This country's fastest growing racial group, Asian Americans, comes from all walks of life. Some are doctors or lawyers, others work in restaurants or nail salons. Many were born in the United States, most are immigrants. They have roots in countries throughout Asia, including Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The Asian American Center for Advancing Justice (Advancing Justice) and other organizations serving Asian Americans are deeply concerned about how findings from a recent study by the Pew Research Center have been used to portray our communities. While the report, "The Rise of Asian Americans," should be applauded for the attention it provides an often misunderstood racial group, its narrative largely ignores the tremendous social and economic diversity within Asian American communities. Failure to fully recognize the challenge Asian Americans face means that the educational, economic, and social service needs of America's fastest growing racial group will not be fully understood or addressed by policy makers.
Authors of the "The Rise of Asian Americans," as well as many mainstream media outlets covering its release, paint a picture of Asian Americans as a model minority, having the highest income and educational attainment among racial groups. These are overly simplistic.
The Pew Research Center report holds up Asian Americans as the most educated. Yet data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that Asian American adults are less likely than Whites to have finished high school and that Chinese and Vietnamese Americans are among seven Asian American ethnic groups to have below average attainment of a high school diploma. These same data show that Southeast Asians, including Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans, are among those least likely to hold a college degree.
Pew Research Center report also notes that Asian Americans have the highest median household income. Yet household income is a poor measure when applied to immigrant communities, which feature a greater number of workers per household and include a greater number of persons who rely on the income those workers produce. Census Bureau data on per capita income indicate that Asian American incomes fall below those of Whites nationwide. Per capita income data by ethnic group further show that Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, and Bangladeshi Americans have incomes more similar to those of African Americans and Latinos than Whites.
Findings such as these are included in Advancing Justice's recent report, A Community of Contrasts: Asian Americans in the United States, 2011, which documents the social and economic diversity within Asian American communities across a variety of indicators. It provides valuable portraits of the most disadvantaged Asian American ethnic groups, nearly all missing from the Pew Research Center report.
One-dimensional portrayals of Asian Americans as universally successful have serious consequences, rendering invisible the needs of some of the most vulnerable families in the United States. The myriad of Asian American experiences demand a more nuanced and sophisticated narrative than "The Rise of Asian Americans" provides.