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These Numbers Bust the Model Minority Myth

There's a problem with thinking all Asian Americans are smart and wealthy.
Pacific Islanders in the West are less likely to have a high school diploma or GED than white Americans. (Photo: Hadi Zaher/Flickr)

Pacific Islanders in the West are less likely to have a high school diploma or GED than white Americans. (Photo: Hadi Zaher/Flickr)

Hi, guys. (Pushes glasses up nose.) I hear you have some stereotypes about folks like me.

In recent decades, Asian Americans have been stereotyped as smart, hard-working, and high-income. (Before the 1960s, the stereotype was that we were cunning, treacherous, opium-addicted prostitutes.) Some data even appears to back this modern stereotype: On average, Asian-American households have higher incomes than American households of other races, and Asian Americans are disproportionately represented in many elite schools—facts that have all prompted lots of comment. Yet, as Asian-American activists have long pointed out, such aggregated data obscures an important part of the overall picture: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders comprise a diverse group, including many sectors that have lower average incomes and are less likely to earn college degrees than the typical American. As Christopher Kang, director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, wrote recently, it's crucial that we look at disaggregated data, to help dismantle the model minority myth.

Luckily, the advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice recently published exactly that kind of report on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the American West (where they're the fastest-growing racial group). Some highlights that may surprise you:

  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the West are less likely to have a high school diploma or GED than white Americans.
  • Southeast Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders are about as likely to have a college degree as other underrepresented minorities in higher education, such as black and Hispanic Americans.
  • At the University of Washington, 30 percent of Filipino-American—and 70 percent of Vietnamese-American—students are the first in their families to go to college.
  • In Washington, Oregon, and Nevada, among business owners, Asian Americans are the most likely to own small businesses with 20 or fewer employees.
  • Although Asians are more likely to be recent immigrants than Americans of any other race, they're becoming naturalized citizens and participating in American democracy at increasing rates. Between 2004 and 2012, voter registration and voting rates increased faster among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders than any other racial group in the United States.

So not all Asian Americans are high-achieving and high-income, and there are lots of problems assuming that's the case. Activists worry the model minority myth might make policymakers assume Asians don't need their support or certain law changes. In its new report, Asian Americans Advancing Justice suggests some policy changes, such as:

  • Invest in elementary, middle, and high school curricula that help kids for whom English might be a second language, and include Asian-American history.
  • Protect affirmative action programs for Asian and Pacific Islander groups that are still underrepresented in higher education.
  • Create language- and culture-appropriate training programs and banking services for small business owners.
  • Make sure that voting booths have materials in Asian and Pacific Islander languages, as up to one in three Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the West have limited proficiency in English.

America, we're glad to be here. We hope you will find that we are just like anybody else—some of us do well, some of us don't, and there are always potential policy improvements to make life better for us, and all Americans.