'The Asian American Achievement Paradox'

Authors discuss new book on high levels of Asian-American achievement in education in which they argue that it's not about culture.

August 4, 2015
Russell Sage Foundation

Asian Americans have been found to be some of the most successful individuals in education, with many earning top grades at some of the top schools in the nation before attending highly ranked colleges and pursuing higher degrees. But why is this one demographic so successful in the U.S.? Authors Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, and Min Zhou, a professor of sociology  at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the University of California at Los Angeles, sought to determine the factors behind high levels of Asian American achievement.

Using a combination of in-person interviews, quantitative data from survey and historical facts, found that Asian culture -- which is ofen credited for the high rates of success for Asian Americans -- actually had little to do with it. And the authors take advantage of long interviews with individuals coming from white, black, Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican backgrounds to find out what challenges and benefits each race and culture has to face when it comes to pursuing an education. Via email, Lee and Zhou answered questions about their new book from the Russell Sage Foundation, The Asian American Achievement Paradox,

Q: You found that Asian Americans are more successful in pursuing an education because of factors that do not relate to values in Asian cultures. How do you hope this book will help to dispel that belief?

A: There is a popular misconception that Asian Americans attain high levels of education and achieve success because they hold the “right” cultural traits and values, but this argument is as misguided as attributing poverty among the poor to their “wrong” traits and values. This line of reasoning also fails to acknowledge important structural and institutional factors and, in the case of Asian Americans, fails to acknowledge the pivotal role of U.S. immigration law. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 gave preferences to highly-educated, highly-skilled applicants from Asia, which, in turn, ushered in a new stream of Asian immigrants of diverse skills and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some Asian immigrant groups are hyper-selected, meaning they are doubly positively selected; they are not only more highly educated than their compatriots from their countries of origin who did not immigrate, but also more highly educated than the U.S. average…

Hyper-selectivity has consequences for immigrant and second-generation mobility. First, the children (the 1.5 and second generation) of the hyper-selected groups begin their lives from more advantaged “starting points” than the children of other immigrant groups, like Mexicans, or native-born minorities. Second, because Chinese and other Asian immigrants are disproportionately highly educated, the host society perceives that all Asian Americans are highly educated and high achieving, and then attributes their success to their culture, values, and grit. But this is fallacious reasoning; it is akin to making generalizations about Americans based on only those who graduate from prestigious universities...

Q: As debates on affirmative action and the role of race in admission decisions continue, how do you think racial and cultural stereotypes can influence a student’s admittance into a prestigious institution?

A: Affirmative action policies do not allow institutions like Harvard to establish racial quotas, but rather give them the right to consider race as one of many factors in making their admissions decisions. Indeed, there are a number of factors that can boost an applicant’s rating, including whether an applicant is a legacy, an athlete, the first in his or her family to go to college, from a state from which relatively few students apply, or from an economically disadvantaged household. Elite institutions like Harvard seek to create a diverse study body along all of these dimensions, and considering race in admissions helps to achieve that.

Asian Americans are a vastly diverse group. While hyper-selected Asian ethnic groups like Chinese and Koreans show remarkable levels of educational achievement, less advantaged Asian ethnic groups such as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong, trail behind. These groups are disproportionately poor and exhibit higher high school drop-out rates than African Americans and Latinos...Affirmative action policies allow universities to consider the differential starting points while also promoting diversity on campuses, creating a learning environment that better prepares students to be productive members of the increasingly diverse labor market and society. Thus, affirmative action policies benefit students of both high and low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Where high-achieving Asian Americans would benefit even more so from affirmative action is in the workplace. Asian workers may be perceived as smart and hardworking, but they are also perceived as lacking leadership skills, creativity, and managerial bravado. A recent study of Silicon Valley’s high tech industry showed that while Asian Americans make up 27.2 percent of the professionals in the industry, they comprise only 13.9 percent of executives. Even in the field of education, where Asian Americans are overrepresented, they are severely underrepresented in leadership positions at the department and university levels. They make up less than 1 percent of corporate board members and about 2 percent of college presidents. Asian Americans may be facing a “bamboo ceiling,” not unlike the glass ceiling that women face. How to break down that ceiling? Affirmative action, of course.

Q: You tell the stories of two Asian-Americans who felt that they were not smart enough to place into their high school’s upper level courses, but once they were placed in them (possibly due to stereotypes about their race), they were able to motivate themselves further and succeed. Why do you think they were motivated to succeed? Do you think students of other nationalities would have been able to do the same in similar circumstances?

A: In our research, we learned about the hidden ways in which Asian Americans benefit from racial stereotypes in schools. Asian American students are positively stereotyped by teachers, guidance counselors, school administrators, and their peers as smart, high-achieving, and hard-working. As a result, they are more likely to be placed in competitive academic tracks, and are also more likely to be offered help with their college applications. These opportunities were not accorded to the Mexican, white, or black students in our study.

