Asian-Americans face significant challenges to getting their education, says a new report out from the National Commission on Asian-American and Pacific Islander Research in Education. And the study has got everyone from experts to students talking, because the findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom about Asian American students as high-achieving, so-called model minorities.
The picture of Asian Americans is distorted by the broad lens too much research uses. While Asian Americans as a group record high levels of educational attainment that match and occasionally surpass that of whites, large sectors actually deal with high dropout rates from high school and college. The study also underscores the complicated reality of the Asian-American community. Asian Americans are not a monolithic group and the experiences of Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian Asian Americans differs greatly from that of, say, East and South Asians growing up in the U.S.
Here’s some of the hard math:
- Nearly 70 percent of Indians in the U.S. over 25-years-old have a bachelor’s degree, according to the study, and over 50 percent of Chinese, Pakistani and Korean-Americans over 25 also have college degrees.
- But fewer than one in 10 Samoan-Americans can say the same. Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian Americans also record college degree attainment levels that hover around 12 and 13 percent.
- All this is crucial because educational attainment translates directly to unemployment levels. Between 2006 and 2008, 15.7 percent of Tongans were out of work, according to CARE, a level that is close to the unemployment levels of black Americans, while just 3.5 percent of Japanese-Americans were unemployed in the same time period.
But in the age of the Tiger Mom, who’s emerged as 2011’s spokesperson for the model minority myth, much of this information about Asian-Americans gets lost in the shuffle. The study calls for the disaggregation of data collection on Asian Americans and education issues and reiterates over and over the dangers of buying into the model-minority myth, which suggests that Asian Americans owe their relative wealth and high educational attainment to cultural values and hard work.
To get some perspective on the persistence of this myth of Asian American exceptionalism, I spoke with Oiyan Poon, a research associate at the University of Massachusetts’s Institute for Asian-American Studies and former academic adviser at George Mason University and the University of California, Davis. Here’s what Poon had to say about the myth’s enduring legacy, and how it impacts other students of color.
On the ways the model minority myth plays out in real life:
People are not being blatantly racist, but as an academic advisor I’ve seen educators say, “Well, my class is half Asian, they must be doing something right.” That hyper-visibility may lead to an interesting invisibility. At UC Davis, we asked the institutional research office to go through their data set and one year everyone was shocked because Korean men in the early 2000s had one of the highest push-out rates. But no one would have known.
The lack of good data—and the pervasiveness of stereotypes and not looking deeper at a very complicated population and understanding those complexities—leads to things like this. There’s a lack of high school outreach programs and community partnerships and things that completely overlook the Asian-American community even though students may be low-income and there is serious need there.
On when the model-minority myth ends up excluding Asian-American students:
There are actually minority scholarships that exclude Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, like the Gates Millennium scholarship. It’s a national scholarship geared toward low-income, first-generation college students that was only open to African American, American Indian and Latinos students. Advocacy organizations fought them on it and were able to get them to realize they should be open to Asian Americans because, in fact, around a third of Asian-American students are the first in their families to go to college. And for Hmong, Laotian and Cambodians, just [over 10 percent] of the population over 25 has college degrees, and that’s among the lowest of any population.
On the actual barriers Asian-American students face in college:
When I was working at UC Davis, there was summer orientation, and all these college campuses have a family track. What struck me was that at the student portion of the orientation, there were huge numbers of Asian students, but at the family or parent track, it was almost always all white. There’s a disconnect in parental support and a lot of students don’t get any help in putting together financial aid papers or figuring out how to navigate which classes they should take.
I met a lot of Asian-American students who faced sexual or racial discrimination and harassment on campus and they didn’t know where to turn for help. For many students who are the first in their family to go to college, they often don’t know there’s a counseling center that’s there for emotional support, or other campus resources.
Why Asian-Americans just can’t be seen as a monolithic group:
There are huge disparities within this population that make this title, “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” sort of arbitrary. It’s a geographic identifier; it’s not a socioeconomic status identifier, though in some ways it can be.
The experiences that each group has—the migration histories; the culture; the language; the circumstances of arrival, from being refugees to being highly educated professional immigrants; and now you have a second and third generation that’s facing different issues—mean everyone has very different challenges. In a way you could say this about a lot of different populations and perhaps this is just a challenge of data systems in general. For Latinos, you’ve got Cubans, who tend to be more highly educated, and Puerto Ricans who don’t have the immigration issues that Mexicans or Central Americans have.
But for Asian-Americans, we end up having this conversation [about the need to disaggregate data] much more because the differences are so much more pronounced. And when there isn’t information, then there are just assumptions that people have to go on, and then the Tiger Moms of the world can keep going on and on as long as they want.
On the dangerous political utility of the model-minority myth:
People have to think about why this model-minority position came to be in the first place. It was to silence other people of colors’ attempts at demanding equity. Everyone who cares about racial equity should care about countering the model-minority myth because the whole purpose of it is to undermine claims of racism. People will say, “Oh, you’re going to riot and say there are inequalities and that blacks and Latinos face racism? Stop complaining, look at this non-white population over here. They’re doing fine.”
The model-minority myth tries to tell people: there are no structural barriers; it’s all in your mind.
It’s true that some Asian Americans are doing well. Sure. It’s true. But does that mean that we ignore the people who aren’t doing well? What’s my responsibility, and what’s our responsibility as people who are concerned about equity, knowing that there are specific groups facing distinct patterns of inequality? Do we say to that Hmong kid who kind of looks like me because we both have black hair, it’s okay, her struggles are not an urgent issue?