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Valar Qringaomis

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Why Americans started treating Asian Americans with a little more respect

The real secret to Asian American success was not education

"For those who doubt that racial resentment lingers in this nation, Asian Americans are a favorite talking point. The argument goes something like this: If “white privilege” is so oppressive — if the United States is so hostile toward its minorities — why do census figures show that Asian Americans out-earn everyone?

In a 2014 editorial, conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly pointed out that Asian household incomes were 20 percent higher than white household incomes on average. “So, do we have Asian privilege in America?” he asked. Of course not, he said. The real reason that Asians are “succeeding far more than African-Americans and even more than white Americans” is that “their families are intact and education is paramount,” he said.

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

If we take a page from Hilger and focus on people with similar educational backgrounds, the residual disadvantages become clear. Asians actually earn 5 percent less compared with whites who also have advanced degrees — while blacks and Hispanics earn 20 percent less...

Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States. But the greatest thing that ever happened to them wasn't that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values. It's that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect."


Problematic aspects of this article I found on reading it:

- Maybe "other Americans started treating them with a little more respect" because they showed they were worthy of respect, and not because Americans "became less racist"

- If the reason for Asian success was that "Americans "became less racist"", why did Americans "become less racist" only towards Asians? This is not explored by the article at all, but is just taken as a given.

- Just because Asians with similar levels of education earn a bit less doesn't mean they're discriminated against. There're qualities besides education that determine earnings. I forgot where I heard this recently but hard skills only give you success in the first 5-8 (?) years of your career. After that other skills - not traditionally prized in East Asian culture - become more important. See: What Happens to All the Asian-American Overachievers When the Test-Taking Ends?, which points out some reasons why Asian-American educational achievement does not neatly translate to workplace success


Furthermore, reading the cited paper, Upward Mobility And Discrimination: The Case Of Asian Americans by Nathaniel Hilger, a more nuanced picture emerges:

- "Asian history can therefore be interpreted as a novel, dynamic confirmation of the old hypothesis that earnings gaps driven by prejudice rather than productivity will not persist in sufficiently open and competitive labor markets" (also phrased as "large group earnings gaps appear hard to maintain in sufficiently competitive labor markets without large group productivity gaps"). In other words, the economic case against discrimination is supported (i.e. employers will not continue to discriminate against demographics with skills, but will pay them fairly - after a while). One corollary of this is that the observed earnings gap for other races today is not driven by prejudice.

- The paper uses AGCT (Army General Classification Test) test scores to measure skills. In other contexts, standardised testing gets condemned as useless and misleading (e.g. racial gaps in test scores are said to reveal how biased these tests are). If that is the case one should logically also question these results.

- The author observes that "Asians experienced similar or worse harassment and legal discrimination than blacks living in CA", which might be controversial. Controversy aside, it is interesting that despite facing worse harassment and legal discrimination, Asians managed to deal with said problems more effectively than blacks. This suggests that one needs to look at factors beyond mere discrimination by other people to explain underachievement.

- "all of these theories entail intra-group spillovers in which a group member’s earnings depend on her group’s market-wide or aggregate skill levels rather than just her own". In other words, if you're not fairly assessed because of the demographic group you belong to, you can blame other members of your group.


The original Washington Post article is thus misleading. I will rewrite its final paragraph to summarise what it should have said:

"Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States. The greatest thing that ever happened to them was that they studied hard, and/or benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values. And when other Americans realised that, they started treating them with a little more respect."


Addendum: The author has published a followup:

The real reasons the U.S. became less racist toward Asian Americans

After glossing over Hilger's research, the rest of the article contradicts itself. Various claims are made for why the US supposedly became less racist towards Asian Americans but not African Americans:

- If less racism against Asians (and not education etc) was the real reason why they succeeded, how could they be held as an example for blacks? You would need to have success to point to first before using that success to reduce racism against them. This puts the cart before the horse.
- If Asians tried to portray themselves as "good Americans" and got accepted, doesn't it imply that trying to integrate into society is a path to success?
- If the Chinese community embodied values that were prized by society (Confucian ethics etc) isn't it logical that society would accept them?
- Isn't one moral that if you focus on becoming a productive member of society rather of protesting, society will accept you (the article references some protesting but it's clear the emphasis wasn't on the protesting but the getting on with life)? One could also see the earlier examples of Poles, Jews, Italians etc who all faced discrimination but did not IIRC protest but got on with building society
- Isn't it striking that 25 years was all it took for Asians to not be coloured anymore?
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