Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the country. But not for the reasons you think.
For too long, conservative pundits and the news media have pointed to Asian Americans as the “model minority.” They cite the Ivy League admissions and educational success of many children of blue-collar Asian immigrant workers as evidence of a superior culture — one of hard work and strong families — that puts Asian Americans on a sure path to success.
But it isn’t Asian “culture” or any other attribute of ethnicity that is responsible for this success. Instead, it’s a unique form of privilege that is grounded in the socioeconomic origins of some — not all — Asian immigrant groups. Understanding this privilege offers insights into how we can help children from all backgrounds succeed.
In our new book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox — based on a survey and 140 in-depth interviews of the adult children of Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles — fellow sociologist Min Zhou and I explain what actually fuels the achievements of some Asian American groups: U.S. immigration law, which favors highly educated, highly skilled immigrant applicants from Asian countries.
Based on the most recent available data, we found that these elite groups of immigrants are among the most highly educated people in their countries of origin and are often also more highly educated than the general U.S. population.
Take Chinese immigrants to the United States, for example: In 2010, 51% were college graduates, compared with only 4% of adults in China and only 28% of adults in the United States. The educational backgrounds of immigrant groups such as the Chinese in America — and other highly educated immigrant groups such as Korean and Indian — is where the concept of “Asian privilege” comes in.
When highly educated immigrant groups settle in the United States, they build what economist George Borjas calls “ethnic capital.”
This capital includes ethnic institutions — such as after-school tutoring programs and after-school academies — which highly educated immigrants have the resources and know-how to recreate for their children. These programs proliferate in Asian neighborhoods in Los Angeles such as Koreatown, Chinatown and Little Saigon. The benefits of these programs also reach working-class immigrants from the same group.