asian american privilege? a skeptical, but nuanced, view, and a call for more research – a guest post by raj ghoshal and diana pan

Raj Andrew Ghoshal is an assistant professor of sociology at Goucher College and Yung-yi Diana Pan is an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. This guest post is a discussion of Asian Americans and their status in American society.

As a guest post last month noted, Asian Americans enjoy higher average incomes than whites in the United States. We were critical of much in that post, but believe it raises an under-examined question: Where do Asian Americans stand in the US racial system? In this post, we argue that claims of Asian American privilege are premature, and that Asian Americans’ standing raises interesting questions about the nature of race systems.

We distinguish two dimensions of racial stratification: (1) a more formal, mainly economic hierarchy, and (2) a system of social inclusion/exclusion. This is a line of argument developed by various scholars under different names, and in some ways parallels claims that racial sterotypes concern both warmth and competence. We see Asian Americans as still behind in the more informal system of inclusion/exclusion, while close (but not equal) to whites in the formal hierarchy. Here’s why.

  1. In the formal, more economic hierarchy, we see Asian Americans as placed closely to whites:
  •  Whites lead Asian Americans in wealth by about 40% ($112,000 vs $83,000, in 2010) and in home ownership. This edge may diminish over time as Asian American immigrant families accumulate time in the US.
  •  Conversely, Asian Americans are ahead of whites in raw incomes. This advantage diminishes once geography is factored in – Asian Americans are clustered in more expensive metro areas and states. There’s no one right way to adjust for geography, household size, and household composition differences, but we like Phil Cohen’s take on this as a starting point. Using his figures, we calculate that the Asian American adjusted income edge over others in their metro areas is about 8%. Since the others’ average includes African Americans and Hispanics, we suspect that Asian American income is slightly lower than, but close to, same-metro-area whites.
  •  Asian Americans experience discrimination in employment and renting apartments. One study from an advocacy group found hiring discrimination against South Asian names; some research from Canada echoes this finding. HUD similarly found discrimination against Asian home-seekers. Arab-Americans (many of whom are Middle Eastern/Southwest Asian origin) are more studied, and there is clear evidence of hiring and housing discrimination against this group. A recent audit found that college professors responding to identical queries from prospective graduate students discriminated against East Asian and South Asian names, in favor of white names. More generally, hiring is partly about cultural matching and some prior research found a glass ceiling” effect in managerial positions, so stereotyping of Asian Americans may affect hiring and promotion decisions. This should be studied more.
  •  Asians lag slightly in political representation. Asian Americans are about three percent of voters. In Congress, only one U.S. Senator is Asian American, as are 12 House members. This is in contrast to other “small but successful” groups Asian Americans are sometimes compared to; for example, there are 11 Jewish Senators and seven Mormon Senators.
  • There is high variation within the group “Asian Americans.” Asians are more than half the world population, and Indian, Pakistani, and Vietnamese Americans are as Asian as people of Chinese or Japanese descent (so if you mean “East Asian,” say that; using “Asian” to mean “East Asian” ignores half the country’s Asian-origin population). Some national-origin groups such as Cambodians and Laotians are far poorer than Asian Americans and whites overall. Overall Asian American poverty rates are equal to white rates; they’re higher if Pacific Islanders are considered alongside Asian Americans.
  • US-born Asian Americans do better on income measures than those who immigrated here, perhaps due to higher English proficiency, but this distinction is smaller than sometimes assumed. Regardless, analyses should consider nativity and English proficiency, on top of national origin, as important factors shaping different Asian-American experiences.

In sum, Asian Americans are much closer to whites than to African Americans or Hispanics in the formal racial hierarchy, but we don’t believe they’ve yet attained parity or leapfrogged whites.

Social inclusion

In contrast to the mixed economic picture, we see Asians as socially excluded in some important ways.

