The Model Minority Myth

Bryan Hirota

Statistics and figures have been floating around this group, that when taken out of their proper context can be misleading. The asian model minority myth is nothing more than a myth. The following comes from the book titled "Asian Americans - an Interpretive History" by Sucheng Chan - and I highly recommed the book to anyone who wants to begin any kind of study on the asian american experience. It even covers Asian Indians [although not in an extremely indepth manner]

Ten years later the U.S. census Bureau released data that further under- dergirded the model minority image. According to these figures, Chinese and Japanese Americans had outpaced whites even in terms of median family income by 1970. Japanese American median Family income was almost $3,000 higher, and Chinese American $1,000 higher than the U.S. median family income. But the federal government's study failed to place these figures alongside other relevant information, such as the fact that 60 percent of the Japanese American and Chinese American families (compared to only 51 percent among the U.S. population as a whole), more than one person worked, which helps to account for their higher family income. If per capita income, rather than family income, had been used as the measure, then the public would have learned that Chinese Americans (thought not Japanese Americans) were making considerably less than the national average. Moreover, if Hispanic groups, which earned much lower than other whites, had been removed from the aggregate white figures, then Asian Americans would not have outranked whites.

Social scientists who analyzed the 1970 cenus data reached various conclusions depending on whether they used statistics for the nation as a whole or for states with particularly high Asian concentrations, whether they separated the American-born from the foreign-born, and whether they distinguished between males and females. Studies based on national data, such as those by Barry Chiswick and by Charles Hirschman and Morrison Wong, invariably showed that American-born Chinese and Japanese men had a higher income than white men, but as Robert Jiobu, Amado Cabezas, and David Moulton have documented, such was not the case in California, where 58 percent and 45 percent, respectively, of the Japanese and Chinese in the contiguous states resided in 1970. In that state, American-born Chinese and Japanese men indeed had significantly more years of school than non-Hispanic whites, but their median incomes were no higher than that of the latter, because their returns to education - that is, the additional income derived from increased years of schooling - were lower than those for whites. According to Robert Jiobu's 1976 study of American-born men in California in 1970, for each additional year of education, whites earned $522 more, compared to $438 for Japanse, $320 for Chinese, $340 for Mexican Americans, and $284 for blacks. Thus, the Asian-white parity in income was made possible mainly by the Asian American's higher level of education.

Other criticisms have been raised against the model minority thesis, mainly by researchers associated with the Asian American community organization, ASIAN, Inc., in San Francisco. First, more than half of the Asian/Pacific American population in the United States lives in only five metropolitan areas - Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York - and of these, more than nine-tenths are found in urban centers. These cities are not only high-income areas but also high-cost-of-living-areas. Thus, while Asian Americans (and others) living there may earn more, they also have to spend more.

Second, in areas with the highest density of Asian Americans, the percentage of Asian Americans in low-status, low-income occupations - that is, service workers, laborers, farm laborers, and private household workers - is considerably higher than among whites. In 1970, for example, fully 25 percent of all gainfully employed Chinese men in the United States were cooks, waiters, busboys, dishwashers, and janitors. Such a figure gives an impression of Asian American economic well-being that is quite different from based on consideration of median income alone.

Third, a detailed study of the San Francisco-Oakland Stanard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA) showed that Asian Americans were unevenly dis- tributed in the economy. Professionals clustered in accounting, dentistry, nursing, health technology, and engineering and were underrepresented in law, teaching, administration, social services, and the higher levels of the medical professions. Managers were more likely to be self-employed than employees of large firms. Salespersons were retail clerks but seldom brokers or insurance agaents. Clerical workers were mostly file clerks, typists, or office machine operators, and not secretaries or receptionists. Few Asian Americans held jobs in the heavy-machine, electrical, paper, chemical, or construction industries. Most female operatives were garment workers. In short, Asian Americans were concentrated in occupations that did not pay as well as other jobs in the same industries.

Fourth, the low unemployment rate of Asian Americans- another measure often used to depict their economic success - merely camouflages high underemployment. Wary of being of welfare, many Asian American workers appparently would rather hold low-paid, part-time, or seasonal jobs than receive public assistance.

Fifth, the high labor force participation rate of Asian American women in both 1970 and 1908 - supposedly a sign of their ready acceptance by employers - is in reality a reflection of the fact that more Asian American women are compelled to work because the male members of their families earn such low wages. It is true that working Asian American women earn a higher median income than do white working women, but they also have superior educational qualifications and live in localities with higher wages. Furthermore, compared to white women, a larger percentage of them work full time, which helps toodrive their median income upward. But despite their high educational level, they receive lower returns toheir education than do white women, while the disprity between their returns and those of white men is even greater. In other words, they are not receiving earnings that are commensurate with their years of schooling. Sixth, with regard to the educational attainment of Asian Americans, the sizable influx of highly educated professionals after 1965 has inflated the average years of schooling complted. Critics of the model minority stereotype point out that the most important consideration should not be edcational level, but returns to education, which more clearly reveal the existence of discrimination. For Asian Americans, even in 1980, these returns were still not on par with those received by white men.

The entry of professionals has had another effect. Since some of them have not been able to find professional jobs, they have bought small businesses, thereby increasing the number of "managers" in the Asian American -particularily the Korean American - population. However, many of them operate only small mom-and-pop stores with no paid employees and very low gross earnings. Unlike journalists who tout Korean entrepreneurship as a sign of success, scholars who have examined the situation argue that the kind of buisiness Korean immigrants engage in is, in fact, a disguised form of cheap labor: owners of small businesses run a high risk of failure and work long hours. Many of them could not stay afloat were it not for the unpaid labor they extract from their spouses, children, and other relatives. Nonetheless, small business currently is an important channel of upward mobility open to nonwhite immigrants who face obstacles in obtaining well-paying and secure jobs.

Finally, other groups of Asian Americans do not share the improved economic standing achieved by Japanese and Chinese Americans. In 1970 in the San Francisco-Oakland SMSA, according to Amado Cabezas and his associates, Filipinos (lumping together foreign- and American-born) earned only 58 percent of what white men earned, while Filipinas earned only 38 percent. The respective figures in the Los Angeles-Long Beach SMSA were 62 percent and 47 percent. In 1980, in the San Francisco-Oakland SMSA American-born Filipino men made 64 percent of what American-born white males made, whilte American-born Filipinas made 45 percent. In the Los Angeles-Long Beach SMSA, the comparable figures were 72 percent and 48 percent. Foreign-born men fared about the same as their American-born peers, while the foreign-born women did slightly better than their American- born sisters. A larger proportion of American-born Filipinos hold working- class jobs than do Chinese and Japanese Americans. They also seem to receive no discernible returns to schooling.