Metro Views: Asian-Americans, the new Jews

Despite the myths, Jews don't all get degrees in law, medicine or finance.

asian american 63 (photo credit: )
asian american 63
(photo credit: )
"They" are taking over - overrunning American college campuses. "They" are concentrated in selective universities. "They" are a homogenous group, uniform in educational and financial achievement and culture. Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past, these were the stereotypes, the myths, the canards about Jews, who were subjected to unofficial quotas that limited their access to some of the finest American universities and employment prospects. These days, the "they" against whom such charges are leveled are Asian Americans. They are smart, determined, committed to education and advancement. This hardly sounds like a bad thing. They sound like Jews. Asian Americans are a "model minority," except that they are not. There are an estimated 17 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the US. We tend to think of them as the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, but in fact they represent 48 national and ethnic groups, with different cultures, religions, languages and histories. (And let's not forget geopolitics; I am sure my Pakistani neighbors in New Jersey have been pretty uneasy with varying US sentiments about President Pervez Musharraf.) The composition of the Asian American population - like that of the Jewish community - reflects conditions in their former homelands and immigration opportunities. Some came to the US as refugees and laborers. Others arrived under recent American immigration policies that wooed financial stars and the highly educated who could fill significant economic or professional roles. The so-called preference category accounts for nearly 18 percent of the immigrants from Asia who arrived in the 1990s; they were the elites. DESPITE THE vast differences among them, Asian Americans tend to be lumped together in the eyes of the majority population. "They are all seen as the same studious, self-sufficient high achievers," according to a report issued June 9 that argues that the stereotypes and myths obscure the educational realities and the needs of Asian Americans. The report by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute and the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University and the College Board - "Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight" - contends, in part, that the "model minority" stereotype is harmful. In assuming universal academic strength, the report says, teachers and counselors often do not extend help to their Asian and Pacific students in the same way they do to other students. The idea seems to be that these minorities are so talented and motivated, we can just ignore them - even if we cannot always tell them apart and consistently confuse the Japanese with Chinese and Koreans. Some of the claims and quips are mean-spirited and painful. "UCLA really stands for 'United Caucasians Lost Among Asians'," the report said. Ouch. Some are laughable - unless they are directed at your group. The report debunks the myth that these students only pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as "STEM." What a surprise: as they are not monolithic in national origin, language and culture, they are not single-minded in their interests. A large proportion of Asian Americans seek degrees in the social sciences and the humanities. Imagine that. THIS ALL is reminiscent of what people (used to) think about Jews. Despite the myths, we don't all get degrees in law, medicine or something to do with finance. And we have had our share of cranks, cons, crooks - maybe one per extended family? I confess: my immigrant great-grandmother Bubbe Nessie made her money as a numbers runner. I suspect, however, that it serves our purposes for everyone to think we are clever, even if we sometimes cringe at the anti-Semitic stereotypes about how smart we are. That being the case, what's the down side? In the Asian American community, the "model minority" works against community interests, says John Kuo Wei Tchen, a historian at New York University who has studied linkages between Asians and Jews. Yes, there is a lot to be said for positive stereotypes. But the paradox, the price one pays for being a model, is that your community's issues and needs are generally ignored or misunderstood. Within the Jewish community, for instance, as America's War on Poverty got under way in the 1960s, it took quite a while for folks to come to grips with the existence of "the Jewish poor." To too many people, including Jews, that sounded like an oxymoron. SO IT is for Asian-Americans. When 44 percent of Asian Americans obtain college degrees - which is almost doubt the American average - you have to be reminded that not everyone graduated from Harvard. Take language. A very high proportion of Asian American students - 79 percent - speak a language other than standard English at home. The rate of English proficiency for the group is high, but varies by ethnic group. Bilingual and bicultural students may be placed in inappropriate classes - perhaps special education classes - and often encounter ridicule and harassment from classmates and occasionally from teachers. Within the Asian communities, there are hierarchies based on wealth and historical advantages, Tchen says. The Cambodians, because of the killing fields, are at a distinctive disadvantage and therefore a lot of them, for historic reasons, have ended up in rural, underserved areas. But as a group, the Asians also suffer a racial stigma that Jews no longer face. "In this day and age, Asians are not seen as white, nor are they seen as Americans," Tchen says. "They are cast into this odd position of being perpetual foreigners in the US."