The Volokh Conspiracy

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Asian-Americans Are Not Only Not White, They Are Not Really "Asian"

"Asian" is a made-up construct that obscures more than it illuminates.


I agree with the general thrust of Eugene's post yesterday, in which he describes the phenomenon in which "white" has come to mean "relatively successful as a group," with "Asians" often being described, implicitly or explicitly, as white because they are deemed a socioeconomic success.

But I would like to add a more radical critique, which is that lumping together people whose recent origins range geographically from India to the Philippines is itself not very useful, and that if we need to gather statistics about, or discuss, "Asians," at most we should be discussing the attributes of various national (and better yet subnational, though getting such statistics is difficult) groups, rather than "Asians."

As I point out in my forthcoming Southern California Law Review article, The Modern American Law of Race:

The Asian American category includes people descended from wildly disparate national groups, who do not have similar physical features, practice different religions, speak different languages, vary dramatically in culture, and belong to groups that sometimes have long histories of conflict with one another. Various subgroups of Asian Americans have differing levels of average socioeconomic success in the United States —Indian-Americans, for example, on average have significantly higher-than-average incomes and levels of education, while on average the incomes of Hmong and Burmese Americans are well-below the American mean. Korean-Americans have the highest rate of business formation for any ethnic group in the United States, while Laotians have the lowest. The Asian category meanwhile excludes people from the Western part of Asia, such as Muslim Americans of Yemeni origin, who may face discrimination based on skin color (often dark), religion, and Arab ethnicity. Only a minority of people in the Asian category identify with the "Asian" or "Asian American" labels.

When we talk about "Asian Americans" being "overrepresented" (ughh…) in American higher education, we are referring primarily to Indian-Americans (who are by far the most "overrepresented" "Asian" group) and Chinese Americans. By contrast, Filipinos (the largest Asian-American minority), Vietnamese, and other Asian groups are not especially prominent at elite schools.

Eugene writes that "white" has stopped meaning "Caucasian," and thus Asians are sometimes depicted as white, but note that Indian-Americans are primarily "Caucasian" even though they tend to have dark skin, and therefore were almost classified by the U.S. government back in the 70s as white.

And while we're on the general subject, lumping together the groups we call "Hispanic" or "Latino" also makes little sense:

The Hispanic category generally includes everyone from Spanish immigrants (including people whose first language is Basque or Catalan, but not Spanish) to Cuban Americans of mixed European extraction to Puerto Ricans of mixed African, European, and indigenous heritage to individuals fully descended from indigenous Mexicans. Members of the disparate groups that fall into the "Hispanic" or "Latino" category often self-identify as white, feel more connected to the general white population than to other Spanish-language national-origin groups, and sometimes diverge from members of other Hispanic demographic groups in political outlook as much or more than from the general white population. Moreover, "census data show substantial differences in levels of income and educational attainment among the national origin groups in which data about 'Hispanics' are usually classified." Not all Hispanics, meanwhile, consider themselves to be part of a minority group, and "some who claim minority status for themselves would reject that status for others" (for example, they might reject it for well-educated professionals who immigrate from South American countries and are considered white in their home countries). People of Portuguese or Brazilian ancestry, who are not of Spanish culture or origin, are nevertheless sometimes defined as Hispanic by legislative or administrative fiat.

I've delved a bit into the "intersectional" literature, to try to understand how scholars who believe that success in American life is primarily about the "privilege" of one's group explain the relative success and failure of groups like "Asian" writ large, but also the obvious difference in subgroups. It's a huge, risible mess. For example, one scholar posits that whites "let" Chinese and Japanese immigrants succeed because, unlike Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants, they are relatively light-skinned. Putting aside whether the skin color thing is even true, one wonders how and when whites got together to decide this, how they enforce it, and how it explains why the most "successful" of all immigrant groups are Indian-Americans, who are relatively dark-skinned. But to an ideological hammer, everything looks like a nail.