The Two Sides of America’s ‘Model Minority’

Xiao-huang Yin, chairman of the American studies program at Occidental College, is author of "Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s."

The rise of Asian Americans from an “unassimilable” group to the “model minority” is often lauded by the media as an American-style success story. What is equally striking, however, is that the Asian American community has become increasingly polarized. Census reports reveal that today Asian Americans, socioeconomically, are divided into two distinct groups: the “uptown” and the “downtown.” The former are well-educated professionals who reside in suburban cities and are well integrated into mainstream society; the latter are predominantly working-class immigrants struggling to survive in isolated and poor urban ghettos.

Measures of family income and education point to the bipolarity of the Asian American community. Statistics reveal that since the 1960s, the median income of Asian American families has been consistently higher than the national level. For example, in 1997, median household income for Asian Americans was greater than $49,000, compared with under $45,000 for their white counterparts. Since earning power is considered an indicator of social status, Asians’ higher median family income is often cited as evidence of their success in American life. But if the census data are broken down into individual Asian American groups, a more complex picture of Asian success emerges.

According to the 1990 census, the median income of Japanese, Indian, Filipino and Chinese American families exceeded that of the general population, but Koreans lagged slightly behind, while Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians fell well below the national level. To find a huge median-income gap among different Asian American groups is stunning in the light of the conventional wisdom about Asian American success. Yet, the median family incomes of the top two groups, Japanese and Indian Americans, almost trebled those of the bottom two, Cambodians and Laotians.


Differences in education among Asian Americans groups further highlight the community’s bipolarity. True, Asian Americans are better educated than the general population. For example, according to the 1990 census, 38% of Asian Americans had completed college, twice the percentage of the general population. Their presence in elite institutions, private and public, is particularly impressive. Although they account for only about 3.1% of the general population, 18% of entering freshmen at Harvard and 29% at MIT in 1998 were Asian American; they made up about 40% of the freshman class at UC Berkeley in 1999.

But, as in the case of median-family income, academic success is not universal across Asian American groups. While over 57% of Indian Americans have received a bachelors’ or higher degree, only 5% of Hmongs completed college. Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians all rank far below the national level in education.

What are the causes for such dramatic differences among Asian Americans? Although studies suggest a wide range of explanations--cultural, economic, political and social--the effect of immigration since the 1960s is especially noteworthy.

Immigration from Asia over the past 40 years has not only transformed Asian Americans into a predominantly first-generation community but it has also highly diversified their national origins. While the Asian population in the United States grew from 1 million in 1965 to more than 10 million in 2000, the number of U.S.-born Asians, as a percentage of the Asian population in America, dropped from 60% to around 30%. Until the 1960s, Asian Americans were mainly Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos; today, they include virtually every ethnic group from Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Furthermore, immigration has caused profound changes in the Asian American profile. In general, immigration laws, especially the Immigration Act of 1965, give preference to two kinds of prospective immigrants: those who have skills, education and resources and those who have family members in the United States. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in well-educated professionals from Asia. For example, between 1966 and 1975, the first 10 years after Congress passed the new immigration act, nearly 90% of working Indian immigrants reportedly had academic or professional backgrounds. Similarly, the arrival since the 1960s of large numbers of Filipino nurses, mostly female and highly professional, has significantly changed the demographic and socioeconomic structure of the Filipino American community.

The effect of such highly diversified immigration on the Asian American experience cannot be underestimated. Immigrants with an education and professional skills, once they have adjusted to their new homes in America and overcome the language barrier, are primed for success. Studies show that most prominent Asian American scientists come from this immigrant group or were born into such families. The six Chinese American Nobel laureates in physics and chemistry, for example, share this background.


On the other hand, immigration reforms and upheavals in Southeast Asia, particularly the Vietnam War, have prompted large numbers of unskilled immigrants and refugees to come to the United States. With few readily transferable skills and limited resources, they are forced to take low-paying manual and service jobs, which trap them in poor urban ghettos. There are also immigrant professionals who, failing to acquire positions in the U.S. comparable to those they held back home, have “fallen down” in the new country.

Caught in a world of gangs, drugs and poverty, these “downtown” Asians experience American life quite differently from their “uptown” counterparts. Immigration patterns help explain why there is a wide gap in poverty rates among and within Asian American groups. While the poverty rates for Japanese, Filipino and Indian Americans were 3.4%, 5.2%, and 7.2%, respectively, in 1990, 24% of Vietnamese, 42% of Cambodians and 62% of Hmongs lived below the poverty line. “Uprooted” from their old countries and “pushed” into a strange land, they have encountered enormous problems. Unfortunately, the stereotypical image of Asian Americans as the model minority makes it difficult for these Asians to seek support from the larger society, and their misery is often ignored by the media.

More significantly, vast differences in their socioeconomic status have turned Asian Americans into groups with separate political interests. While uptown Asians may feel embittered about the “glass ceiling” that blocks their career paths, their downtown counterparts, locked in dead-end jobs with little chance to move upward, are focused on surviving. Thus, it is not surprising that Asian Americans have conflicting views on a wide range of issues, from changes in health-care regulations to welfare reform to affirmative action. During the California primary election in March, Asian American voters split almost equally between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. In comparison, 86% of African Americans voted for the Democrats.

In this Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, it’s important to recognize that the economic and academic polarization that characterizes the Asian American community will likely remain a reality for the foreseeable future. Understanding its impact and developing a responsible agenda to deal with it are equally important. Only after narrowing the downtown-uptown divide can Asian Americans succeed in uniting as one community to celebrate their heritage.