The real secret to Asian American success was not education – The Washington Post

Interesting and relevant study on how barriers affect mobility:

This claim has been with us since at least the 1960s, when it served as a popular rejoinder to the challenges issued by the civil rights movement. Many newspapers printed flattering portraits of Asian Americans to cast skepticism on the people marching for economic and social justice.

“At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift the Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own,” claimed a 1966 story in the U.S. News and World Report, which noted their “strict discipline” and “traditional virtues.”

To the extent that all myths are rooted in truth, this model minority stereotype recognizes a real pattern of Asian upward mobility. A century ago, Asian Americans were known as laborers of the lowest wage. They were ditch diggers, launderers, miners. Yet over the decades, despite poverty, racial violence and widespread discrimination, many Asians managed to clamber up the socioeconomic ladder.

Until now, the story of how that happened has been poorly understood.

“The widespread assumption is that Asian Americans came to the United States very disadvantaged, and they wound up advantaged through extraordinary investments in their children’s education,” says Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger.

But that’s not what really happened, he says.

Hilger recently used old census records to trace the fortunes of whites, blacks and Asians who were born in California during the early- to mid-20th century. He found that educational gains had little to do with how Asian Americans managed to close the wage gap with whites by the 1970s.

Instead, his research suggests that society simply became less racist toward Asians.

Asian Americans have been part of the United States for most of its history. The first major wave of immigrants came in the 1800s, when Chinese laborers flocked to California to help build railroads. Their presence soon stirred up resentments among white Americans. The Chinese Massacre of 1871, which took place in the streets of Los Angeles, counts among the largest lynchings in U.S. history.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which shut the door on the influx of low-skilled Chinese labor. By 1924, nearly all immigration from Asian nations was banned. Despite widespread discrimination, many families remained, settling mostly in California. Opinion surveys from that era show that whites expressed extreme prejudice against both Asian and African Americans. Asians also lived in segregated neighborhoods and often sent their children to segregated schools. To survive, many opened their own businesses because no one would employ them.

Hilger’s research focuses on native-born whites, blacks and Asians to rule out the effects of subsequent immigration. In 1965, changing laws ushered in a surge of high-skilled, high-earning Asian workers, who now account for most of the Asians living in the United States today.

But even before the arrival of those highly educated immigrants, the Asians already living in the United States had more or less closed the wage gap with whites.

At the time of the 1940 census, Hilger found, California-born Asian men earned less than California-born black men. By the 1970 census, they were earning about the same as white men, and by the 1980 census, the native-born Asian men were out-earning white men.

Throughout this time, many Asian American families did invest, increasingly, in their children’s education. But Hilger discovered that the improvements in educational attainment were too modest to explain how Asians’ earnings grew so fast.

The picture became much clearer when he compared people with similar levels of education. Hilger found that in the 1940s, Asian men were paid less than white men with the same amount of schooling. But by the 1980s, that gap had mostly disappeared.

“Asians used to be paid like blacks,” Hilger said. “But between 1940 and 1970, they started to get paid like whites.” The charts below shows average earnings for native-born black, white and Asian depending on how much education they had.

In 1980, for instance, even Asian high school dropouts were earning about as much as white high school dropouts, and vastly more than black high school dropouts. This dramatic shift had nothing to do with Asians accruing more education. Instead, Hilger points to the slow dismantling of discriminatory institutions after World War II, and the softening of racist prejudices. That’s the same the explanation advanced by economists Harriet Orcutt Duleep and Seth Sanders, who found that in the second half of the 20th century, Asian Americans not only started to work in more lucrative industries, but also started to get paid more for the same kind of work.

In other words, the remarkable upward mobility of California-born Asians wasn’t about superior schooling (not yet, anyway). It was the result of Asians finally receiving better opportunities — finally earning equal pay for equal skills and equal work.

Why couldn’t African Americans close the wage gap? It’s hard to say. Hilger found some evidence that there were underlying differences in skill. Between Asians and African Americans with the same amount of schooling, African Americans tended to achieve lower scores on military enlistment tests during the 1940s.

But it’s also likely that postwar racial attitudes shifted differently for Asians than for African Americans. In the 1850s, newspapers in California complained that Chinese immigrants were the dregs of the laboring class, having “most of the vices and few of the virtues of the African.” Yet by the 1960s, attitudes had completely flipped. Journalists praised Asians for being hard workers who cherished education, kept their heads down and rarely complained.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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