Asian American diversity shatters ‘model minority myth’

Data: Pew Research;  Graphic: Jacques Schrag/Axios
Data: Pew Research; Graphic: Jacques Schrag/Axios

Asian Americans hail from dozens of countries — and their experiences in America are very different depending on where they’re from.

Why is this important: This large and diverse group is often lumped together under the “model minority myth” — the stereotype that all Asian Americans are well-educated, wealthy and successful.

  • If you look at averages, Asian Americans seem to be wealthier and better educated than the average American.
  • If you break down the data, the model minority myth falls apart. We see high levels of poverty and below average levels of education.

But because this data is rarely disaggregated, “Asian Americans have had to repeatedly state that they suffer from racism, hostility and violence,” says Ellen Wu, a history professor at the University of Indiana.

The big picture: The Asian American population doubled from 2000 to 2019, reaching 22 million. Asians are the fastest growing group in America – outpacing white, black and Hispanic Americans and expected to exceed 46 million by 2060, according to a Pew study.

  • “They all have very different starting points,” says Neil Ruiz, associate director of race and ethnicity research at the Pew Research Center.
  • Consider, for example, an Indian immigrant who comes to the United States on an H-1B visa for a high-paying gig at a tech company. That person will have a much easier time creating generational wealth than a Burmese refugee coming to America to escape conflict, Ruiz says.

By the numbers: The median Asian household income in the United States is $85,800 and 54% have college degrees, per Pew.

  • But only three groups – Indians, Filipinos and Sri Lankans – fall above this average household income. And the academic achievement of many groups is well below average.
Data: Pew Research;  Painting: Thomas Oide/Axios
Data: Pew Research; Painting: Thomas Oide/Axios

Challenges : “So many groups have been overlooked and ignored,” says Quyên Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

  • “People aren’t always convinced that Asian Americans are a legitimate minority group that deserves to be included in affirmative action and diversity initiatives,” Wu said.
  • For example, 30% of Southeast Asians – a region encompassing countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos – do not have a high school diploma.
  • “Because of the myth of the model minority, the silence of these students in classrooms is misinterpreted as understanding instead of a call for help,” Dinh says.

What to watch: Activists and experts see a silver lining in recent spikes in anti-Asian violence. “There’s a new spotlight on the Asian American community,” Dinh says.

  • “Horrible things have always happened,” Wu says. “But now Asians are collecting the data and recording what’s going on, and Asian journalists are amplifying those stories.”