By Palash R. Ghosh | July 29, 2010 5:03 PM EDT

Asian-Americans endure well during recession; but 'model minority' theory has some holes in it

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Asian-Americans endure well during recession; but 'model minority' theory has some holes in it

Unemployment in the U.S. has risen dramatically since the economic recession commenced in December 2007 – as a whole, the jobless rate climbed from about 5 percent to 9.5 percent through June 2010.


However, while Asian-Americans have also witnessed a rise in joblessness, their rates remain below the comparable figures for whites, blacks and Hispanics.
Joblessness for Asians during this period climbed from 3.7 percent to 7.7 percent,
Meanwhile, the June 2010 rate for African-Americans exceeds 15 percent, while Latinos are just above 12 percent (both well above the average). Whites are just under the broader average at 8.6 percent.

The economic 'outperformance' of Asian-Americans brings up the controversial subject of the 'model minority' – that is, the stereotype of Asians as highly-educated, family-oriented, law-abiding, and materially successful. Some have reckoned this notion as a myth; while others adhere to it as stark reality. The truth is likely somewhere in between.

Asian-Americans comprise a vast and extremely diverse swath of humanity – including peoples from the Far East, the Pacific islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, rendering generalizations impossible.

Plus, if one also includes Persians, Central Asians, Arabs and Turks as 'Asian' the picture becomes even more complex

Still, some numbers don't lie – they indicate that Asian-Americans have had the lowest jobless rates, regardless of gender, age group or region. And this trend has been sustained since 2000, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics first began tracking jobs data among Asians.

A report from the Labor Department late last year indicated that Asians have a disproportionately high presence – on the order of 47 percent – in management and professional jobs – i.e., high-paying positions requiring advanced degrees, compared with 35 percent for the American work force as a whole.

Moreover, while Asian-Americans represent only 5 percent of all U.S. workers, they account for 29 percent of computer software engineers, 20 percent of computer programmers, 17 percent of physicians and surgeons; and 16 percent of computer scientists and system analysts.

In addition, about 30 percent of Asians 25 or older have a bachelor's degree and almost 20 percent have a graduate degree, compared with 17 percent and 10 percent, respectively, for the U.S. overall.

By comparison, 18 percent of whites have a bachelor's degree and 11 percent have a more advanced degree. For blacks and Hispanics, the figures are lower.

And, perhaps not surprising, the median income for the average Asian-American household – over $68,000 – far exceeds the average ($52,000) for all groups.

Looking only at New York City, the numbers are strikingly similar to the national averages. In a report produced by the Fiscal Policy Institute in December 2009, 7.3 percent of city whites were jobless, while 15.7 percent of blacks and 11.8 percent of Hispanics were without work. For Asians, the figure was only 6.1 percent.

But, as someone once said, there are three types of lies - lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Even though statistics might reinforce the stereotype that Asian-Americans are “model minorities,” these statistics may not account for the fact that the Asian-American population is a highly heterogeneous group, according to Dr. Jeffrey Liew, assistant professor at the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Tex.

“Furthermore, a substantial portion of Asian-Americans are immigrants with varying levels of educational attainment and job skills,” he said.
“The notion of Asian-Americans as 'model minorities' ignores the diversity amongst group members. Importantly, stereotyping Asian-Americans as model minorities makes it easy to dismiss or ignore the fact that many Asian-Americans may be suffering from unemployment or be living at or below poverty level.”

Liew explained that historically the term 'Asian-American' was constructed and used only after the 1960s. The people included under the umbrella term 'Asian-American' have become increasingly diverse since then and encompasses over 20 ethnic subgroups, each of which has their own cultural, linguistic, religious, and historical backgrounds.

Liew scoffs at the notion that young Asian-Americans (if one is willing to still use this term to evaluate millions of disparate people) generally excel in school and stay out of trouble.

“[This] exemplifies or perpetuates the 'model minority' stereotype or myth,” he said.
“In fact, the 'model minority' stereotype may place some Asian-American youth at risk for mental health problems. For those who conform to the stereotype, they may experience a lot of pressure to achieve and sustain. For those who do not conform to the stereotype, they may suffer from shame or guilt. Either way, these unfair and unrealistic stereotypes and expectations are harmful to Asian-Americans.”

To illustrate the vast differences in educational goals and lifestyles among the mosaic of Asian-Americans, consider some data from a recent report by New York University and the College Board.

The survey revealed that while Americans of Pakistani and Indian descent possess at least a bachelor’s degree, more than half of Hmong and Cambodian adults have never even finished high school.

The Hmong, who arrived in large numbers as refugees in the American Midwest from the hills of Vietnam and Laos, have struggled mightily in this country. Poverty, low-income jobs, unemployment, crime and violence are rife in this community.

For example, according to the National Coalition for Asian Pacific- American Community Development, unemployment claims filed by Southeast Asians (a great many of whom were Hmong) in Minnesota leapt by 150 percent from 2007 to 2009.

Algernon Austin, Director of the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C., points out that despite having modest unemployment figures, Asian-Americans are still at some disadvantages relative to their scholastic achievements.
“The overall unemployment rate for Asian-Americans, 25-years-old and over in the fourth quarter of 2009 was 7.1 percent,” he wrote.

“The comparable rate for whites was 7.0 percent. If Asian-Americans had the same unemployment rates by education level as whites, however, the Asian-American unemployment rate would have been 6.3 percent, almost a percentage point lower. Thus, overall, Asian-American workers are disadvantaged relative to white workers.”

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
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