What’s lacking in the Pew Research Center Report on Asian Americans

George and Johnny Huynh’s story last year complicated the model minority myth.

I hate to get too academic on this blog, so please forgive me as I enumerate my issues with the Pew Research Center Report on Asian Americans that is circulating this morning. I will try to be as brief and clear as possible.

This report presents an overly optimistic picture of the state of Asian America. I think it’s fantastic that their research sample was better educated and happier with life than the typical American. However, we must look more closely at who they talked to in order to obtain these results.

The Pew Research Center survey was designed to contain a nationally representative sample of each of the six largest Asian-American groups by country of origin—Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Indian Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans and Japanese Americans. Together these groups comprise at least 83% of the total Asian population in the U.S.

I am no expert on research survey design, but we might note that the Asian American groups with the highest poverty rates (namely Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians) are not included in this survey. According to C. N. Le’s analyses of Census 2000 data, Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians have poverty rates similar to those of blacks and Latinos. 22.5% of Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians in the US lived in poverty, compared to 24.9% of blacks and 21.4% of Latinos.

Much of this difference, of course, is related to how these groups came to the US. As the Pew report points out:

About half of all Korean and Indian immigrants who received green cards in 2011 got them on the basis of employer sponsorship, compared with about a third of Japanese, a fifth of Chinese, one-in-eight Filipinos and just 1% of Vietnamese. The Vietnamese are the only major subgroup to have come to the U.S. in large numbers as political refugees; the others say they have come mostly for economic, educational and family reasons.

While the other groups were either stringently selected from the highly skilled, highly educated sectors of their native countries or came through family reunification, large swathes of Vietnam’s population fled the country during the Vietnam War. The same could be said about the Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians. We must also note that the Cambodian elite was one of the primary targets of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and that many of the Cambodians who made it to the US were of low socioeconomic status.

Thus, by taking a sample of the largest Asian groups in the US, most of whom were highly skilled upon arrival and more or less easily moved into the US middle classes, Pew was able to find that Asian Americans are better off, better educated, and happier than the typical American. This report completely overlooks differences between the groups selected for the study and the smaller, poorer, less educated, and likely less happy groups that were excluded.

It also overlooks differences within groups. For example, as a result of family reunification, undocumented immigration, and the inclusion of refugees from the Vietnam War, Chinese Americans fall into two distinct, large clusters: the low-skilled, poorly educated working class and the high-skilled, highly educated middle class. Le’s analysis hints at this, showing that 23.6% of Chinese have less than a high school education, the largest proportion of the groups sampled for Pew’s study.

By looking only at the groups that are doing the best and not breaking down statistics within these groups, Pew’s study ends up reifying the model minority myth. Their biased aggregate measures say that Asian Americans are doing great. But just ignoring the significant differences between and within groups in terms of poverty, education, and other measures does not make these differences disappear! I worry that by hastily sweeping these differences under the rug, those groups that need help will not be able to get it. After all, if Asian Americans as a whole are doing well, then why bother helping them?

  1. Excellent critique of a simplistic article, typical of journalistic hype. Makes me wonder about whether the release of the Phew (pun intended) Report on the heels of the passage of HR bill expression of regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act was deliberately timed or just a coincidence. U.S. Asians should not be smug over these misleading data of their success; they should realize that the Phew report will invoke backlash and fears of ‘yellow peril’ again that foreigners are taking over the country. Presenting survey data without acknowledging methodological limitations and without giving alternative explanations can only generate invidious discrimination so that it is no wonder why the late Rodney King lamented, “can’t we all get along?”

    • You’re absolutely right. I think they do an okay job of explaining their methodological shortcomings, but the impact of these shortcomings might not be so obvious to those who aren’t from Asian American communities or aren’t social scientists or statisticians.

