Skip to main content

Asian Americans Are Not Your Model Minority

A major hub of U.S. Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian communities grapple with poverty and a disproportionate number of cancer deaths, a new study shows.
A woman pushes a stroller in San Gabriel, California, on May 17th, 2016, past a banner at a construction site project financed by the Shanghai Commercial Bank.

A woman pushes a stroller in San Gabriel, California, on May 17th, 2016, past a banner at a construction site project financed by the Shanghai Commercial Bank.

Asian Americans are often depicted as a model minority with comparatively high educational attainment and professional success rates, community advocates say. But habitual stereotyping, however positive, distracts from the grave problems community members face, particularly under a federal administration that many observe is hostile to immigrants. Many community members struggle to support their families, more die of cancer than their white counterparts, and many are undocumented.

On Wednesday, legal advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles (AAAJ-LA) published a report that paints a more nuanced picture of the more than half-a-million Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian Americans living in the San Gabriel Valley, what amounts to a major hub for those communities nationwide. A previous AAAJ-LA study dubbed Los Angeles County—of which San Gabriel is a part—the "capital of Asian America." Wednesday's report reveals the San Gabriel Valley boasts a larger, more diverse, more rapidly growing Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian population than neighboring Los Angeles City. In other words, the report reveals the San Gabriel Valley as a capital of what has been described the capital of Asian America.

Angelenos frequently visit the San Gabriel Valley's abundance of Chinese restaurants, karaoke parlors, and other entertainments. But it's not all fun and food in the 626. "Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are incredibly diverse; some are doing well, others are struggling to make ends meet," explains Daniel Ichinose, director of AAAJ-LA's Demographic Research Project and an author on the report.

The report reveals that well over 66,000 Asian Americans living in the San Gabriel Valley are low-income. And despite stereotypes that student bodies at top universities are heavily Asian, many Asian Americans in San Gabriel enjoy less educational attainment than their white counterparts. Chinese Americans in San Gabriel are less likely to have high school or college diplomas than whites. And among other Asian-American groups, Vietnamese-American adults suffer from the lowest levels of educational attainment.

LOW VOTER TURNOUT AMONG ASIAN AMERICANS IS MORE ABOUT IDENTITY THAN APATHY: Compared to the national average of 53 percent, only 31 percent of Asian Americans reported being contacted by candidates or parties in 2012. Less outreach from politicians understandably alienates these voters.

Compounding struggles with poverty and education is a higher instance of public-health concerns. More Asian Americans in San Gabriel die of cancer than any other ethnic group. The potential reasons are manifold. Among the other problems faced by Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian Americans are what the report calls disproportionately high rates of undocumented community members. The region is home to an estimated 58,000 undocumented Asian Americans, the report says. Analysts of the effects of United States policy on the health of immigrants have observed that many undocumented people have refrained from seeking medical care or reporting crimes amid a heightened spate of deportations; they worry about raids on public venues and the potential collection of their information for use by immigration agents. It is difficult to estimate the number of undocumented community members forgoing medical treatment for fear of deportation.

Language serves as another barrier from medical care and other facilities. The report reveals that nearly half of all Asian Americans in San Gabriel have limited English proficiency.

And finally, the report acknowledges that over 25 percent of San Gabriel Valley is heavily polluted by "toxic chemicals released from industrial facilities, drinking water contamination, and exhaust from traffic along freeway corridors, presenting major challenges." Together with Latino Americans, San Gabriel is predominantly immigrant and of color. The report's acknowledgment of heavy pollution in what is often described as a majority minority region raises concerns over what many call environmental racism—a phenomenon wherein a disproportionate number of pollutants—from industry and otherwise—are located in communities of color, threatening public health and driving up instances of cancer and other diseases. The Flint Water Crisis marked a flashpoint in an ongoing national discussion on the effects of environmental racism—what environmentalists argue is a product of negligence and a failure of government accountability—on communities of color.

When non-Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian Americans describe those communities as model minorities, it serves to whitewash over the community's overwhelming concerns regarding its poverty, education, and public health, Ichinose explains. And that hinders the fight by organizations like AAAJ-LA for greater government accountability. "If policymakers think all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are successful, they are less inclined to support programs and services that address the very real needs that exist in our communities," he says.

Ichinose's report offers a series of policy recommendations, including language access for new Americans without the English proficiency necessary to access public services. Chief among those recommendations is what Ichinose describes as coalition building.

"Disproportionately immigrant and undocumented, Asian Americans and Latinos share many similar experiences in the San Gabriel Valley," the report says.

CALIFORNIA IMMIGRANT RIGHTS ADVOCATES JUST SCORED A MAJOR WIN IN THEIR BATTLE AGAINST ICE-POLICE PARTNERSHIPS: The San Gabriel Police Department's collaboration with federal immigration authorities marks the latest flashpoint in the national debate over how local authorities should react to the Trump administration's focus on undocumented immigrants.

AAAJ-LA has been one of a host of local organizations looking to collaborate with Latino counterparts to advocate for the rights of all Americans confronting what many call the Trump White House's nativist policies on immigrants. Pacific Standard reported on a city hall meeting earlier this month where AAAJ-LA, together with a host of other groups, mobilized local Latino, Asian, and other American community stakeholders to protest a partnership between San Gabriel City police and federal immigration officers. There, many Asian- and Latino-American members demanded, in public testimonies delivered over the course of hours, that the city council rescind the partnership. The city council finally rescinded the partnership shortly after midnight.

"The solidarity you saw in San Gabriel is the result of very deliberate communication, dialogue, and bridge-building efforts," Ichinose says.

In the same sense that San Gabriel serves as a microcosm—offering a rare window into Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian America, so too does it offer an indication of the many challenges faced by American immigrants more broadly. The phenomena the report describes existed before Trump, they are especially relevant now, and they will be relevant after Trump leaves office, Ichinose says.

"This report is a snapshot of the modern immigrant experience. Immigrants have always been the target of xenophobia, scapegoats for a host of social problems," he says, "The policy recommendations included in the report will help create an environment that will allow these communities to grow and flourish long after this administration."