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6 Charts That Dismantle The Trope Of Asian Americans As A Model Minority

An illustration of a bar chart. The leading bar peels away to show multiple colorful silhouettes of people underneath.

"Smart." "Hard-working." "Nice." Those were among the adjectives that respondents offered up in a recent poll when asked to describe Asian Americans.

The poll, conducted by the nonprofit Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change (LAAUNCH), was another all-too-familiar reminder that Asian Americans are still perceived as the "model minority."

Since the end of World War II, this myth about Asian Americans and their perceived collective success has been used as a racial wedge — to minimize the role racism plays in the struggles of other minority groups, such as Black Americans.

Characterizing Asian Americans as a model minority flattens the diverse experiences of Asian Americans into a singular, narrow narrative. And it paints a misleading picture about the community that doesn't align with current statistics.

Here's a look at some common misconceptions driven by the model minority myth.


Myth: Asian Americans are a single monolithic group

Currently, more than 22 million people of Asian descent live in the U.S., making up approximately 7% of the nation's population. They trace their heritage to different regions around the world, with people of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent making up the largest shares, though no group makes up a majority. More than 1.5 million Pacific Islanders, who descend from Micronesia, Melanesia or Polynesia, live in the U.S. as well.

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Academics and activists trace the term "Asian American" to 1968, when students at the University of California, Berkeley, founded the Asian American Political Alliance. At the time, the group sought to unite students of Japanese, Chinese and Filipino descent to fight for political and social recognition.

"Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders" (AAPI) is a term that has its roots in the 1980s and '90s, when the U.S. Census Bureau used the "Asian Pacific American" classification to group Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders together. In 1997, the bureau disaggregated the categories into "Asian" and "Pacific Islander."

Scholars and activists have critiqued both terms for masking differences in histories and needs among communities, as well as supporting the myth that Asian Americans are a monolithic group.

Within these regional groups, a huge variety of ethnicities exist within the Asian American community. People who identify their heritage as Chinese, Indian or Filipino make up the largest share.

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These numbers have risen rapidly in recent years. The Asian American population is the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S., growing by 81% from 2000 to 2019. The Hispanic population saw the second-fastest growth, at 70%, followed by Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, at 60%. The white population grew by only 1% in that time.


Myth: Asian Americans are high earning and well educated

Asian Americans have a median household income of around $78,000 a year, which is higher than the national median of about $66,000. However, that overall statistic obscures large differences among different Asian-origin groups.

These economic disparities are partially driven by similar disparities in education levels among Asian Americans. The highest-earning groups — Indian American and Taiwanese American households — also have the highest levels of education, while the lowest-earning groups have comparatively lower levels of education.

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Indian American households are the highest-earning group, with a median household income of $127,000 a year. On the other end of the scale, Burmese American households are the lowest-earning group, with a median household income of $46,000 a year.

In fact, a 2018 Pew Research Center study found that Asian Americans were the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the U.S., with Asian Americans in the top 10th of the income distribution making 10.7 times more than those in the bottom 10th.


Myth: Asian Americans immigrate to the U.S. in the "right" way

More than half of those who identify as Asian American and at least 17% of Pacific Islanders were born outside the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Asian American community has the highest proportion of immigrants of any ethnic or racial group in the United States. Yet, Asian Americans are often overlooked in debates about immigration reform.

Asians have a wide range of reasons for immigrating to the U.S., including those coming as refugees or asylum-seekers. Out of the almost 11 million estimated undocumented immigrants in the U.S., around 1.5 million (14%) are from Asia, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

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Heightened immigration enforcement has also impacted Asian Americans. From 2015 to 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested about 15,000 immigrants from Asia, according to a report by the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

The report also found that Southeast Asian immigrants were three to four times more likely to be deported for old criminal convictions compared with other immigrant groups. Out of the approximately 16,000 Southeast Asians with final removal orders in that period, more than 13,000 had removal orders that were based on old criminal convictions.


Myth: Asian Americans face less systemic racism and discrimination

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans have increased. In an April survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 32% of Asian American adults — a greater percentage than any other racial or ethnic group — said that they feared someone might threaten or physically attack them.

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In response, the House of Representatives passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act on May 18. The bill would have the Justice Department appoint a point person to expedite the review of hate crimes related to COVID-19. It would also direct resources toward making the reporting of hate crimes more accessible.

Despite increased news coverage of various attacks against Asian Americans and the upcoming legislation, the LAAUNCH survey, which was conducted between March 29 to April 14, found that 37% of white Americans were not aware of increased incidents of hate crimes.

But anti-Asian bias and discrimination are not new to the pandemic. To understand the current climate, it's important to look at historical context. In past periods of national tension, especially during times when the U.S. has been at war with Asian countries, anti-Asian racism has similarly risen.


Myth: Asian Americans are fairly represented in leadership positions

The recent LAAUNCH survey also found that almost half of Americans incorrectly believe that Asian Americans are overrepresented or fairly represented in senior positions within American companies, politics, media or other realms.

In reality, Asian Americans are underrepresented in these positions of power, holding about 3% of these positions in comparison with composing 7% of the U.S. population, a report from The New York Times found last year.

More specifically, Asian Americans have the lowest degree of representation in political office compared with any other racial or ethnic group.

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Asian Americans are even underrepresented in states with a high concentration of Asian American residents, like New York and California, according to a report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

Especially since the start of collective activism among Asian Americans in the 1960s, Asian Americans have had a rich history of political activism and involvement. But that history has not always translated to greater representation in political leadership.

One finding in the LAAUNCH survey may point to answers: 92% of Americans polled said they were comfortable with Asian Americans as doctors or friends, but only 85% said they were comfortable with an Asian American as a boss and 73% as a president of the United States.

Despite these perceptions, Asian Americans are pushing forward. Asian Americans increased their voter turnout rate by more than any other racial or ethnic group in the 2020 election and in part helped Joe Biden win Georgia. In that same year, 158 Asian Americans ran for state legislatures, the highest number since the 2018 midterms.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 28, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that a Pew Research Center study about income inequality among Asian Americans was from 2016. The correct year is 2018. Previously posted on May 26: An earlier version also mistakenly said people of East Asian and South Asian descent make up the largest shares of Asian Americans. People of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent make up the two largest shares.
Corrected: May 26, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said people of East Asian and South Asian descent make up the largest shares of Asian Americans. People of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent make up the two largest shares.