  2. Elaine

    I think you do need to keep in mind that the report *was only on six groups, which they did acknowledge*. Those of us who study immigration and have done work on Asian America — mine is unpublished, but was on the lives of young South Asian-Americans — are VERY aware of the tendency of any panethnic identification to mask important distinctions between (and among) groups. For instance, *many* South Asians came here on work visas, already knew English and had desirable skills, and quite quickly assimilated into the top tiers of the US socioeconomic landscape. But that doesn’t describe *all* South Asians. Descriptive statistics (which the Pew report largely is) always report trends and by definition often pay less attention to smaller (but no less important) realities. The fact that *most* Asian Americans surveyed are doing so much better than whites or Hispanics IS an important thing to document. As you say, groups that came here under different immigration conditions (work visas versus refugee status, as you note), have quite predictably different trajectories in the US. The model minority stereotype is just that — a stereotype. There has been interesting work done both on how *others* perceive Asian Americans and on how Asian Americans themselves sometimes pressure each other to live up to stereotypes. For instance, in my dissertation research I heard “Succeeding isn’t enough,” and “only certain fields of study are acceptable” — thus affirming a stereotype of “success” and (perhaps unintentionally) fueling the stereotype of the model minority. You are absolutely correct to point out that not all of Asian America is doing “fine;” what I think you might miss is that the Pew Study did not claim to be a comprehensive study of all Asian-Americans but instead aimed to discover *through absolutely appropriate representative sampling* how the six major groups, comprising 83% of all Asian-Americans, are doing. Their findings are still notable, but further research into the 17% of Asian-Americans not surveyed here would be a nice addition.

    • Would it have been better to do representative sampling of all Asian Americans, then oversample these specific groups?

  3. Bruce

    Actually, on page 3 of the report they state that the study is a “comprehensive portrait of Asian Americans”.

    And while I would hope scholars in this area would recognize this report is not the be all end all of the current state of Asian Americans, we have to acknowledge the level of press and public distribution the Pew report is getting because they are Pew and that to the average American, the only thing they will take away from the report (because it’s the main thing they emphasize) is that most Asian Americans are wealthier, smarter and happier than you and no longer face discrimination.

    Though I wonder what the scholars who consulted on this report think now that the final report is out. I was shocked to see some of the names associated with the report (Espiritu, Min Zhou, etc…) knowing their work is very rigorous and critical and yet the report itself is highly problematic.

    • I really do wonder how much influence these outside scholars had on how the study was designed and how the report was framed. I don’t think either of the two you mentioned would have been happy with the framing at all.

  4. Surveys & polls’ results are reductionist form of reality, but is a good starting point to begin a discussion, to dig deeper for a more nuanced, and rather complex, picture of realities (plural intentional.) This survey’s Overview conveys & confirms many stereotypes about Asians & Asian Americans, many of which are perpetuated by Asians & Asian Americans themselves, partly a self-fulfilling prophecy. Two examples, one personal, that put the results into question: Almost 1 in 3 Korean Americans do not have health insurance (APIA Health Forum); many Vietnamese refugees (the family I lived with) describe themselves as middle class even while living in cramped one-bedroom apartments in crime-ridden Tenderloin area of San Francisco. Pooled together, six of us at the time probably made over $70,000 a year. That’s one household’s income. I’m glad Pew conducted the survey, but as usual, marketers & political campaign consultants, most are Asians/Asian-Americans themselves (too lazy & ignorant) will only rely on & spout the reductionist version of reality I fear. Thanks for coming at this survey’s results full force, Calvin.

    • You bring up some great points. Such a large swath of the US population describes itself as middle class that the folk usage of the term essentially has no meaning. In any case, for immigrants and refugees they might actually have stepped up a class relative to where they were in their country of origin.

  5. Sounds like a bad case of confirmation bias – they found out exactly what they expected to. Maybe what’s needed is a bit more “counter-mythology,” as in the case of the Huynh brothers’ story.

    • I’m not so sure they intended to skew their results this way. It’s the unconscious and semi-conscious assumptions that got them these results. For example, a number of people have pointed out that Asian Americans tend to live in larger households than most Americans, so household income statistics can be misleading.

  6. Random Reader

    To tie in with the Pew Research. Look at the LA Times map “U.S. underwater mortgages”. Most of the ethnic Chinese-dominant communities in San Gabriel Valley don’t seem to be as hard hit in housing crisis compared to other parts of L.A.

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