Are Asian Americans becoming white?

There's a long article today in The New York Times about the dominance of Asian Americans in the University of California system. California as a whole is 12 percent Asian, but the freshman class at UC Berkeley is 46 percent Asian, at UCLA 43 percent, and at UC Irvine 56 percent. In all these schools, there are more Asians than whites, and blacks and Latinos are even more underrepresented than whites.

You would think that even a short article would concern itself with how such dramatic imbalances could emerge, but the reporter only makes gestures at addressing the problem. To the extent we can conclude anything, based on the quotes he includes, the reporter endorses a cultural explanation: Asian families teach their kids to value education, so they succeed. One expert explains the cultural imperative that Asians, Jews, and WASPs have shared: "work hard, defer gratification, share sacrifice and focus on the big goal". Another notes, "many Chinese-Americans are a lot like Caucasians in some of their values and areas of interest."

But the explanation is much simpler I think: the success of Asians in entering college is simply a feature of class reproduction. In 1965 immigration laws were finally changed to end the tight restrictions on Asian immigration. But the new law gave strong preference to professionals, and as a result first-generation Asian Americans are unusually well-educated. Today 47.9 percent of foreign-born Asian Americans have a college degree, compared with 26.8 percent of the population as a whole. (The stat is from this webpage, an excellent compilation of demographic and socioeconomic information on Asian America.)

The magic of class reproduction also explains why all those Asian college students are the children of Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis, and why we don't see many Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Laotian students. Most immigrants of the first group were professionals brought over to meet the demands of American capital, most of the latter group were refugees from the American war against Indochina.

So just like professional parents of all races, Asian American professionals have the resources to get their kids into college, they know the tricks of applying, and they impart the (rather arbitrary) habits and knowledge that allow them to succeed. It's just that there are more Asian American professionals.

The interesting question is whether all this will allow Asians to follow the well-worn path of the Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, &c into a reformed dominant race that embraces both whites and Asians and excludes blacks and Latinos.

Some of the racial barriers remain strong, which explains why Asians easily join the ranks of professionals but have had a hard time entering the highest levels of the ruling class. But in other ways Asians are already settling down within the new racial formation: they increasingly live among whites, marry them, and work with them. Blacks and Latinos remain segregated from whites and Asians and typically only interact with them as their servants or as objects of their control (unemployed, jailed).

The Asian path has thus far followed the Jews, who became white thru education, rather than the Irish or Italians, who used numbers to force their way into government. Alas, there are far fewer Asians than there were Jews interested in socialism and racial justice.


robyn said...

Alas, there are far fewer Asians than there were Jews interested in socialism and racial justice.


Jake said...

i think that's fair. remember, i'm talking about the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century, before jews became white.

ariel said...

and zionist.

Desiree said...

good post. the nyt article could have used some of this analysis.

naureen said...

"Asian American professionals have the resources to get their kids into college, they know the tricks of applying, and they impart the (rather arbitrary) habits and knowledge that allow them to succeed."

The "habits" argument is true, and it goes to the cultural value on education that you made fun of before, but that I think transcends the class divide you're speaking of in terms of education. I think non-professional immigrants also emphasized education, but that the results were different because of money and knowledge. Some of these parents transmitted the "habits" but didn't know how to get financial aid, they didn't know that it's important to go to UT Austin instead of UT Arlington - that the "imparting of habits" isn't enough to get their kids into the higher echelons.

Pakistanis are a good example of the divide. Its true that ones who came in the 1970s are professionals, and have kids who have entered the same class level. And the ones who came later aren't professionals, but have still aspired to be upper middle class and some have made it. I think until 9/11, they had a decent shot. Now I think discrimination, immigration problems and ghettoization prevent them from making it to that upper classness. Meaning, I think that being the daughter of professionals gave me the education and money to insulate me from the very basic discrimination and hate and suspicion of brown-skinned asiany types. I'm not gonna get denied a job because I'm muslim, b/c my class means no one I'm applying to suspects I'm a terrorist. But the same cannot be said of a Paki who wants to start at the very bottom of the corporate totem pole. At least, that is my guess. I have no stats.

So to me the fatal flaw of the model minority theory of Asian Americans is an idea that discrimination doesn't affect asian americans, or that it affects them equally and some have just "perservered." Usually the asian americans most discriminated against are the ones that comes from econimically disadvantage backgrounds, so there is some circularity to my argument. And Asian Americans themselves have a tendnecy to forget about discrimination - to forget that anti-immi rhetoric is anti-them rhetoric, too. Muslims being locked up after 9/11 for terrorism should have been 'chickens coming home to roost'. But it wasn't for a lot of Muslims, because of the class divide you speak of.

Vino S said...

It is interesting to compare the situation here with that in the UK.

In the UK, we use the term 'Asian' purely to mean 'South Asian' (i.e. immigrants from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan backgrounds as well as people of South Asian descent who went as indentured labourers to the West Indies, Malaysia and East Africa and whose descendants then came to the UK).

Generally, in the UK as well, visa policy makes it easier for highly-skilled Asian immigrants - such as my parents - to enter the UK. However, there was a time before the 70s - during the long post-war boom - when a certain degree of unskilled immigration was permitted. Due to a variety of reasons and subsequent chain migration, these immigrants disproportionately came from Kashmir, (Pakistani and Indian) Punjab, Mirpur (in Pakistan) and the Syhlet district of Bangladesh.

There is thus a significant economic divide and educational divide between Asians of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent and other Asians. Perhaps parallelling US divides between the situation of Koreans and Laotians.

Anonymous said...

I don't quite agree with the notion of becoming "white"; perhaps they are becoming more westernized, but I think a western identity should be more malleable and not be seen as "white" by default, but instead inclusive of any race.

This reminds me of one time when I came across a facebook page titled "Yes, we're Chinese, envy us" that had about 90,000 members, and in one of the forum threads, there were a bunch of ethnic Chinese discussing Chinese matters, and then all of a sudden a white Canadian enters the thread and one of the lines he said was "Chinese people are not the best at everything, get over it". I mean, what do you expect they'd be talking about in a group with such a title and 90k+ members?