  • Raj’s current research (with Michael Gaddis) investigates what kinds of names people respond to in roommate searches. Preliminary findings, based on hundreds of data points, show that “Americanized” Asian names are treated equally to fully white names (Jenny Patel = Jenny Smith = Jenny Chang). But there is a moderate-sized penalty for a fully Indian name (e.g. Rina Patel) and a large penalty for a fully Chinese name (e.g. Mia Zhang), even though all names used standard English and mentioned a college degree and a full-time job in their messages. This suggests that Asian Americans can be socially incorporated, but only at the price of strongly signaling “non-foreignness.” (On a similar note, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley were elected governors of Republican states – certainly progress, but we doubt Nimrata Randhawa and Piyush Jindal would have fared as well.)
  • Diana’s work examines processes of racialization in law schools. Findings indicate that despite entering an elite profession, race is continuously highlighted through microaggressions. Asian American law students often feel uncomfortable in majority-white classrooms with little acknowledgement of racial diversity, and experience direct queries about their academic merits. And even though most Asian American students did not belong to affinity groups while in college, they join such groups in law school for co-panethnic familiarity. Interactions in this predominantly white space suggest race-based marginalization can co-exist with economic advancement.
  • Other research finds some marginalization of Asian Americans. Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin show that Asian Americans’ heavy emphasis on gaining acceptance via success takes a psychological toll. Mia Tuan and Pawan Dhingra explore Asian American professionals experiencing discrimination, while Eileen O’Brien argues that Asian Americans experience racism in ways not understood by current frameworks. Christian Rudder and others find that Asian American men are ignored more than comparable white men in dating sites and speed dating, net of personality compatibility, while Asian American women are sometimes fetishized. While none of these works maintain that Asian Americans are inevitably socially excluded, all suggest less-than-perfect inclusion.
  • Finally, a few notes from personal experience. I (Raj) attended ethnically diverse public elementary and junior high schools in which most of us were first or second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, East Asia, or South Asia. “Dirty Hindu” was a routine insult against Indian-origin students my class year, especially immigrants, from early elementary school through junior high (as were “Gandhi-man” and “dot-head”) – and not always by whites. Three of the four students who I remember being beaten or bullied most regularly were Indian; racial slurs were common against them. My moderate skin tone, nativity, and social ties meant I wasn’t a target, and I’ve faced direct bigotry much less often in the twenty years since junior high ended (though some South Asians still get called “ragheads”  – but the message of not being accepted as an American from those early experiences is not so easily shaken.
  • I (Diana) grew up in a predominantly white town and state and attended racially homogenous (i.e. white) public institutions. The “Chinese, Japanese…” taunting (coupled with kids “slanting” their eyelids) was quite common. Kids bullied my brother, and teenagers mimicked, and made fun of my parents’ heavily accented English. Our Chinese names became the butt of jokes on the playground, and when we had the opportunity to attend a new school, my brother and I adopted “American” names in an attempt to protect ourselves from teasing. Store clerks spoke to us loudly, assuming we did not understand English, and my family often waited to be served at restaurants while white patrons (who arrived after us) enjoyed their meals. I later learned that Asian Americans regularly experience microaggressions. Now, living in New York City, strangers still speak to me loudly, and ask whether I can read English.
  • Together, we suspect that a widespread Asian American code of silence () minimizes talking about harassment and microagressions, distorting knowledge of how widespread they are. Sociologists should continue to explore how Asian Americans experience racialization, as an exclusive focus on economic measures incorrectly overstates Asian Americans’ standing.

The bottom line:

Asian Americans show the importance of thinking of race as two different systems: we are still at least somewhat marginalized socially, while close to whites in the formal, more economic hierarchy. Disaggregating Asian Americans by nationality can be analytically useful, but we should consider other potential dividing lines, such as immigration recency, region of residence, industry of employment, and others. We should also ask about discrepancies between social and economic status within categories – for example, Indians are the highest-income Asian Americans, but are they higher in social acceptance than East Asians? Finally, we’d like to see more research into the dynamics of social inclusion and microagressions, and more research in general. Asian Americans’ standing may be changing quickly, and in complex and fascinating ways.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 4, 2015 at 12:01 am

9 Responses

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  1. Ahh, so privelege equals intelligence!
    You know, this privelege nonsense is probably just as damaging as the successful reduction of climate change to mere global warming. The politicians will have a field day, but nothing will get done.



    February 4, 2015 at 4:09 pm

  2. OPs: Thanks for posting this. I’m not, personally, interested in debating racial privilege or the lack thereof. Fundamentally, it’s a definitional issue, and debates about definitions usually can’t be resolved. Worse, they often lead a subfield down the path to infighting, insularity, and irrelevance. Maybe that was August’s point.

    That said, I think these highlights of the Asian American experience are a simple way to illustrate how economic position and social status (in the sense of social honor) don’t necessarily coincide. To a sociologist this is old news, going back to Weber at least, but it seems like it often gets lost in contemporary public discourse about inequality, especially given economists’ obsession with income.



    February 5, 2015 at 1:06 am

  3. Perhaps the bigger take away from this post is that for *most* groups measures of status tend to highly correlate. Conceptually, income and inclusion are different but in practice they frequently coincide. Asian Americans are an important example of where these measures of status diverge in very important ways.

    Another take away is that when people judge status, they justifiably presume that the measures all come together. Recognizing that this isn’t the case thus creates tension and conflict.

    I think we can also have a reasonable normative discussion. Typically, we assume that if you work really hard to move up one scale, like education, your status will improve along other measures. But is this desirable? If not, why?

    Overall, thanks for keeping the discussion going.



    February 5, 2015 at 7:46 pm

  4. Thanks for this post. I think this post highlights some interesting issues, but it also takes an only-count-the-costs approach.

    For instance, you mention the research showing that Asian Americans experience discrimination in some areas, but you don’t mention the research by Sakamoto showing that Asian Americans don’t experience discrimination in some areas (or Sakamoto’s research on Asian privilege). And education statistics are neglected entirely. To quote Sakamoto, “Being overrepresented by a factor of three at universities such as Harvard is not indicative of an inferior social position.”

