Asians in the Americas

Chapter 3: Asians in the Americas

Jane Junn, University of Southern California
Taeku Lee, University of California, Berkeley

“[These] data illustrate the phenomenon that aggregation can obscure internal diversity within the broader category of Asian Americans, resulting in inaccurate conclusions about the model-minority status of this racialized group.”
Asian Americans occupy a defined and by now accepted corner of America’s “ethnoracial pentagon.” Yet ponder “inequality” and “Asian American” is unlikely to come to mind. In fact, kindle what we think we know about Asian Americans and the light shines on their storied heights of educational and socioeconomic achievement, or perhaps the remarkable within-group diversity that calls to question the very coherence of the pan-ethnic category itself. This chapter explores the ways in which Asian Americans are a meaningful, even critical group to consider in thinking about race and inequality in the United States. It discusses in detail the way in which the social meanings attached to the category “Asian” have shifted in the United States from a designation that foreclosed opportunities for full citizenship to a valorized position of a “model minority” within the racial order. Despite this valorization, the chapter points out that Asian Americans continue to face discrimination and underrepresentation in a number of fields in American life. These empirical realities debunk arguments that portray racial gaps between whites and people of color in the United States as epiphenomena of socioeconomic status. Finally, it demonstrates how the “model-minority” narrative obscures the rampant inequalities that exist among different ethnic subgroups. In contemporary social and political discourse on class inequalities in the United States, discussion of Asian Americans is relatively scarce compared with examinations of the unequal fortunes of other groups of racialized Americans. Nevertheless, Asian Americans have been consistently and throughout the history of the United States separated into distinct categories of race, beginning with the earliest classification of Chinese in 1870 and continuing with the multiplicity of Asian race categories in the 2010 US Census. Although remaining classified as racial minorities, the construction of Asian Americans in the last several decades as a model minority highlights their relatively high levels of educational attainment and economic status while simultaneously ignoring the diversity of the population. This obscures the wide variation in resources among ethnic groups within the broader set of Asian Americans and persistently discounts unequal opportunities and outcomes in the United States.