Good Data, Confusing News and the Reinforcing of Stereotypes: Reporting on The Pew Asian American Survey Report

Over the past year I have had the privilege to work with the Pew Research Center on developing what I believe is the most rigorous survey sample of Asian Americans. Given the deep pockets that form the financial base of Pew, I had high hopes that this survey would indeed help us pinpoint better what we can know about Asian America. Indeed, this survey, while smaller in sample than the National Asian American Survey 2008 (3,500 compared to over 5,000), improves upon it and its predecessors in sampling methodology and in simply asking a lot more questions of a random sample of Asian Americans.

“Asian American” is a weird term in the sense that it assumes a commonality among Americans of Asian descent when in fact it’s a massive amalgamation of no less than 20 different nationalities. This dual tension of perceived commonality and diversity is a hallmark dilemma in the social sciences, especially when discussing minority groups. How similar are Asian Americans and how diverse are we? A good survey of Asian Americans needs to account for both.

One of the major problems facing Asian Americans today is the proverbial “positive stereotype” called the “model minority myth.” It asserts that Asian Americans are a racial minority group that embodies American ideals of hard work and discipline and the concomitant material rewards of more (and prestigious) education, greater income, desirable jobs, as well as the social reward of receiving praise from the dominant group. This would overemphasize commonality and de-emphasize diversity.

Why is this a problem? Because a closer look at data on Asian Americans reveals that this myth applies only to very select cuts of the Asian American population and yet is applied to all. In a media-saturated environment like ours, such perceptions are amplified and sow seeds that help grow racialized beliefs about Asian Americans. And anyone who grows up in this culture is susceptible to it.

So survey research and the reporting of such research is not necessarily absolutely neutral; it’s possible that unclear reports of survey research can distort the very reality it supposedly portrays. The recent reporting of the new Pew Research Center’s Asian American Survey (2012) is one powerful illustration of how this plays out.

For example, the Pew study rolls out this statistic we see a lot: Asian American household incomes are higher than the national average. In fact it’s not even just higher by $1000-$2000, it’s almost $15,000 higher (see p.29).

screenshot p.29 Pew Asian American survey report

The report notes a couple of important qualifiers with a couple of cites for readers to reference. Based on the largest Asian ethnic groups, 2 are even higher than the Asian American median. The other four are below that median, and in fact Koreans are just $200 on average higher than the national average. Scholars have also stressed a few other pieces to the puzzle over these high figures, and the Pew report mentions these without putting the parts together.  Asian Americans today are largely immigrant (p.24), but specifically “highly-skilled” immigrants. This means these immigrants have more education (p. 25), and possibly more work experience than other immigrants. In fact the Pew report notes that Asian immigrants even differ from their peers in their countries of origin. For example, 27% of adults (ages 25-64 specifically) in South Korea had a bachelor’s degree, whereas 70% of Korean immigrants (in the same age range) had the same. With such high level of education we should not be surprised that we find a larger proportion in management and professional level (i.e. mostly white-collar) occupations (p. 27). These kinds of jobs usually offer better pay and more consistent pay than most other jobs and about half of Asian America are in this sector compared to about 40% for the rest of the country. Later on (p.33), the report mentions that nearly half of Asian America (47%) resides in one region (and most of these very specifically in one state, California). One of the highest cost-of living regions is the West, and California, and Hawaii exceedingly so.

When we stop to put these parts together, Asian American household income appears higher but no other group in the US has the same internal social dynamics like what we see among them. No other group is dominated by high-skilled immigrants, high educational attainment (acquired largely before arrival to the US), more fulltime workers per household in one of the most expensive states to live in. The report does not apply this degree of rigor, but more importantly we see examples like the following in major news outlets:

“The Pew report, titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” finds that Asians are the highest-income and best-educated racial group in the U.S. Nearly half (49 percent) of Asian-American adults have a college degree, and they boast a median annual household income of $66,000 (versus the U.S. median of $49,800).” ( 6/19)

“Positive stereotypes about Asian Americans are rooted in reality: They are more educated, wealthier and value work, marriage and family more than Americans as a whole, according to a Pew Research report out today.” ( 6/18)

The lack of nuance leaves us with the impression that Asian Americans have it pretty good. What’s so bad about a “positive stereotype?” It allows us to dismiss the concerns of the vulnerable among these so-called model minorities.

Advocacy groups took notice and acted fast. Groups like the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (an umbrella organization of over 30 groups) have now expressed concern publicly over these gross generalizations that have not furthered the conversation but instead may contribute to further misunderstanding Asian America.