The positive racial stereotypes and biases can result stereotype promise—the promise of being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype, which can enhance one’s performance. The students we profiled in our book were average in junior high school, but were placed into the honors track in high school, nevertheless...Both students graduated with grade point averages that exceeded 4.0, and were admitted into prestigious universities. We found that stereotype promise is the social psychological process by which high academic achievement among previously low-achieving Asian American students becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For positively stereotyped groups, we would expect that stereotype promise would operate in similar manner for its group members as it does for Asian American students. But for minority groups who are negatively stereotyped, simply placing them in a highly competitive academic track may not have the same result as does with Asian American students. Even high-achieving African American students carry the added burden of what Claude Steele and his colleagues have identified as “stereotype threat”—the fear of performing in a way that confirms the negative stereotype of the group.

We would also add two caveats about so-called “positive” stereotypes: they are a double-edged sword. Those who do not attain high academic outcomes feel like failures and outliers who do not meet the perceived norm for the Asian-Americans: this is the burden of the model minority trope. Moreover, as we noted previously, Asian Americans may be perceived as smart and hardworking in schools, but they are also perceived as lacking leadership traits and qualities.

Q: You describe how families moved into different areas for the best K-12 schools, or relied on communities to help provide resources that immigrant parents may not be aware of, but mention that these tend to typically exist for Asian Americans. Have you found that other communities also have such strong resources available to share, or is this unique to this one nationality? If these community resources didn’t exist, do you think the children of Asian immigrants would have been able to collectively succeed as much as they have?

A: There is third consequence of hyper-selectivity among immigrant groups: when they settle in the United States, they build “ethnic capital” by relying on their “human capital.” Ethnic capital includes ethnic institutions—such as after-school tutoring programs and SAT preparatory classes—which highly educated immigrants have the resources and know-how to import from their countries of origin and recreate in the U.S. via ethnic entrepreneurship to benefit themselves and their children. The benefits of these programs cross class lines and reach working-class coethnics.

Ethnic capital also translates into knowledge via social networks. In ethnic organizations such as churches and community centers, immigrant parents circulate invaluable information about which neighborhoods have the best public schools, the importance of being in AP classes, and navigating the college admissions process...This, in turn, helps the children whose immigrant parents toil in factories and restaurants attain educational outcomes that defy expectations.

Unlike Asian immigrant groups, like the Chinese, Mexican immigrants are not hyper- selected, and therefore lack the human capital to create the kind of ethnic capital which would supplement the education of their children. The more interesting question is how much more education might the children of Mexican immigrants attain if they had access to the ethnic capital of their Asian American peers?

Q: Much of the book focuses on California and the institutions in the area, including the University of California system and the California State University. Have you found that the stereotypes that surround Asian Americans, Mexicans and African Americans in your book to be the same in other parts of the country, especially when it comes to measuring success?

A: While our data is from the L.A. metropolitan area, we also draw on U.S. Census data as well as the findings of other studies of the second-generation in other parts of the country. We also incorporated findings from the extensive literature in the field of social psychology about the effects of stereotypes on performance. While we do not make claims about the generalizability of our findings, we draw on the rich body of research in immigration, the second generation, stratification, and social psychology to inform our conclusions.

For example, there are many studies that show that high-achieving African American students suffer from stereotype threat. Stereotype threat also affects high-achieving female students in math, who are perceived as less capable than their male peers...While the literature is rich and deep with respect to the way in which stereotypes can affect the performance of Black and White students, it is relatively thin with regard to how stereotypes affect new immigrant and second-generation groups like Asians and Latinos. We hope that our research will help spawn further research in this area. This will help broaden the discussion of stereotypes, and will help to test the generalizability of our findings, especially about stereotype promise.

Q: The book goes into detail on how some members of different communities value themselves according to the achievements of their peers, while others compare themselves to their parents to judge their success. Which method do you believe to be most accurate in evaluating an individual’s achievements and in gauging his or her upward mobility?

A: We often measure success by material and tangible possessions: the college degrees on our walls, the kind of jobs we hold and earnings from our jobs, the value of our homes, and the cars that we drive, but rarely do we consider “starting points.” When we take into account where immigrant groups start when they arrive to the United States and consider how much progress their children make in relation to their immigrant parents, we find that the children of Mexican immigrants are the most successful group.

In our study, we found that 63 percent of the children of Chinese immigrants graduated from college, and of this group 22 percent also attained a graduate degree. Moreover, none of the Chinese Americans in the study dropped out of high school. These are undeniably impressive figures, but these figures mirror those of their immigrant parents, especially their fathers who are just as highly educated. In other words, while second-generation Chinese have impressive educational outcomes, they have not made intergenerational progress.

On the other end are the children of Mexican immigrants, who had the lowest levels of educational attainment of the groups in our study. Only 86 percent graduated from high school—compared to 100 percent of the Chinese—and only 17 percent of graduated from college. But their high school graduation rate was more than double that of their Mexican immigrant parents, only about 40 percent of whom earned high school diplomas. And, their college graduation rate more than doubles that of their Mexican immigrant fathers (7 percent) and triples that of their Mexican immigrant mothers (5 percent).

Given the intergenerational progress that second-generation Mexicans have made, they felt more successful than their Chinese counterparts, despite the fact that the latter attained more education. The Chinese measured their success against the highest-achieving coethnics: those who graduated from elite universities, hold advanced degrees, and work in one of the four top professions (medicine, law, science, and engineering). Many who did not meet this impossibly high standard did not feel successful. This is one facet of the Asian American achievement paradox, which we unveiled by adopting the subject-centered approach, in which we placed the subjects’ perception of success at the center of our analyses.


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