Asian Americans: Is Yellow the New White?

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Meizhu Lui
Meizhu Lui Meizhu Lui took the mantra “Educate, Agitate, Organize!” as the theme for her life’s work. As a hospital food service worker and union activist, she organized to demand that “women’s work” not be undervalued and underpaid, and to challenge occupational segregation. Later, as a community organizer for Health Care for All Massachusetts, then as Executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, and finally as Director of the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative, she became known for her outspoken activism in ending race and gender inequities.

Asian Americans are seemingly well positioned these days, having surpassed white households in income and wealth levels. At least that’s the current story, repeatedly presented in the media. But is it true?  Is yellow really the new “in” color, the race most likely to succeed?

It’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, a good time to assess how far we have really come. While there have been great advances since the days when Asian immigrants were demonized as the “yellow peril,” recent analyses expose the assumption that Asians are doing better than whites for what it is: a fairy tale.

Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIAs) have a unique economic profile that differs from that of any other racial category. It is a bi-polar configuration, with a higher percentage of people at both the top and the bottom. For example, a larger proportion of APIAs hold college and advanced degrees than any other racial group, but they also have a larger share of high school dropouts. Economic status has a high correlation to country of origin. Some are recruited from China or India and immediately get jobs at high paying tech companies; others are from largely agriculturally focused countries such as Cambodia or Tibet, and with few transferable skills, they work for extremely low wages – if they can find work at all.

In terms of employment and income, Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute found that APIAs are still at a net disadvantage. While those with low education levels were more likely to be employed than were any other group, APIAs with bachelor’s degrees were less likely to be employed than whites. And while unemployment levels are lower, when Asian Americans do lose their jobs, as documented by Paul Ong at UCLA, their length of unemployment is longer. Many are employed by other Asians who initially cut hours rather than lay off employees, but when lay-offs become necessary, Asian workers have a harder time finding new jobs.

In terms of wealth, a report by the Pew Research Center says that APIA families lost their top ranking in median household wealth to white families during the recession, dropping from $168,103 to $78,066 in 2009. But, even saying that they were on “top” before 2009 doesn’t tell the full story.

Looking beyond housing values can help explain why the median wealth of APIA families dropped more than that of white families during the recession. Although the median Asian-owned home was worth more than that of the median white-owned home, APIAs are concentrated in three states – California, New York and Hawaii – where both income levels and housing prices significantly exceed the national average. A closer look also reveals that the majority of the APIA population consists of first generation immigrants who live in extended families rather than nuclear families, where numerous incomes are pooled in order to make mortgage payments. Moreover, during the recession, according to the National Coalition of Asian Pacific American Community Development, predatory lenders targeted APIA families, as well as African American and Latino families, at up to three times the rate of white families, steering them to sub-prime loans even when they qualified for prime loans.

By 2042, almost one in ten Americans will be APIA, double the current percentage. To talk about this broad group as if they are “the new white” – the economically dominant race – does them a disservice. It causes both the public and policymakers to ignore the fact that no APIA group yet enjoys economic equality, and that stereotyping and discrimination continues to hold them back. Moreover, it overlooks pockets of extreme distress. By ignoring the APIAs who are over-represented at the very bottom end of the economic spectrum, the myth is created that Asian Americans, unlike other peoples of color, are all successful simply by dint of hard work: Horatio Alger in yellow face.

We don’t need feel-good fairy tales about the wonders of being yellow. What is needed is the collection of data that is disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and an analysis of why racial economic disparities persist. Next, we need to design policies and programs that help not just Asian Pacific Islander Americans, but all people of color in the United States, to finally achieve economic equality.

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