country 12 years ago at the age of 16. Today both she and her sister Ann are successful professionals in the financial department of a national corporation that runs hotels and nursing homes. They still live at home with their parents—both of whom also work—an older brother, and two older sisters. All of the adult siblings contribute their earnings to their parents for family use. The result is an extraordinary pooled income. The Nguyen siblings may draw from the family funds whatever they feel they need for clothes, living expenses, education, even purchases of stock and other investments, but savings are paramount, and all major financial decisions are made jointly. All social activities center on the family as well.
Their tightly woven community fabric has contributed signally to one of the central successes of Asian-Americans: an ability to raise capital for business ventures. Neither banks nor government agencies set up to promote minority enterprise have had much role in this, for a simple reason: New small businesses are incredibly risky, with more failures than successes. Loan officers at big institutions don't often get involved with them because they can't make the subtle judgments about which entrepreneur has a good chance and which doesn't.
Uncle Marvin, however, can make those judgments. Family and close friends are in an excellent position to know who in a given circle has what it takes to make a go of it in business. And if they subsequently entrust their life savings to that party, they do so without much fear that it will be absconded with.
The implication of all this, as economist Thomas Sowell has noted, is that members of close-knit groups like Asian Americans—where individuals have intimate knowledge of one another's character—have greater potential resources to draw upon for seed capital. Black venture capitalist Ralph McNeal puts it simply: "People don't usually lend money to strangers."
Asian-Americans have piled up remarkable amounts of capital through family savings and other private means. The rotating credit associations they brought with them from their homelands have been important in this regard. Informal credit groups, known generically as hui ("association" or "club"), have been in existence in southern China for about 800 years. Similar organizations exist in Japan, called ko, mujin, or tanomoshi (the Japanese word tanomu means "dependable").
Korean-Americans have their own version of this institution. A 1986 New York Times article profiled one such pool. "Lee Wook Soo and his wife, Lee Jung Ja, gathered quietly one recent evening with 14 other Korean couples at the Young Bin Kwan restaurant in midtown Manhattan. They ate and they drank and they carried forward a centuries-old custom of mutual trust that has made it possible for hundreds of Korean immigrants to open businesses in the city.…
"The custom is called a gyeh, a practice in which a group of people pool their money to form something much like a credit union. Each month someone else uses the collected money—usually interest free.…
"The types of gyehs vary, though they generally include 12 to 30 people. Because large sums of money are at stake—monthly pools have been known to reach as high as $250,000—members must be trustworthy. Each month, the members contribute, say, $500 into the pool, and one member takes home the whole pot."
Korean "money clubs" like this also operate in Philadelphia, Washington, and many other cities. Eugene Kang, executive director of the Korean Produce Association in the Bronx, says there is "no way" a Korean immigrant with little money can get a business loan from a bank. "American society can't help an immigrant get started. The only real assistance is from the Korean community."
Another important asset of Asian immigrants—right up to the present day—has been their willingness to accept even the most miserable positions in order to get a start. From migrant worker to sharecropper to independent farmer, or garment stitcher to saleswoman to boutique owner—these have often been remarkably rapid transitions. Asian immigrants, without forgetting where they want to be, have been willing to accept where they are. In shorthand, this might be rendered as "Proud, but not too proud."
But probably the clearest contributor to the rapid advance of Asian-Americans has been their strong bias toward self-employment. Earlier in this century observers remarked that "the feeling against the Chinaman" on the part of American working men was "more bitter and intolerant than that against the Negro." This feeling often was translated into anti-Chinese and Japanese labor laws.
The Chinese and Japanese reacted to the inability or unwillingness of business owners to hire them by starting their own enterprises and employing themselves. By 1920 more than half of the Chinese in the United States were employed or self-employed in Chinese restaurants or laundries. In the same year, half the hotels and a quarter of the grocery stores in Seattle were Japanese owned. By the time of the 1940 census, a remarkable 40 percent of Japanese men in Los Angeles were self-employed.
Today, changed attitudes as well as equal-opportunity laws have eliminated most job bias against Asian-Americans. Yet Asian immigrants continue to migrate toward self-employment, for other reasons: Many foreign-born Asians have English-language deficiencies and less schooling—or at least different, nontransferable schooling—than native-born workers. They often have less job experience and fewer skills of the informal cultural type. These factors limit their usefulness as employees and lead them to small businesses, where they can tailor themselves a work situation that maximizes their talents and minimizes their weaknesses.
When last tallied in 1982 there were 256,000 businesses owned by Asian-Americans. (Blacks, who were over seven times as numerous, owned 339,000 businesses.) The Chinese (53,000) and Japanese (49,000) have been joined by Koreans (32,000), Filipinos (26,000), Indians (26,000), Vietnamese (5,000), and others. Koreans run about 85 percent of the small corner grocery stores in Washington, D.C., and 900 of the 1,600 located in New York City, where they also operate over 200 dry-cleaning establishments. Indians manage 800 of California's 6,000 motels. Along the Gulf Coast, Vietnamese—almost all of them having arrived within the last 10 years—own more shrimp boats than whites.
