Asian-American situation more varied than reported

Beware the “model minority” stereotype about Asian-Americans.

The Pew Center recently issued “The Rise of Asian-Americans,” stressing that they have the highest income and are the best educated of any racial group in the United States.

But that generalization paints too rosy a picture. It fails to shine a light upon some of the most glaring educational and class disparities among Asian communities.

The Pew report provides detailed information about the six largest Asian ethnic subgroups in the U.S. population: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. The data reveals stark differences among them in areas such as education and median earnings.

While 49 percent of all Asian adults over 25 were college educated, only 28.5 percent of Vietnamese adults fell into this category, compared to 70 percent of Indian adults. Likewise, while the median yearly earnings for all Asians is $48,000, for Vietnamese it is $35,000, compared to $54,000 for Japanese.

Apart from the six largest Asian ethnic subgroups, the Pew report lumps remaining ethnic groups such as Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Pakistanis, Thais and Indonesians into a single “Other Asian-American” category. People in these groups are disproportionately likely to be refugees or recent immigrants who tend to face greater educational and income disparities. The “Other Asian-American” category reported a lower than average college education rate of 36 percent, as well as a low annual median earning of $36,600.

By neglecting these disparate experiences, the Pew report provides grist to the mill for those who wish to cast Asian-Americans as members of a “model minority” who do not face the same challenges as African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color.

Take the discussion of race-conscious policies in higher education. Opponents of race-conscious policies claim that Asian applicants are harmed when race is considered as one of many factors in admissions programs. But members of many Asian subgroups still need and benefit from these policies.

For example, according to the 2000 census, more than 50 percent of Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian-Americans achieve less than a high school education, compared to 19.6 percent of whites. But this fact is nowhere to be found in the Pew report, which stresses the high levels of education that Asian-Americans achieve as a whole.

Fortunately, the report does note that Asian-Americans do not believe their race harms them in the college admissions process. Only 12 percent believe it hurts to be an Asian-American applicant. This is important because, with the U.S. Supreme Court case Fisher v. UT-Austin set to determine the future of race-conscious admissions this fall, Asian-Americans have been depicted as feeling victimized by race-conscious policies. Clearly, that is not the case.

If the Pew report had paid sufficient attention to the educational and income disparities among Asian-American groups, it would have given a clearer picture of the issues and needs of the diverse Asian-American community.

The model-minority stereotype must go.

Khin Mai Aung is director of the Educational Equity Project at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. She can be reached at

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