Asian immigrants to the U.S. often bring more education and achievement with them than other groups, providing a head start that contributes to the “model minority” stereotype.
UC Irvine professor Jennifer Lee writes about the role of “hyper-selectivity” in The Society Pages: “Recent admissions figures to the country’s most competitive magnet high schools and elite universities seem to provide evidence of “Asian American exceptionalism.” Among the students offered admission to New York City’s Stuyvesant High School this year, 9 were black, 24 Latino, 177 white, and 620 Asian. Student admissions for Bronx Science included 489 Asians, 239 whites, 25 blacks, 54 Latinos, and 3 American Indian/Alaskan Natives.
“At elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Asian Americans typically comprise just under one-fifth of the entering classes, while in the prestigious public universities of the University of California system, they make up 43% of the undergraduate student body at Berkeley and 55% at UC Irvine. At 13% of California’s population and 5.5% of the U.S. population, Asian Americans are an undeniable presence in higher education.
“Pundits like David Brooks, Charles Murray, and “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua have invoked the cultural values argument to explain Asian Americans’ exceptional educational outcomes. That is, their exceptional outcomes aren’t exceptional for Asian Americans: they are the result of one racial group’s hard work, discipline, grit, integrity, and living the “right way.” While these cultural values are positive, it is worth remembering that less than a century ago, Asians were described as illiterate, undesirable, and unassimilable immigrants, full of “filth and disease.” As “marginal members of the human race,” they were denied the right to naturalize, denied the right to intermarry, and were residentially segregated in crowded ethnic enclaves. They were even, in the case of Japanese immigrants, forced into internment camps.
“So how did the status of Asian Americans change so dramatically in less than a century?
I provide a four-part argument that bridges research in immigration, race, and social psychology to identify some mechanisms that support the “Asian American exceptionalism” construct.
- Hyper-Selectivity: Unlike their predecessors, contemporary Asian immigrants are, on average, a highly educated, highly selected group.
- Positive Stereotypes and “Stereotype Promise”: Hyper-selectivity has produced positive stereotypes of Asian Americans, which, in turn, can generate “stereotype promise”—that is, being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype can enhance performance.
- Self-fulfilling Prophecy: Third, the enhanced performance of Asian Americans supports the “Asian American exceptionalism” construct. Now we’ve got a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Reproduction of Inequality: These processes operate to reproduce inequalities at the high end of the educational distribution.
In 1965, Asians accounted for 0.7 % of the U.S. population. Today, they make up 5.5%. For the past few years, the number of Asian immigrants has surpassed the number of Latino immigrants. One of the most distinctive features of contemporary Asian immigrants as a group is their high human capital. According to the Pew Research Center, among recent Asian immigrants between the ages of 25 and 64, 61% have at least a bachelor’s degree—more than double the total 2012 U.S. average of 28%. These Asian immigrants are not only more highly educated than U.S. citizens, they’re more highly educated than their own countrymen. This reflects high selectivity among those who chose to immigrate. For example, 53% of Korean immigrants to the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to only 36% of adults in South Korea. Among Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, the selectivity is far greater: 51% of Chinese immigrants and 26% of Vietnamese immigrants have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 5% of adults in China and Vietnam. This is where we see “hyper-selectivity.”