It is easy to get carried away when discussing Asian-American entrepreneurship. To avoid misconceptions, it is important to appreciate precisely what kinds of businesses are at issue. Although a fair number of Asian Americans have set themselves up as professionals (there are, for instance, more Filipino doctors than black doctors in the United States), the overwhelming number run small, labor-intensive neighborhood stores. Sole proprietorships account for 92 percent of Asian American firms, partnerships for another 6 percent. Only 2 percent are corporations.
Almost 70 percent of Asian-American businesses are in the services and retail sector, with the largest groups being food stores, restaurants, miscellaneous retail, health services, service stations, and auto dealerships. Only about 20 percent of Asian-American businesses have any paid employees. As of 1982 (the most recent survey), the average business had gross receipts of $70,000.
On the whole, then, these are quite modest operations, often involving traditional ethnic products and requiring long hours of unpleasant work by entire families. Despite upward movement, many Asian entrepreneurs remain heavily ghettoized in their occupations: Chinese in restaurants, Koreans in 7-Elevens, Vietnamese in jewelry stores, and so forth.
Few foreign-born Asian entrepreneurs are getting rich—look across the cash register in most establishments, and you are looking at the owner. In fact, if the family's second generation held to the same pattern as the first—doing grubby, difficult work all day for low wages and then going home to a cramped apartment at night—few of us would describe these families as clear successes. But of course the second generation will not live as the first.
In many places today it is becoming difficult to find an inner-city Jewish shopkeeper or Italian or Greek grocer. Believe it or not, in 30 years it may also be difficult to find a Korean greengrocer or Indian motel owner. Second-generation Asian-Americans are doing one of two things. Either they are joining the flood of talented Asian-origin students currently pouring into American colleges and universities, or they are taking their family businesses to the next level.
One sees this latter development in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area (one of the major receiving points for the post-1970 wave of Asian immigrants), where Vietnamese, Chinese, and Koreans are franchising or opening chains of successful service businesses, are getting into real estate development, and are establishing a strong new presence as regional wholesalers of food and merchandise.
The formula is well-proven in America. Yet it is a sad story in some ways—an entire generation sacrificing first its sense of place and then its own well-being, all so that successor generations (inevitably of somewhat alien values) may know the physical comfort and personal satisfaction forgone by the first.
Figures are often cited showing that Asian-Americans have high average incomes—higher than whites even. These comparisons usually fail to note, however, that 90 percent of Asians live in high-cost metropolitan areas; that Asians average more workers per family (2, versus 1½ for non-Asians) and that they work longer hours; or that Asian-Americans have higher than typical levels of education (among third-generation Japanese-Americans, 88 percent are college graduates). When demographic adjustments are made, one finds that the relatively high earnings of Asian-Americans are simply a function of their high levels of training and effort.
Furthermore, Asian-Americans often have heavy expenses. Their families are, on average, large. Because of their tendency to sink capital into small businesses and education, they often face stiff demands on their incomes. And many Asian-Americans, particularly the nearly one million refugees from Southeast Asia, send substantial sums to relatives and friends in desperate need back in the home country. (Packages of food, medicines, and merchandise mailed regularly by expatriates in the United States may constitute up to a tenth of Vietnamese personal consumption.)
One other thing is missing from most discussions of Asian-American economic success: acknowledgment of the flip side. In 1980, 18 percent of Chinese families who had immigrated in the previous decade were poor, as were 15 percent of Koreans and 35 percent of Vietnamese.
For nearly 100 years, Asian-Americans were stereotyped in a monolithically negative way. It is possible that in the last 40 years we have inverted that view. Asian-Americans are often portrayed today as uniformly devoted, hardworking, responsible, and consistently—sometimes almost effortlessly—successful. A Chicago-area study by education professor Barbara Schneider found that Asian students in public schools were perceived by their teachers to be smarter and better behaved even when they were not. There is the danger that setting up Asian-Americans as a pet minority will inspire resentment among competitors.
And of course such thinking makes things psychologically difficult on the many Asian-Americans still struggling to make it. It has been reported that as many as 18 out of 20 small businesses started by Indochinese refugees will fail within the first year. Success is anything but automatic. What's more, there are important differences among various groups of Asians. Many Americans would be surprised to hear from San Francisco Vietnamese leader Tran Tuong Nhu that "as a rule, Vietnamese are not goal- or success-oriented, which makes them particularly unsuited for the rhythm of American life. Most are not pushy, most do not know what it means to 'get ahead.'"
