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Editorial: The Source of the 'Asian Advantage' Isn't Asian Values

The idea that Asian-American success results from a unique cultural inheritance ignores the role of U.S. immigration policy in creating that success.
Image: Graduates attend commencement at University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley
Graduates attend commencement at University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley May 16, 2015.NOAH BERGER / Reuters

Given that Asian Americans demonstrate the highest median family income of any racial group in the country, it is not surprising that “the Asian advantage” is being addressed by many Americans.

In a weekend op-ed for the New York Times, columnist Nick Kristof attributed the economic success of Asian Americans to “East Asia’s long Confucian emphasis on education.” According to this viewpoint, Confucian values create a special environment in which Asian-American parents make extraordinary sacrifices to ensure their children go to the best public schools and relentlessly remind them of the importance of education.

RELATED: Educational Success of Some Masks Struggles of Many

Yet, the idea that Asian-American success is the result of a unique cultural inheritance ignores the role of U.S. immigration policy in creating Asian-American success. In the mid-1800s Asian immigrants were recruited as laborers to work as farm laborers and on the first transcontinental railroad. They were despised laborers who toiled for low wages in the harshest of conditions. Confucian values were not seen as the key to success, but as a marker of racial and religious differences. Eventually, most Asians were excluded from immigration altogether due to fears of racial contamination.

But what a difference a law can make. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act changed the way Asians were seen in this country--from uneducated and unwanted scourge to hardworking students and examples of economic success. How did we go from backwards laborers to a so-called "model minority"? Too many people assume the community’s educational and economic success is due to the cultural traits of Asian Americans. Like Kristof, they believe Asian Americans care more about education than the average American.

There is another explanation. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act ended Asian exclusion and created two immigration priorities: high skills and family reunification.

"We must not let the advantages of immigration policy and positive attitudes from teachers fuel the myth of cultural superiority."

After 1965, the U.S. started to recruit high-skilled immigrants from Asia. More than half of the Asian-American population immigrated after 1990, when these efforts were ramped up even further. Today, fully 72 percent of all high-skilled visas are allocated to immigrants from Asia. And the majority of international student visas go to Asian immigrants.

This mode of selective recruitment challenges the idea that Asian success in the U.S. is due to Asian values. That is too simple. If Asian cultural values were the explanation, why don’t we see the same kind of educational achievement in Asia as in the U.S.? We don’t. As Jennifer Lee points out, more than 50% of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree. In China, the rate is about 5%. About 70% of Indian immigrants have a bachelor’s degree, while in India, less than 15% of Indians of college-age enroll in college. (India, by the way, has never been a stronghold of Confucian values.)

RELATED: Report Highlights Higher Education Disparities Within Asian America

So, U.S. immigration policy creates a highly educated Asian-American class and this group sponsors highly educated family members. And the model minority stereotype is given life. As Kristof states so compellingly, this stereotype takes on a remarkable life of its own.

Last week, I asked the 70 students in my class, “Has someone ever assumed you were good at math because of your race?” Nearly every Asian-American student raised their hand. I then asked, “Has someone assumed you were not a good student because of your race?” Every black student in my class raised his or her hand.

Experimental research shows again and again that the more a teacher expects and treats students as capable and smart, the more they show growth on and score higher on I.Q. tests. These are controlled experiments. Stereotypes matter. They can even make you smarter. On this point I agree with Kristof that Asian Americans have an advantage.

Perhaps these stereotypes matter more than cultural values. What group in the U.S. does not value education? In fact, by one measure, belief that a college degree is necessary for success, Latinos (70%) value education more than Asians (61%). Blacks are more likely to believe college is necessary than whites. Valuing education is not an Asian thing. Some might counter that Asians don’t just value education, they also value hard work. Ideas about hard work and race go hand-in-hand, though. For Asian Americans, hard work is recognized. That’s not the case for all groups. A new study suggests that when black workers’ productivity exceeds their white counterparts, even by a wide margin, they still receive lower wages and promotions at slower rates.


There is a real downside to the idea that Asian cultural values drive Asian-American success. Asian subgroups--like Cambodians, Burmese, and Hmong--have higher high school drop-out rates than any other racial group in the United States. But they are not seen by policymakers because they are made invisible by the model minority stereotype and its assumed cultural advantages.

We must not let the advantages of immigration policy and positive attitudes from teachers fuel the myth of cultural superiority. That risks ignoring the structural disadvantages that some Asian and other non-white groups face and implying that those who have not benefited from U.S. immigration laws and attendant positive stereotypes should follow a dubious cultural lead.

Janelle S. Wong is Director of the Asian American Studies Program and Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.