So even a report based on census data and a a new state-of-the-art survey of an understudied group can still lead to erroneous reporting from mass media outlets that can reinforce myths.

As part of my calling as a social scientist, its important to address stereotypes with data. What’s challenging is dealing with the media patterns that undermine good data such as running stories that minimize complexity as witnessed by the recent reportage of the new Pew report on Asian Americans.

How else might social scientists help media to make appropriate narrations based on survey data?


Tiger Alumni Giving – An Outsider’s View

Hep! Hep!

Rah! Rah! Rah!

Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!

Sis! Sis! Sis!

Boom! Boom! Boom!


’92! ’92! ’92!

This was the chant yawped at the recent legendary reunions of the College of New Jersey (aka Princeton). I had the privilege to witness this ritual experience recently and despite being on vacation, I often can’t help but keep the sociological analysis from intruding. Reunions are a sociological idea after all, it assumes that we identify with a group of people who shared the same experience – in the case of universities, it’s a college experience (whether or not it was about the educational content is a different matter). In sociological terms, alumni giving is a demonstration of institutional commitment. So the idea then is that a positive experience as an undergraduate might motivate some or many to give back financially once they have graduated. The problem of course is that time and distance tend to weaken the sense of connectedness to the school. Thus reunions can be an effective way of reigniting the flame of good times long past. And many will also see how older and newer generations of alumni also share in the chain of memory of their alma mater.

So I should mention that Princeton boasts the highest alumni giving rates of any institution of higher education,(notice that it’s nearest competitor, Dartmouth College is 11% lower in alumni giving) so of course many folks in the fund-raising scene are paying (pun intended) attention to this school to learn what works.

As an honorary tiger (and dare I say “I was a professor at Princeton” since I am a professor and I was at Princeton (for two days [cough])), I believe the reunion experience at Princeton is quite exceptional, and may be the key to its high alumni giving. So here are my observation and a few tips for universities seeking to emulate the reunion experience in order to increase alumni giving.

-Get graduating seniors to participate in the festivities. According to insiders, Princeton seniors basically spend the last two weeks before graduation hanging around campus and participating in the reunion weekend. That’s right, they have their first reunion before they leave campus. This leaves seniors with potentially one of the most positive experiences they have before leaving the school and entering into the real world.

-Don’t change a thing: My wife and I shared a student dorm room with the same California-King twin mattress bunk-bed since 1982. There’s nothing more effective in reliving the experience of being an undergraduate once more than trying to climb up to the top bunk with feet that are now 20 years older. This dorm retained its basement (yes basement) location for the communal bathroom. While I never attended this school, ah the how the smell of mold, sweaty clothes can bring back those memories of yesteryear. That and the lovely sound of a poor comrade kneeling before the porcelain throne two stalls down. And that’s precisely the point. In these uncomfortable conditions, one gains a sense of solidarity in the relative suffering that all Tigers faced.

Noted Alum Gordon Wu donation

-Change lots of things: In meeting up with my wife’s friends, I learned that numerous new buildings went up, a few buildings were completely razed and rebuilt, and some were remodeled on the inside while still retaining the Gothic exterior that is the main architectural theme at this school. To do so requires money, and nothing says “your alumni dollars go to improve this school” than seeing new buildings named after one rather generous donor.

That's science!

-Show off your multi-million dollar science stuff. We visited the geological sciences building and had an amazing opportunity to stand in several rooms where science took place. These devices help us understand the geologic record so that we can determine when major events like mass extinctions took place millions of years ago. Science usually conveys progress, and progress is costly, so why not let alumni know that their school is making progress, er, science?

-Sensory overload: Have food and drink everywhere but only at select hours. While alumni were asked to visit the food tents once per meal, the choices were delectable to be sure and one visit would be more than sufficient. Besides, the local haunts like Hoagie Haven and the 24-hour convenient store chain “Wawa” retained their status as the 1am pit stops for sandwich and beer runs. It has been a long time since I had seen a true line outside of a deli at 1am, but such is the case during alumni weekend.

-Invite Bon Jovi and Joan Jett. It doesn’t hurt to have connections with celebrities from your home state, even if they didn’t attend your alma mater. The highest reunion group is usually the 25th anniversary and not surprisingly “Living on a Prayer” could be heard at their reunion tent. What’s valuable about music of course is that the right kind draws listeners’ memories of their youthful spirit. Nothing makes you want to give money away than feeling young again. Notably jazz and other generation-appropriate music could be heard across the campus in tents for the class of ’52 and ’65 and so forth.

-Have kick-ass acapella singing groups in kick-ass acoustic spaces near the midnight hour because it’s edgy and you just had a hoagie and beer. Princeton has over 10 student-led acapella groups by now and these reunions help bring back alumni to enjoy singing once more with new members.

-Last but not least, have an amazing parade that’s been a tradition for over a century where each graduating class invents a theme that is usually emblazoned on a costume. We watched members of the graduating class of 1925, and shouted the motto above as they waved past in their golf carts. The class of ’92 was the Tiger Chef, and even honorary tigers got tchotchke. 

I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have incredibly bright graduates (The 200+ survey respondents of the class of ’92 revealed that 18% of them had a PhD) and very rich graduates (15% reported household income equaling or exceeding over 1 million a year), but I’m pretty sure it’s the reunion weekend that sends people for their checkbook. That and Bon Jovi.

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Tracing Your Ancestry? Thank a Mormon!

Work in the summer continues and while the emphasis is on getting research papers written, I still keep an eye out for good “edu-tainment” pieces that might be useful in the classroom. One of the ones I have been trying out has been the genealogy series’ that have been shown on two networks: NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are and PBS’s Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots. I admit that while the NBC one is probably well produced, I am much more hooked by Gates’ series. It’s probably because the recent episode included two Asian American celebrities who are children of immigrants, comedienne Margaret Cho and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The series did a great job at reminding viewers that very often new immigrants arrive in America with lives full of tragedy that they will never speak of, not even to their own children.

Finding Your Roots: Martha Stewart, Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta

In Margaret Cho’s story, she never heard her father explain why their family left North Korea. As it turns out Margaret’s father’s father was branded a traitor for doing his job under the service of the Japanese flag in the early 20th century when they occupied all of Korea. For some Korean men like Margaret’s father, that’s a kind of family shame he won’t speak of, and didn’t, not to his own daughter even in her 40s.

For Sanjay Gupta, his mother experienced terrible loss as India was partitioned creating the new country of Pakistan in 1947. I was captivated by the map video that traced the path she and her family took from her home city, across the coastline, through the interior of India. She would not see her homeland again. And over 1 million people were killed in the partitioning.

In Cho’s case there was another remarkable dimension, the work of Mormon genealogists. As Gates explains, Mormons collect all manner of data that helps track down the ancestry of anyone who wants to baptize their families retroactively. Given the importance of baptism in the Mormon tradition, they take the work of ancestry documentation very seriously. As it turns out, there are records called (in Korean) “jokbo” which is basically a family record that apparently can be traced back to some prime individual (usually male I believe). The Mormon genealogy center has a microfilm copy of Cho’s jokbo! Apparently her family starts in the 1200s as was seen in the jokbo documentation (written in Chinese as is the Korean tradition).

For Gupta, his father’s lineage was still intact but this time it was held through a combination of oral history (his father visited the village that still has elders who remembered his father or Sanjay’s grandfather), and written documentation held on immensely long strips of paper material stored in a collection held by two brothers in their house (or a structure that doesn’t look fitting for preserving this kind of paper). It struck me how delicate these histories are held by living memory and preserved under conditions that could easily be subject to natural disaster or social disorder. Imagine if the Mormons can make a copy of this and store it in their archives.

So if you wind up searching for your roots, you may want to send a thank-you to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who are fervently working at preserving a wealth of data that can give us a sense of rootedness and meaning that is irreplaceable.

The Religious Non-Christian Diaspora

In my continuing research over Asian American diversity, one of the recurring issues is religious diversity. I blogged earlier that Asian Americans are the least Christian of all racial groups in the US. About 46% of those who are Asian American are either Protestant or Catholic according to multilingual surveys. So the other 54% are a combination of non-Christian religions and those who say they have “no religion” (which is a tricky issue when we talk to Asian Americans). Of the non-Christian religious adherents among Asian Americans, the biggest three are Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. There’s some debate over what percent of Buddhists are Asian (versus white) and what percentage of Muslims are Asian (should we count Middle Easterners as Asian or White?). But nevertheless where there are Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, there are likely Asian Americans.

One of the neat resources made available by the Association of Religion Data Archives are county-level maps of religious groups supplied by the Religious Congregations and Membership Study. And as of their data collection in 2010, we have enough data to map adherents of non-Christian faith traditions by county. I recently had a chance to study a few of these maps (which are all free and online by the way), and would like to share them with you here. This is a map of Hindu adherents according to 5 equal-sized groupings or quintiles. The Hindu-Asian connection is clearest since the vast majority of Hindus in the US are south Asian.  [Read more...]