The shifting composition of Asian immigrant groups is having important effects. "The Chinese kids from the mainland we are getting are not the same kids as the ones we got from Hong Kong and Taiwan," one school principal in New York City's Chinatown reports. "In terms of productivity, we are finding that the kids who lived under Communism lack motivation. It's really amazing to see the change."
Among the Chinese arrivals of the last decade or two are many who, while still referred to as Hong Kong Chinese because that was their point of embarkation, are actually mainlanders. Because they know little English and are from areas with dialects different from earlier Chinese immigrants', few can communicate with established Chinese-Americans. What's more, many are uneducated and have no occupational skills. A few are reported to be ardent propagandists for Maoism. All of these factors have isolated them from both American and Chinese-American society, and some of the young males have become involved in an outbreak of gangsterism in Asian-American communities across the country.
Other problems derive from difficulties the post-1979 "boat people" and other refugees from Southeast Asia have had in coping. For instance, the 60,000 U.S.-based Hmong—hill-dwelling subsistence farmers from Laos who didn't even have a written language until 30 years ago—have had an especially tough transition.
In a few places, particularly rural settings, they have settled successfully. Half the Hmong living in McDowell County, North Carolina, for instance, have bought houses, most have jobs, some are going to college. But in cities in California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and elsewhere the more typical pattern is that from 65 to 80 percent of the Hmong are receiving some form of public assistance.
And it is not just the Hmong. Three out of 10 Southeast Asian families in California, where this issue has aroused considerable animosity, have received aid for 4 to 10 years. Part of the problem is California's system, which has welfare payments 65 percent above the national average and a dependency rate for Southeast Asians about twice as high as in the rest of the country. More generally, refugees have been pushed toward public aid by social workers. This has damaged their community fabric, particularly by undermining the economic role of men.
Even in the area of welfare dependency, though, Asian immigrants have displayed some interesting entrepreneurial tendencies. Hmong welfare families in California are known to be leasing land and working it day and night to produce vegetables and fruits for sale. Transactions are made through front men to avoid disqualification from public assistance. In Los Angeles, New York, and other cities, Vietnamese women on public assistance often work up to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week at underground jobs as seamstresses, receiving payment in cash to avoid detection. Caseworkers think that most Asian-Americans on public assistance may be working on the side.
It is not clear whether this entanglement with welfarism will wreak significant long-term damage on the refugees' economic prospects. Until fairly recently (with the vast expansion of the nation's welfare system), Asians have been very light consumers of public aid. In 1933, in the teeth of the Great Depression, only 1.2 percent of Chinese-Americans in New York were on relief, compared to 9.2 percent of the white population and 23.9 percent of the black population. It is a good guess, though, that thanks to cultural disciplines and their recent contact with a bracing Third World survival ethic, Asian immigrants will be better immunized than most American poor against the long-term, enervating dependency that is welfare's main affliction. A California refugee administrator grudgingly observes, "You've got to give these people credit. They've developed the underground economy because they're ambitious. They're not content to get that welfare check, kick back, and watch a ballgame." As one Vietnamese woman told the Los Angeles Times, "The extra money that we make we use very carefully. We use it for the future."
Even otherwise antagonistic groups, notes Thomas Sowell, can interact harmoniously in low-income areas when there is a shared economic interest. In his book The Ghetto, Louis Wirth cites a case from earlier in this century: "The Poles and the Jews in Chicago…detest each other thoroughly, but they live side by side on the West Side.…They have a profound feeling of disrespect and contempt for each other, bred by their contiguity and by historical friction…but they trade with each other on Milwaukee Avenue and on Maxwell Street."
Black Americans and Asian immigrants, too, have achieved a partial commercial accommodation. Ghetto blacks desperately need the stores and services that nobody else but Asian immigrants seems able to supply. And clearly Asians need black patronage. But their symbiosis is a very uneasy one.
Some of the mutual bafflement is captured by an anecdote from Providence, Rhode Island, home to both a sizable black community and a large number of Southeast Asian immigrants. According to the New England Monthly, a Providence Laotian was tending his car on the street. A black man approached and demanded to know how long he had been in America. Three years, answered the Laotian. The black man asked him how he'd been able to afford the car. The Laotian responded by asking his interlocutor how long he had been in America. Insulted, the black man said he'd been born here, to which the Laotian responded, "If you've been here your whole life, why don't you have a car?"
The gap between poor blacks and Asian-Americans grows out of a whole host of cultural divergences, and it yawns wide with no sign of closing. Building on their traditions of hard work, strong families, and petty enterprise, Asian Americans will undoubtedly continue in their extraordinary pattern of economic mobility. But quite likely, the antipathy from less-successful groups to which that success exposes them will also continue, and possibly grow worse before it gets better.
Karl Zinsmeister is a Washington, D.C., writer and commentator for Radio America. He writes frequently on social issues.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Bittersweet Success".