    Also, this post doesn’t mention the Pew Research study showing that about 80% of Asian-Americans report that being Asian is neither an advantage or nor a disadvantage in society. Nor does it mention Walton and Cohen’s research on stereotype lift.

    The fact that Asians feel socially excluded when they’re in the minority doesn’t entail that whites feel socially included when they’re in the minority. I don’t know if this has been systematically studied but in schools where whites are outnumbered, anecdotal evidence suggests that they get bullied for being white.

    The fact that Asian-American women are fetishized indicates that they have higher erotic capital (or sexual capital depending on which scholar you’re citing). This is an aggregate status advantage even though it may be evaluated differently across individuals.

    The micro-aggression literature that I’ve read doesn’t control for confounds like neuroticism–the recollection of microaggressions is likely to be higher among people who are high in neuroticism, so there may only be a trivial causal path from microaggression to distress. (Also one of the most cited microaggression studies on Asians has a sample size of 10).

    Finally, the fact that Asian-Americans experience racism doesn’t really bear upon the question of whether they are a model minority. A minority group can meet the definition of “model minority” and be targets of racism at the same time. Those constructs refer to different things.

    The larger problem is that stratification is an a priori assumption. If one uses strata as a metaphor, one has to put every stratum either below or above another stratum. One could, however, drop the assumption of stratification.

    Overall, your post contains nothing that is factually wrong, but excludes every inconvenient fact that subvert your case. This is not surprising; much of the literature that is motivated by social activism does exactly that. I don’t think that’s honest.


    Chris M

    February 6, 2015 at 5:44 am

  5. Thanks for the comments. A couple responses:

    * Krippendorf and Fabio, agreed. Economic standing and social status line up so often that we tend to assume they go together “naturally.” Asian Americans is a case where they don’t line up so neatly. Whether this is just a time lag, or has to do with small numbers (only 5% of the population), or is something about how “foreign-ness” is constructed, is an interesting question.

    * Chris, we didn’t include every positive statistic about Asian Americans, but that wasn’t to pull the wool over people’s eyes – it’s rather because we think anyone reading this post will be aware (from the very celebratory media discourse on this) that Asian Americans do well on education, some aspects of income, and some other life chances measures. That’s not dishonesty; it’s making choices about what potential readers likely know and don’t know already. Continued educational success may push Asian Americans further ahead, but we’d advise caution in extrapolating too far into future economic measures from current educational measures (see: women’s educational attainment for the last 30+ years).

    * I’ve been skeptical or reading too much into the “neither an advantage or disadvantage” question or abstract questions about discrimination, since I read of a survey that found huge differences in the number of African Americans who said they’d been “discriminated against” (fairly low) vs. “treated badly because of their race” (high) – blunt survey questions may miss a fair amount here. This also connects with our point that Asian Americans tend to minimize talking about experiences of exclusion and discrimination. More interview-based or ethnographic research on this could be very useful.

    * Dropping the “assumption” of stratification seems like a good way to lose an analytically powerful and empirically supported idea, throwing out the bulk of sociological research in the process!


    Raj Ghoshal

    February 6, 2015 at 3:43 pm

  6. “The micro-aggression literature that I’ve read doesn’t control for confounds like neuroticism–the recollection of microaggressions is likely to be higher among people who are high in neuroticism, so there may only be a trivial causal path from microaggression to distress.”

    …puts oil in pot, takes popcorn out of cupboard…


    E. Ron

    February 6, 2015 at 4:14 pm

  7. Raj, you sound like you have reached a set of conclusions ex ante, and whenever a survey doesn’t give you the results that you want, you treat the survey as problematic or the respondents as problematic. I understand that there’s an iterative process when dealing with research, but your comment doesn’t suggest you’re trying to conduct such an iterative process. Rather, you question any methodology that doesn’t give you the results you expect and you accept any methodology that does, instead of applying a uniform standard of skepticism (I see this trend permeating a lot of sociology, so I’m not trying to single you out here.)

    I’d like your opinion on the the Pew results on pages 12 and 13 ( “does being Asian American…” and “getting along across group boundaries”) here:

    Do you think those questions measure something other than what they were intended to measure?


    Chris M

    February 6, 2015 at 5:17 pm

  8. To clarify, I should mention that unlike some sociologists I don’t advocate the creation of a new construct called “Asian American privilege.” I’d prefer that we retire generalized constructs like White privilege and use specific constructs to talk about what’s happening in one area of society or one particular dimension. In any case, the construct of White privilege was solely created to describe Whites vis-à-vis African-Americans, a fact that sometimes gets overlooked.


    Chris M

    February 6, 2015 at 8:01 pm

  9. Raj and Yung-Yi, I don’t know if you’re still reading this thread, but I really would like to know what you think those questions measure. This is the first one.

    Q: “Does being Asian-American help or hurt when it comes to (admissions into colleges and schools/finding a job/getting a promotion)?”

    A: Helps/Makes no differences/Hurts



    February 12, 2015 at 4:26 pm

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