The blog 8asians recently posted an article stating that Asian men have the highest salary. This statement is both correct and misleading at the same time. It is correct that Asian American men have the highest median wage. But to the extent that it suggests that Asian Americans are economically advantaged relative to whites, it is incorrect.
As I pointed out in my examination of Asian American unemployment over the recession, Asian Americans experience hidden disadvantages in the U.S. labor market. To see this disadvantage, one must disaggregate the data by education level. The Asian American unemployment disadvantage appears upon examining those with a bachelor's degree or higher level of education. In 2009, the annual unemployment rate for Asian Americans with a bachelor's degree was 6.7 percent. For whites with a bachelor's degree is was 2.1 percentage points lower at 4.6 percent.
A larger share of Asian Americans have a college degree than other groups, including whites. People with college degrees are more likely to be employed and, on average, have higher earnings than people without college degrees. The high educational attainment of Asian Americans means that their aggregate statistics, like the overall unemployment rate or the median income for the entire group, looks better than the aggregate statistics for whites. But the picture changes when one compares Asian Americans with whites of the same educational level.
The wage report discussed on 8asians.com does not allow one to disaggregate the data by sex, race, and education level. But the Census Bureau does provide this disaggregation in its detailed income tables. We can compare white and Asian American full-time, year-round male workers with each other by education level. The median income for non-Hispanic white male high school graduates in 2008 was $42,234. For Asian American male high school graduates it was 21 percent lower at $33,358. Comparing individuals with bachelor's degrees, white males earned $71,672 and Asian males $63,172, or 12 percent less. When one disaggregates by educational level, the apparent Asian American advantage turns to an Asian American disadvantage.
One comment in response to the 8asians.com piece (on the New American Media re-posting of the article) stated that since Asian American men work harder, they deserve to have the highest salary. There are a number of problems with this statement, but if one assumes that Asian American men work the hardest, the disaggregated income data suggests that they are not being rewarded for their hard work.
Asian American "success" stories are often used to argue that the United States is a post-racial society where anyone can be successful provided that they are willing to work hard. The reality is, of course, more complicated than that. The Asian American "success" stories sometimes do not look at all like success stories when one disaggregates the data. And while hard work matters, and there are a great deal of opportunities for people of all races in this society, the playing field is still not level. In 2010, it is still easier for one to be economically successful if one is white and male.