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As the Asian Experience Tells Us, Average Is Hard to Define

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Back in the 1960s, when America seemed to be just black and white, we all knew what a minority was. But in the ‘80s people really aren’t sure of what to make of Asian-Americans. Asians are clearly a “racial” minority. But today in affirmative-action and social programs, the qualifying categories are often “under-represented minorities” and “non-Asians,” generally leaving Asians out of the picture.

It seems that we have irreconcilably opposed camps arguing over two sides of the same facts, like the “tastes great/less filling” beer-commercial debate. The “model minority” advocates trumpet a success story that Asians are even better achievers than whites. The “model-minority myth” faction argues that it is all just a media lie concocted to divide minorities and that Asians are just another average, oppressed, Third World working-class people of color.

There is plenty of data to fuel either side. The 1980 census and a new Civil Rights Commission report tell us that the median income of Asian-American households is slightly higher than that of whites. Yet that same census and a recently released Los Angeles United Way study tell us that Asians also have a lower per-capita income, a higher poverty rate and more than their share of social problems.

Who is right? As in the great beer debate, there is really little cause for argument. Both sides are wrong because both are right. Asians are two minorities in one, making them America’s “dual” minority. The problem with averages is that average is exactly what Asians are not. Unusual amounts of both affluence and poverty cancel out each other to produce an average that is misleading at best, and damaging to the neediest at the worst.

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The average Asian is just as likely to be a doctor or scientist in the suburbs as a garment or restaurant worker in Chinatown. Nearly all Asians live in urban areas, but few realize that this is nearly evenly split between impoverished urban centers and affluent suburbs. In Massachusetts, Asians in urban centers have poverty rates that rival those of urban blacks, while suburban Asians have education levels, if not income levels, which match Weston, Boston’s wealthiest suburb.

The proportion of Asians who earned over $50,000 was 50% greater than for whites in 1980. It should be no wonder that in Monterey Park, Chinese are paying cash for homes. But in Chinatown, working couples struggle to meet the rent in overcrowded tenements, and many Southeast Asian refugees in working-class neighborhoods in Boston struggle to get out of welfare, with an Asian poverty rate that exceeds that of whites by 38%.

Despite their greater education, Asian males earn 10% less than white males. Yet it is a well-kept secret that Asian females earn 20% more than their white counterparts. While American-born Asians earn above the national average, the poverty rate for recent Chinese immigrants exceeds 28%. Japanese families earn more than white families while Vietnamese earn barely more than blacks.

The proportion of Asian college graduates is double that of whites, but Asians are three times as likely as whites to not even complete elementary school. Despite their “whiz kid” reputation, average SAT scores for Asians are actually lower than for whites. Thirteen percent of the highest SAT scores went to Asians in 1985, so the “disproportionate” numbers of Asians in Ivy League schools aren’t as disproportionate as it might seem. But no one noticed that 14% of the worst scores also went to Asians. These kids will never make it to Harvard or the cover of Time.

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Affluent Asians may raise average incomes, but instead of helping impoverished Asians, that only disqualifies poor Asians from special help. This is because programs based on averages seem to think that there are no impoverished Asians. Even the incomes of affluent Asians are misleading, as they are far more highly educated than the average white worker, and often find that they are the worst paid, or last promoted, compared to their professional peers.

With the emergence of Asian-Americans, it is becoming clear that we cannot simply classify any person only by his or her color. Indeed, though averages seem to show that black incomes are nearly where they were a decade ago, they hide both a prospering black middle class and an underclass that has slipped even further behind. In the ‘80s, we should discard simplistic notions of averages and qualification-blind quotas. Affirmative action and social programs should be allocated on the basis of need, not race, so that all Americans are given a fair chance to strive for the American dream.


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