Asian Americans: Myth and reality

Contrary to popular perception, discrimination against Asian Americans is alive and well in the US.

Asian Americans are under-represented in a myriad of industries [AP]

Recently, the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick exploded on Twitter, trending for more than 24 hours, with over 45,000 tweets in under 24 hours.

This hashtag, started by writer Suey Park, inspired Asian Americans and others to share their thoughts on the multiple ways Asians are marginalised.

In response to this discussion about discrimination against Asian Americans, some people have raised the question of whether Asian Americans experience discrimination. After all, many people view Asians as the “model minority”, given their relative success compared to other non-white groups in the United States.

Of course, Asian Americans have not always been viewed as a model minority. In fact, Asians were prevented from attending public schools in California in the late 19th century. And, the very first piece of immigration legislation in the US was the Chinese Exclusion Act – which expressly forbade the entry of Chinese labourers.

The model minority stereotype did not become prevalent until the late 20th century. And today, even though Asians perform better on average than other groups, it is not the case that every single Asian student is an over-achiever. Additionally, when we break the Asian population down into national-origin groups, we can see a more complex story. In 2004, for example, less than 10 percent of Hmong, Laotian, or Cambodian adults in the US had college degrees, compared with about half of all Chinese and Pakistani adults.

If the question is whether Asian Americans face discrimination, one of the best places to look is the labour market. Do Asian Americans earn more than other groups? Are they paid more or less for similar jobs? Let’s examine the evidence.

Stereotypes about Asians as effeminate, perpetually foreign and exotic mean that Asian Americans often face micro-aggressions and mistreatment both at work and in public places.

Asian Americans are among the highest earners in the US. In 2013, Asians’ median weekly earnings were $973, as compared to $799 for whites, $634 for blacks, and $572 for Latinos. These numbers may lead you to think that Asian Americans do not face discrimination. However, these aggregate numbers hide many disparities.

First of all, Asian men earned, on average, 40 percent more than Asian women. The gender gap between Asian men and women is the highest of any racial group. Secondly, these numbers hide the diversity within the Asian community: the 2000 US Census reports Hmong women had average weekly earnings of just $389 per week – putting them far below average. Whereas Chinese and Indian men earn more on average than white men, the opposite is true for Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong men. In sum, some Asians earn more than whites, yet this is the case for only some – those that have, on average, higher levels of education.

Studies that take into account educational achievements find that Asian men earn less than their white male counterparts. Sociologists Chang Hwan Kim and Arthur Sakamoto found that if you compare white men to Asian men with similar characteristics, the white men often earn more. In other words, if an Asian American man and a white man both live in New York, both went to selective universities, and both studied engineering, we could expect that the Asian American man would earn, on average, 8 percent less than the white man.

That Asian Americans do not earn as much as white men with the same qualifications points to the fact that Asian Americans face labour market discrimination, hence, there is a real monetary cost to being Asian American. Over the course of one’s career, this disparity can reach significant amounts of money.

Labour market discrimination against Asians is not unique to the US. A study conducted in Australia also uncovered labour market discrimination against Asians. Alison Booth and her colleagues conducted an audit study where they sent 4,000 fictitious job applications out for entry-level jobs, where they varied only the last name of the applicant – thereby signalling ethnicity.

The results were that the average call-back rate for Anglo-Saxons was 35 percent. Applications with an Italian-sounding name received responses 32 percent of the time – with only a small statistically significant difference. The differences were starker for the other groups: indigenous applicants obtained an interview 26 percent of the time, Chinese applicants 21 percent and Middle Easterners stood at 22 percent. According to these findings, Anglo-Saxons would have to submit three job applications to have a decent shot at getting a call-back whereas Chinese applicants should submit five.

This labour market discrimination – both in hiring and in compensation – stems from stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans. Although many people view Asians to be a model minority, the other side of the coin is the idea that Asians are a “yellow peril“. This much older stereotype plays a role in limiting Asian American advancement in corporate America.

Stereotypes about Asians as effeminate, perpetually foreign and exotic mean that Asian Americans often face micro-aggressions and mistreatment both at work and in public places.

Many of these stereotypes – old and new – are perpetuated in the media.

Darrell Hamamoto analysed representations of Asians and Asian Americans on television between 1950 and 1990. He found that Asian men were often represented in US media as asexual or effeminate, whereas Asian women were often portrayed as hypersexual. Hamamoto contends that network television negatively influences popular perceptions of Asians.

Although Asians make up five percent of people in the US, in 2011, they only accounted for two percent of all television representations. The combination of the small number of Asian Americans in mass media, along with stereotypical representations, work to feed these stereotypes.

#NotYourAsianSidekick clearly struck a chord with people around the world both because of the discrimination people of Asian descent face, as well as the fact that this discrimination is rarely discussed in public forums.

Tanya Golash-Boza is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of Yo Soy Negro Blackness in Peru, Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 America and Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States.