When the Pew Research Center unveiled the “Rise of Asian Americans” study, it had all the makings of a victory lap.
Pew, a widely respected voice, anointed Asian Pacific Islander Americans the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S.—overtaking Hispanic immigrants and finally winning recognition as a social, political, and economic force to be reckoned with.
Not only that, but Pew confirmed everything you ever thought about Asian-Americans is true! Better educated: almost half have college degrees! Higher incomes! Strong family ties! Hardworking!
And happy! Really happy! Happier than the average American, with both their own lives and the direction of the country.
The media swooned. Shiny, happy Asian faces appeared on all three evening network newscasts, telling their stories of success.
Ironically, the Pew report left many of those happy Asian-Americans pretty unhappy.
The Japanese American Citizens League: “This study perpetuates false stereotypes and the model minority.”
OCA (formerly known as the Organization of Chinese Americans) slammed Pew’s “shallow analysis.”
The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans: “We need to move beyond one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism.”
The Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund and the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education are “extremely dismayed” with the study, “which only reinforces the mischaracterizations” of Asian-American students.
In all, more than 30 Asian and Pacific Island groups—an alphabet soup of organizations—put out letters complaining about the Pew report.
“It’s frustrating,” says Deepa Iyer, the chairman of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. Ironically, the problem isn’t a negative stereotype but what advocates like Iyer see as an incomplete view.
Iyer rattles off numbers not covered in the Pew study: 2.3 million uninsured. One million undocumented immigrants. Asian women are more likely to attempt suicide.
Other surveys found that high-school dropout rates among some Southeast Asian communities are the nation’s highest. Not among the highest—the highest.
The guy in charge of the Pew study, Paul Taylor, admits that high-school-dropout-rate nugget was something he learned in the blowback after the report’s release. And it’s worth looking into further, he says.
At the same time, Taylor, Pew’s executive vice president, stands firmly behind his report. Researchers conducted more than 3,500 interviews with respondents representing 22 countries. While news reports never got deeper than a couple paragraphs into the executive summary, Taylor points out the complete report is 215 pages long and filled with nuance and detail.
And critics acknowledge the survey did their causes some good; for one thing, how often do Asian-American issues even get on the evening news?
So what’s the hang-up?
No, it’s not just hypersensitivity to being labeled the “model minority,” though frankly, that’s like being genetically tagged a goody-two-shoes. Who needs that?
But face it. In the advocacy world, those who don’t seem to need, don’t get. Why allocate education dollars to a community perceived to be off the charts with spelling-bee winners and academic scholars?
Undocumented immigrants? That’s come to be shorthand for a “Hispanic story.” But a million of those immigrants in the shadows are of Asian descent. One of 10 young people who could benefit from the still-stymied DREAM Act are Asian.
And that “happy Asian” statistic belies the need for more mental-health support for those Asian-American women tortured by suicidal thoughts.
Pew researchers point out they aren’t in this to take sides—just deliver the facts. Fair point. But like “experts” on cable TV, it’s difficult to banish the suggestion that even numbers can be spun to support any preconceived notion.
Back at Pew, Taylor insists he’s not surprised at the “slings and arrows” aimed at his report. Researchers have probed similar pressure points in the Hispanic community, among Muslims, and across the political spectrum.
Still, activists like Iyer have some explaining to do. Even among supporters, she’s asked, “Why are you complaining about someone saying something good?”
A reminder that challenging stereotypes—even positive ones—isn’t easy.