Asian Americans in the 99%
- Sid Brown

Don’t be fooled. “Divide and conquer” may have been a strategy utilized by various colonial powers throughout history to maintain social control, but it has not been abandoned. The Asian American model minority stereotype is no exception. It is not a compliment to the strengths of Asian culture and Asian people. Instead, it serves only to ridicule others, especially others of color, by asking, “If they can do it, why can’t you?” The consequence: many, including Asians, have bought into the idea, disregarding how Asian Americans are targets for and disadvantaged by racial inequality in various spheres of American society. With crumbling economic circumstances and Occupy Wall Street popularizing the rhetoric of the 99%, it is urgent to smash the model minority stereotype.

So, exactly who are the 99%, as opposed to the 1%? Occupy declares these groups signify the wealth and power disparity in society, with the greater concentration of power in the few hands of the much higher income bracket. The gap also represents the gap in access to necessities, such as an affordable home, a livable wage, healthy food, an adequate education, and healthcare. As the Occupy movement spread internationally, the 99% occupied and reoccupied what it meant to be a part of the majority of society who stand united in asserting that they will no longer be oppressed by the minority. Across the nation and even in countries from the Congo to Malaysia, people were declaring themselves to be the 99%. To develop and grow, we must challenge the symbols and vocabulary we adopt into our movements; the criticism of this image not invalid. It simplifies all the various complexities of the struggles, classes and identities of people into one massive category. Even though this limitation is important, it sends a powerful message of solidarity amongst people of various struggles, including Asian Americans. Also, the popularity of this image has given new life to the class debate which cannot be dismissed. While speaking for all Asian Americans is in no way possible, pervasive perceptions of Asian Americans must be challenged. Asian Americans make up the 99% too!

Statistics show that a higher percentage of Asian Americans are more likely to complete high school and go onto college as compared to African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans[i]. They also show that they have a lower unemployment rate than all other ethnic groups, including whites, since the economic downturn in 2008[ii]. What these statistics do not account for, however, are the differences among the many Asian identity groups and nationalities. “Asian American” is a rather broad term. Most people aren’t even aware how this group includes Indians and Arabs, among others. There are also nations within nations such as the Tibetans in China and the Baluch in Pakistan. Further, when individuals from these nations of various socioeconomic backgrounds arrived in the United States, they carried with them their unique histories, languages, and cultures. In reality, there are strong disparities among Asian Americans. A 2010 Current Population Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the unemployment rate of people of Vietnamese descent was higher than people of Indian, Chinese, or Korean descent[iii]. Statistics also demonstrate a higher rate of Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, and Korean Americans with earning college degrees, as compared to a strikingly smaller percentage of Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotian Americans. Even though few surveys account for these differences, the little information redeemed from the data cannot be ignored.

Adherents of the myth recurrently point to the large proportion of Asian American workers in high income work, such as the medical, engineering, and financial fields. This ignores the “brain drain” that helps shape the Asian American population, since many Asian individuals are filtered into the States as “skilled” laborers, unless they are sponsored by their family or acquire refugee status. In addition, a 1994 report examined a still relevant trend: how Asian American workers are affected by a “glass ceiling,” artificial barriers limiting women and people of color from rising to managerial and leadership positions. (This is not to say that more Asian Americans should strive to be CEOs. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate poverty and the imbalance of power inherent in capitalism.) The few Asian American “success stories” are exceptions, not the rule. How Asian Americans can concurrently have a higher median income than White Americans and a higher rate of poverty illustrates this. Analysis data from the Employment Development Department in 2010 further found that jobless Asian Americans face even longer periods of unemployment when compared to Latinos and Whites [iv]. All of this research points to show that Asians are not necessarily the “model minority” but face immense immigration barriers, are victims of institutional racism, and face a wealth gap within themselves.

During the winter months, after most Occupy encampments were raided, the movement went into self-reflection mode. Meanwhile, some Occupiers turned to organize around the foreclosure crisis by reoccupying foreclosed homes, preventing evictions, and working to hold banks accountable for illegal and discriminatory practices. The majority of the homes foreclosed on were of African and Latin American families. Though there is a lack of adequate information about the effect of foreclosures on Asian Americans, evidence does show a drop in the equity of homes where there are high concentrations of the community, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Evidence also shows that the Asian American homeownership rate of 59% lags behind the national rate of homeownership at 65.9%, despite higher median incomes and education levels than all other races. [v] Economists now warn the next crisis to burst will be with the bubbling student loan debt that is crippling many, including Asian American families.

Other factors disproportionately affect Asian Americans regarding access, further serving to challenge the model minority myth. One is the effect of the anti-immigration fervor for those both documented and undocumented, from the exploitation of low-wage immigrant workers to the increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants currently held in detention centers. Language barriers additionally exacerbate the prospects of working for a livable wage (which needs to be much higher than the minimum wage) or even access to information on social services. Gender norms in some cultures debar girls and women from higher education or entering fields deemed unsuitable for women. The class background of immigrant parents on second generation Asian Americans also influence access, as their children find themselves having to help their parents navigate through an educational system that is new to them as well. Many working-class families, who tend to live in ethnic enclaves of major cities where the standard of living is high, lack the financial resources to support their children in school, unlike their middle-class counterparts who often send their children to private schools or well-resourced suburban public schools. Institutional racism most notably manifests itself in the way Asian Americans, especially of Muslim, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descent, have experienced intense police surveillance and racial profiling since September 11th. To top this, Asian Americans have also experienced racial violence from Balbir Singh Sodhi to Private Danny Chen.

The most important factor to consider, however, is that most Asian Americans have ties to a homeland where their people have faced a cruel colonial past, nations that are now variably shaped by neoliberal practices by the hands of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, multinational corporations, wars funded or fought by foreign powers, and class warfare within their nations. Additionally, this fear played up by the media where India and China’s economies will soon eclipse that of the United States completely disregards the widespread poverty within these countries. Discarding these truths and perpetuating the model minority myth plunges a wedge between oppressed peoples, globally and in the US, and diminishes any future for all oppressed nationalities to work hand-in-hand for revolutionary change.

While it is true that a handful of Asians compose the elite 1%, the struggles of the majority of Asians thrust them into the 99th percentile. With the Arab Spring and the growing number of international protests against capitalism, austerity, and the debt crises, the momentum for solidarity must not be breached by false perceptions of one another. Occupy has been criticized for being a mostly white, male, college-educated movement but considering what is at stake, why aren’t more Asian Americans out on the streets? That is, on the streets standing with Occupy or the plethora of local organizations doing profound work within their communities. We must hold ourselves accountable in shaping the changes we want to see. If a new, just world is the vision, old colonialist strategies, like “divide and conquer,” must not be permitted to undermine this momentum. Asian Americans who have internalized the model minority myth must challenge their thinking and its colonial roots. Privileged Asian Americans must acknowledge the discrimination and oppression faced by the majority of Asians, and Americans in general. The importance of all people in recognizing these experiences does not mean the struggles of Asians in the U.S. eclipse those of other oppressed groups, but that Asian Americans also have a stake in the struggle for building a more just world. It is only through first reaching an understanding of a common struggle by dismantling such divisive myths that people can link to work to make this new world a reality.
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i. Austin, Algernon. Economic Policy Institute. “Hidden Disadvantage: Asian American Unemployment and the Great Recession.” Washington: 28 May 2010.

ii. National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE). “Federal Higher Education Priorities and the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community,” 2010.

iii. U.S. Department of Labor. “Asian-American Labor Force in Recovery.” Washington D.C.: 2011.

iv. Semuels, Alana. “Unemployment Lasts Longer for Asian Americans.” Los Angeles Times, 7 September 2010.

v. De La Cruz-Viesca, Melany, and Brian Chiu. Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA) & UCLA Asian American Studies Center (UCLA AASC). “Following the Path to Asian American Homeownership Report: An Analysis of the United States, California, New York, Texas and Select U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” November 2010.

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