The real secret to Asian success in America was not about education
A new study finds that educational gains had little to do with how Asian Americans managed to close the wage gap with whites. Instead, the research suggests society simply became less racist toward Asians and started treating them with a little more respect
For those who argue race-based disadvantage is no longer a real factor in the United States, Asian Americans are a favourite talking point. The argument goes something like this: if “white privilege” is so oppressive – if the US is so hostile toward its minorities – why do census figures show that Asian Americans out-earn everyone?
In a 2014 editorial, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly pointed out that Asian household incomes were 20 per cent higher than white household incomes on average.
“So, do we have Asian privilege in America?” he asked.
Of course not, he said. The real reason that Asians are “succeeding far more than African Americans and even more than white Americans” is that “their families are intact and education is paramount”, O’Reilly argued.
This line of reasoning has been with us since at least the 1960s, when it served as a popular rejoinder to the challenges issued by the Civil Rights Movement. Many newspapers printed flattering portraits of Asian Americans in order to cast scepticism on the people marching for economic and social justice.
“At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift the Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own,” claimed a 1966 story in the US News and World Report, which noted their “strict discipline” and “traditional virtues”.
“The widespread assumption is that Asian Americans came to the US very disadvantaged, and they wound up advantaged through extraordinary investments in their children’s education,” said Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger.
But that’s not what really happened, he insisted. Hilger recently used old Census records to trace the fortunes of whites, blacks and Asians who were born in California during the early-to-mid 20th century. He found that educational gains had little to do with how Asian Americans managed to close the wage gap with whites by the 1970s. Instead, his research suggested society simply became less racist toward Asians.
Asian Americans have been part of the United States for most of its history. The first major wave of immigrants came in the 1800s, when Chinese labourers flocked to California to help build the railroads. Their presence soon stirred up resentments among white Americans. The Chinese Massacre of 1871, which took place in the streets of Los Angeles, counted among the largest lynchings in American history.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which shut the door on the influx of low-skilled Chinese labour. By 1924, nearly all immigration from Asian nations was banned. Despite widespread discrimination, many families remained, settling mostly in California. Opinion surveys from that era found that whites expressed extreme prejudice against both Asian Americans and African Americans. Asians also lived in segregated neighbourhoods, and often sent their children to segregated schools. To survive, many opened their own businesses because no one would employ them.
In 1965, changing immigration laws ushered in a surge of high-skilled, high-earning Asian workers, who now account for most of the Asians living in America today. But even before the arrival of those highly educated immigrants, the Asians already living America had more or less closed the wage gap with whites.
At the time of the 1940 Census, Hilger found California-born Asian men earned less than California-born black men. By the 1970 Census, they were earning about the same as white men, and by the 1980 Census, the native-born Asian men were out-earning white men.
Throughout this time, many Asian-American families did invest, increasingly, in their children’s education. But Hilger found the improvements in educational attainment were too modest to explain how Asian earnings grew so fast.
The picture became much clearer when he compared people with similar levels of education. Hilger found that in the 1940s, Asian men were paid less than white men with the same amount of schooling. But by the 1980s, that gap had mostly disappeared.
“Asians used to be paid like blacks,” Hilger says. “But between 1940 and 1970, they started to get paid like whites.”
In other words, the remarkable upward mobility of California-born Asians was not about superior schooling – not yet, anyway. It was the result of Asians finally receiving better opportunities – finally earning equal pay for equal skills and equal work.
In the 1850s, newspapers in California complained that Chinese immigrants were the dregs of the labouring class, having “most of the vices and few of the virtues of the African”. Yet by the 1960s, attitudes had completely flipped. Journalists were praising Asians for being hard workers who kept their heads down, cherished education, and didn’t complain.
“Still being taught in Chinatown is the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts – not a welfare check – in order to reach America’s ‘promised land’,” the 1966 US News and World Report article said.
Since then, waves of high-skilled immigration have further cemented the stereotype of Asians as a studious, well-off demographic. Highly educated parents encourage their children to become highly educated, compounding the advantage. About half of Asian Americans over the age of 25 now hold college degrees, compared to only 28 per cent of Americans overall.
But if we take a page from Hilger and focus on people with similar educational backgrounds, the residual disadvantages become clear. Asians actually earn 5 per cent less compared to whites who also have advanced degrees – while blacks and Hispanics earn 20 per cent less.
This is one of several problems with the model minority myth. Many people hold up Asian Americans as proof that hard work and education leads to success no matter your skin colour. On the contrary, data shows being a minority in America often means working harder to earn less.
Asian Americans have made tremendous progress in the US. But the greatest thing that ever happened to them wasn’t that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger mums or Confucian values. It is that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect.