Hmong, Indian, What’s the Difference?

Recent news on the higher education scene has turned attention to the Asian American case, or cases we should say. A team of education researchers led by Dr. Robert Teranishi used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of California higher education system to make the case that Asian American ethnic groups are not all performing in the “model minority” way. As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.” When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. Take for example, last year’s Pew report on Asian Americans. Using the American Community Survey, Pew shows an aggregate figure for bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income in 2010 for Asian Americans. As the title of their figure states “Asian Americans Lead Others in Education, Income.”

 

Teranishi and colleagues’ report disaggregates, that is, splits into smaller groups, the Asian American classification using the same data, and this is what they find. In this first graph we see bachelor’s degree attainment across multiple Asian American groups and we find surprising differences across the board. At the one end, Taiwanese and Asian Indian Americans report over 71% within each group with a bachelor’s degree. At the other end, about 12% of Laotian and 15% of Hmong Americans claim the same educational attainment. So while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level attainment.

Now let’s look at household income. Using the median household income ($66,000 according to the Pew report) for all Asian Americans, Teranishi et al. disaggregate that figure and show the following.

As you can see, at one extreme, Asian Indian Americans exceed the Asian American household income mean by over $21,000 on average. Hmong Americans are below that same mean by almost the same amount. In fact 9 out of the 15 groups are below the Asian American mean. And 7 of these groups are lower than the white American average.

What this suggests is that Asian Americans are highly diverse socioeconomically. To the extent that the model minority myth is applied to this collection of SES-diverse groups, it masks the evident differences among them. Read the full report here to find out more about the benefits of disaggregation especially in higher education within the University of California system. Similar kinds of analyses were conducted by Dr. Paul Ong and associates who disaggregated homeownership and cash public assistance rates across Asian ethnic groups in several different areas of the US. The slide show report on some of their findings is here, and the regional reports are here. Like Teranishi et al.’s report, disaggregation of Asian American homeownership, other assets and public assistance shows that the rates of these socioeconomic patterns vary a lot by Asian ethnic group.

Some might ask: then why is the overall Asian American average so high to begin with. The answer is a matter of population size. Look back at the disaggregated figures. Pick out these groups: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. These groups take up 83% of all Asian Americans. Statistically, the other groups are not numerically large enough to alter the educational attainment or household income average of the largest six groups since they take up a greater share of the population. We should remember too, sizable numbers of Asian Americans in the larger groups do not share in the picture of “success” that their same-ethnic peers experience.

In our racialized society, we like our groups to be simple; we prefer to ignore the diverse realities within the groupings we create. By using “Asian American” as shorthand for “the successful minority” we mask major differences in the outcomes that presumably all Asian Americans share. Notably, our social programs often utilize this assumption and give next to nothing for vulnerable Asian Americans. This in turn makes Asian American inequalities invisible.

Hopefully more leaders and concerned citizens will grow aware of the problem we create when we use the stereotype of “the high –achieving, hard-working minority.” Reports and studies, like the one produced by Dr. Teranishi that disaggregate the Asian American data story expand our own understanding that this story is not just diverse culturally, but socioeconomically as well.

A new look at the second-generation Korean American and Canadian experience

 

Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in another small conference similar to the JSPS back in January. While the JSPS showcased the latest scientific discoveries by alums of the program, this was a more focused conference on a very particular population: second-generation Korean Americans (SGKAs).

For the Korean American community, now numbering 1.3 million, the experience in the US remains a largely new one to some extent. Census reports suggest that nearly 80% of Korean Americans are foreign-born. This figure is somewhat misleading however since it bundles together anyone who was born outside the US into a single category. Scholars of immigration however point out that there’s a big difference between arriving in the US prior to age 12 and arriving when one is a good bit older. The latter group is described as the “1.5 generation” and some scholars, including me, argue that the 1.5 are somewhat similar to the 2nd generation in that both groups were socialized in the US from their most formative years.

What’s particularly important about the second-generation is that they are the first in their families to experience America as their native home; while their parents’ memories of their youth originate in other countries, the second generation will recall growing up in a neighborhood in Los Angeles, Queens, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Second, since most of today’s immigrants appear racially non-white (given their countries of origin), the experiences of the second-generation also entails a minority identity in the conventional sense. How then will these new native-born (or US-raised) minority populations adapt to their surroundings and how will their context respond to their growing presence? Since the story of today’s second-generation begins roughly around 1965, some of the oldest in this cohort are now in their 40s and 50s. With access to survey and interview data, we can learn whether older SGKAs are adapting as well as their other native-born peers.

Conferences about SGKAs then are one example of how some scholars are providing glimpses into this new class of American. Particularly illuminating for me was the inclusion of Korean-Canadian research; it was an important reminder that while the US is still the most preferred destination for immigrants, it is not the only destination for the millions of people who leave their place of origin for better opportunities. Indeed owing to the relatively small size of SGKAs, it makes sense to collaborate and share knowledge across borders. It bears noting too that such conferences are the result of excellent collaboration (Drs. Pyong Gap Min and Samuel Noh were pivotal in this instance), generous support from concerned community members, and judicious use of limited resources.

The conference covered numerous topics which I summarized into four groups (based largely on my notes and memory – apologies to anyone I may have missed or misrepresented).

Social mobility: perhaps one of the central questions about SGKAs is whether the America pathway to upward mobility is realized for the children of Korean immigrants who risked their opportunities in their homeland for a potentially better opportunity here. To that end, Drs. ChangHwan Kim (University of Kansas), Chigon Kim (Wright State U.), Ann Kim (York University), Sou Hyun Jang (CUNY Graduate Center), and Pyong Gap Min (Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center) have investigated SGKAs:

-socioeconomic attainment

-bilingualism as a socioeconomic (dis)advantage

-entrepreneurship and socioeconomic mobility in Canada,

-ethnic and racial concentrations in STEM majors and employment sectors    

 

Mental health and identity: a lot of studies are now finding unique differences between members of different ethnic and racial groups on physical and mental health outcomes. A growing literature has looked into mental health of various Asian Americans and Asian Canadians, Koreans being one such ethnic subgroup. Drs. Il-Ho Kim (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Samuel Noh (U. of Toronto, CAMH), Neha Ahmed (U. of Toronto), Marianne Noh (U. Western Ontario), and Nam Soon Song (U. of Toronto) covered:

-Discrimination and mental health

-Identity as a moderator of stress

-Identity formation differences in the US and Canada

-Religious community participation and ethnic identity

 

Family dynamics: much of the mainstream conversation on Asian Americans focuses on family dynamics as a means of explaining the perceived greater educational and socioeconomic advantages of this racialized collection of ethnic groups. Scholars like Drs. Angie Chung (U. Albany-SUNY) and Miliann Kang (U. Massachusetts-Amherst) have called these perceptions into question in their studies of:

-Gender, birth order, identity and family responsibilities

-Second-generation Korean parenting and stereotypes

These studies are particularly interesting since their interviewees are adult Korean Americans who can articulate their experience growing up in households that supposedly are ultra-disciplined and competitive. How do they interpret their experiences and what do they do when raising their own children?

Social integration: finally, another important avenue of research looks at the degree to which SGKAs and other SG Asian Americans are integrating with society’s main civic and political institutions as well informal relationships. Drs. Dae Young Kim (George Mason U.), Sook Hee Oh (U. of Missouri-Kansas City), and myself fit into this area with the following presentations:

-Racial othering

-Asian ethnic differences in political participation

-Ethnic and religious identity retention, endogamy and group insularity

 

One guest presentation further stretched my knowledge of the changes taking place in Korea. Dr. Sung Kil Min (Yonsei U.) presented his recent work on foreign-born immigrants in Korea. Migration then is not only North American, it is truly becoming more global as countries like South Korea and Japan bring in non-native workers into their industries and businesses.

Since most of my research interests are in the worlds of racial minorities, this conference was admittedly one of the most refreshing intellectually. It’s interesting how different the dynamics are in such a setting where everyone understands some of the basic assumptions of racial and minority difference. More precise questions come up that push our thinking and hopefully engender better research that reaches large academic audiences and the greater public. While our society tends to lump all Asian groups together, better studies like these are helping to point out that only some characteristics are similar across groups, while many other characteristics are quite unique to each group. For those with ties to a Korean community, be on the lookout for these studies and the scholarly investigators who aim to make their research practical and worthy of consideration.

Since Waco is often lacking in culinary variety, here’s a gratuitous pic of some of the great food in Queens NYC. As a parting comment, I’m grateful to Dr. Min, Dr. Noh and their respective research organizations for including me in this gathering.

Edit 4/12:13 (1:52pm): click here for another short summary of the conference 

 

The Three Segregations and Asian America

A recurring conversation in sociology is that of segregation. While we are decades away from Jim Crow, the weight of the evidence since the 1980s is that while our population is diversifying, we’re not necessarily content with living alongside those who appear different from us. In most of the research to date, segregation has often inferred race as the main marker of difference. But a few years ago, new research was emerging that suggested income was now gaining in prominence. With the availability of a new interactive online tool, we’re able to see how income segregation appears today. Here’s a screenshot of the Chicago area based on the website, richblockspoorblocks.com (Read on to see why I chose Chicago for this example):

Using income alone, we see a pattern familiar to those who understand racial segregation. The more urbanized areas of Chicago have concentrated poverty whereas the outlying areas generally show significantly higher income levels. Substitute low income with racial minority status and the picture looks very similar. So which one is it, racial segregation or income segregation? This is the big debate. Recently published research by sociologist Lincoln Quillian provides a new perspective that essentially shows us that it’s both.

Back in 1993 a landmark book, American Apartheid,

revealed the persistence of racial segregation and its effects on minority populations. Racial residential segregation places minorities in concentrated environments of poverty which are linked to higher criminal activity, violence, and poorer schools (not to mention inadequate access to good health care, and nutritious food). As Quillian summarizes, “Massey’s (1990) core point [is] that segregation and minority poverty rates interact, or intensify in combination, to produce concentrated poverty” (p.355). This point is more formally defined as two processes: racial segregation and class segregation within race. Look again at the map of Chicago and you can almost see this argument; if greater income is coupled with white racial status, then the higher income levels tend to be more white. Within the poorer census tracts, so the argument goes, there will be segregation between poorer minorities and richer minorities. But Quillian’s study, which uses Chicago census tracts as his main example, goes one step further and provides the missing methodological key to Massey’s study: “the segregation of high- and middle-income members of other racial groups from blacks and Hispanics” (355). Stated differently, to understand how concentrated urban poverty and racial segregation work, we have to account for the difference in poverty rates between the different racial groups. It’s not only that whites and blacks are segregated, nor that richer blacks are slightly segregated from poorer blacks. It is also that whites have much less poverty as well. Since white poverty rates are much lower than blacks, neighborhoods with middle-class blacks are more likely to have poorer neighbors (regardless of race) than if the neighborhood was middle-class and white. The “three segregations” serve to distance whites from blacks (and Hispanics) generally and conversely amplifies the combination of black segregation and black poverty. This is a powerful explanation. We learn from this study that the underlying logic of racial and class segregation still go together despite increasing diversity and calls for colorblindness (which presumes that race doesn’t matter in social and individual outcomes). The integration of nonwhites and whites is very selective and coupled with perceived class of racial minorities. [If readers can’t follow my explanation, here’s another summary of the study).

Given my interest in Asian Americans, I wondered how they fit in this equation. I’ll need to contact Dr. Quillian for the additional analyses he did that accounted for Asian Americans as a separate group (p.365), but I suspect that the other observations we know about this group will explain their role pretty quickly. We know that Asian American poverty is higher than the national average (see pp.34-35 on link to report) (according to the Census Bureau, Asian American poverty increased 46% between 2002 and 2010), while at the same time Asian American household incomes are quite high. This is because Asian Americans are a very diverse group and due to the specific kinds of migration patterns (high-skilled employment, political asylum etc.) some arrive with a lot of resources and others have very little. More than half of the Asian population is foreign-born so these factors still play a sizable role in their poverty or lack thereof. But Asian Americans are also fewer in number compared to other minorities and (this is the big one) they are not often embedded in concentrated communities whether rich or poor. The Chinatowns and Koreatown are still here but they don’t contain a large number of Asians (note that each of these enclaves is a specific ethnic group; “pan-Asian” enclaves don’t really exist) in part because there aren’t as many of them to begin with. So if I could guess, Asian American segregation is fairly rare and the coupling of concentrated poverty and racial segregation doesn’t result in the same amplified results we see for blacks and increasingly for some Hispanics.

As I reflect on it some more I also wonder if predominantly white neighborhoods will absorb Asians and more readily accept their presence as a symbolic gesture toward inclusivity, a means of justifying colorblindness. Given the high incomes of many Asian Americans this seems like a real possibility given the way the three segregations play out. Note that Quillian did not describe segregation from whites, but rather from “non-black neighbors” and I suspect this is because there are just enough Asian Americans in those neighborhoods that one cannot call these exclusively white neighborhoods.

But what about Asian and black residential integration? From a news piece that appeared yesterday, I’m intrigued at the possibility of what might happen in New York. Apparently Chinatown is too expensive for some Chinese to move in; these migrants need a more affordable place to live. Their next choice is east Harlem. Will entry into a predominantly black community perhaps reshape the segregation patterns we see (at least in this city), or will it reflect more of the same, only now including poor Asian Americans? Here’s a screenshot of the richblockpoorblocks site for Harlem:

Gender, Culture and Suicide in Asia and Asian America

Fellow blogger and sociologist Mark Regnerus’ recent post on suicide rates and ideation prompted me to reflect on suicide in parts of Asia and in Asian America from the news I have been reading of late. Perhaps the most notable is the one that showed up in the New York Times citing an unprecedented increase in suicide among elderly Korean women. As the article suggests, some of this is prompted by the structural changes in Korean society that have not been adapted by all members of society due to the cultural differences brought on by structural changes. In the US, our social security system is a kind of broad social contract between generations of working Americans. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, etc. workers in America help cover some of the expenses for the retired. In Korea, the contract is more specific to the family: children, usually sons, are expected to provide the economic safety net for their parents directly. Put differently, earlier generations invested in their children with no private savings set aside for them. Thus, when we combine the other demographic dynamics in Korea (i.e. declining marital and fertility rates) we have a recipe for disaster; while the standard of living in South Korea is incredibly high, the benefits of that improvement have not resulted in unilateral better retirements for the elderly. If we follow the traditional logic, the fact that many elderly feel abandoned suggests that the highly prosperous working generation no longer feels obligated to assist their parents or perhaps they cannot do so while maintaining a new and higher standard of living. We could also ask why the government is not stepping in and supporting these elderly. According to the article the government safety net was only just recently developed (1988) and is apparently inadequate in day-to-day coverage of expenses. And there are these cultural loopholes in this system where adult children deemed “capable” of providing support to parents locks out access to social security to those elderly. In such situations (and apparently it’s growing more pervasive), many elderly Koreans find no other recourse but to take their lives when their children cannot (or will not) help, and the state fails as well.   

It turns out that this trend toward elderly suicide is more complicated for Asian Americans. According to this mini-guide on the basics of suicide, the Asian American rate is lower than other groups in general. But the picture is mixed for the elderly. According to this graph from the Centers for Disease Control, elderly white non-Hispanic males commit suicide at a much higher rate than men of other groups, including Asian Americans.  However, among elderly women, Asian Americans are more likely to commit suicide than any other group. Asian American elderly men are still more likely to commit suicide than women, but it’s noteworthy that suicide attempts are higher for women here. The question remains: why? What might be at work in the lives of elderly Asian American women that increases the likelihood of suicide? One wonders if it is a similar sense of felt abandonment by their children, many of whom managed to be very successful materially.

Suicide Rates Among Persons Ages 65 Years and Older, by Race/Ethnicity and Sex, United States, 2005-2009

Since the CDC does not provide demographic information on suicide ideation, planning and actual attempts, we can turn to research by social scientists in their paper published in the Archives of Suicide Research. There they found that among Asian American adult respondents, women more often reported attempting suicide compared to their male counterparts (3.5% v. 1.5%). Most strikingly, US-born Asian American women reported a much higher attempted suicide (compared to men, both US born and immigrant), suicidal planning, and ideation compared to immigrant Asian American women, US born Asian American men, and immigrant Asian American men. When the researchers account for other possible factors that influence suicidal thinking, they find that US-born Asian American women are significantly more likely to report suicidal thoughts compared to their male counterparts. Still a glance at the effects shows that while the differences aren’t significant statistically-speaking, there is a clear gender and nativity dynamic at work.

If suicide ideation results in part from stressful conditions, one would think that immigrant women would feel more stress and consequently be more prone to suicide ideation. The researchers suggest that the higher native-born suicide ideation rate may be a result of socio-political factors such as gender trauma, racial trauma or some combination. A year after this study was published, social scientists Janice Cheng and associates used the same data to examine this very possibility. They confirmed that racial trauma (defined as perceived discrimination) along with gender (that is, being female), family conflict and depressive symptoms contribute to Asian American suicidal ideation. Put together, these two studies suggest that native born Asian American women struggle not only with their minority racial status but also their particular position in their families. If most elderly Asian American women are immigrants, then we have a gendered multigenerational problem: both the immigrant elderly and their native-born daughters struggle with suicidal ideation. And while separated by the Pacific, today’s elderly in Korea are perhaps similar to the elderly Asian Americans in that their strategies for survival were built on assumptions that are not shared by their children who have succeeded in contexts that reward individualistic attitudes. The adult daughters in these contexts face similar dilemmas in making sense of the expectations ingrained at an early age from their parents and the world of their peers. Perhaps it’s not so surprising then that family conflict is linked to suicide ideation for Asian American women. Hopefully, these kinds of studies are reaching the right ears to aid Asian and Asian American elderly women find meaning and belonging in a world that has restructured right before their eyes.


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