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School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-A Closer Look at Asian Americans and Education

by C. N. Le

As has traditionally been the case, receiving an education is of paramount importance for the Asian American community. Like African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians, Asian Americans have had to fight a long battle to have access to desegregated and equal educational opportunities. In this historical context, some of the most important victories were the 1968 and 1969 student strikes at San Francisco State University and U.C. Berkeley that ultimately led to the establishment of the first Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies programs in the country.

Since then, Asian Americans have faced many other issues when it comes to their educational experience. Perhaps the most far-reaching issue that Asian Americans still face is actually the most ironic. In the past, Asian Americans were fighting mechanisms of prejudice, exclusion, and institutional discrimination that prevented them from even attending certain schools and therefore receiving a fair education. But recently, Asian Americans have been and continue to be touted as the one ethnic minority group that has successfully overcome racism and achieved the American dream, primarily through education.

As the so-called "model minority," we are frequently portrayed as a bright, shining example of hard work and patience whose example other minority groups should follow. Many people take these beliefs further and argue that since Asian Americans are doing so well, we no longer experience any discrimination and that Asian Americans no longer need services such as bilingual education, bilingual government documents, and public assistance. Further, many just assume that all Asian Americans are successful and that none of us are struggling.

On the surface, it may sound rather benign and even flattering to be described in those terms. However, we need to take a much closer look. In fact, many other statistics show that Asian Americans are still the targets of racial inequality and institutional discrimination and that the "model minority" image is a myth.

Reality is always a little more complicated

It's true that 42% of all Asian American adults have at least a college degree, the highest of all the major racial/ethnic groups. It's also common for Asian American students to have the highest test scores and/or GPAs within any given high school or college cohort. But what usually gets left out is the fact that not all Asian Americans are the same. For every Chinese American or South Asian who has a college degree, the same number of Southeast Asians are still struggling to adapt to their lives in the U.S.

For example, Vietnamese Americans only have a college degree attainment rate of 16%, only about one-quarter the rate for other Asian American ethnic groups. Further, Laotians, Cambodians, and Khmer only have rates around 5%. The cultural stereotype that "all Asians are smart" puts a tremendous amount of pressure on many Asian Americans. Many, particularly Southeast Asians, are not able to conform to this unrealistic expectation and in fact, have the highest high school dropout rates in the country. Again, not all Asian Americans are the same.

Those Asian Americans who are struggling tend to be immigrants who have limited English proficiency. Many people don't know that more than half, 60% in fact, of all Asian Americans are immigrants. Most are relatively fluent in English but a large portion are not. Therefore, similar to other immigrant minority groups, Asian Americans still have a need for bilingual education that is also culturally sensitive to their immigration experiences and family situations.

For many of these recent Asian American immigrant families, the right to a formal education and all the trappings of school life for their children are very new concepts. Further, it is common for Asian American children to quickly assimilate their peers' norms about socializing, homework, growing sense of independence, and other activities surrounding school.

This in turn can lead to conflict with their parents if the parents don't understand these activities and if they feel that their children are acculturating into "mainstream" American society too quickly and conversely, losing their traditional ethnic identity just as quickly. In times like these, knowledgeable educators and school administrators can play an important role in mediating these tensions before too much conflict arise that may lead the Asian American student to withdraw and possibly worse.

Too much success?

Another irony surrounding Asian Americans being labeled the "model minority" is that it can actually backfire to their detriment. Specifically, beginning in the 1980s, many more Asian Americans were applying to college than before. Soon, it became common for 10%, 15%, or more of a given university's student population to be of Asian ancestry at a time when Asians were only about 3% of the general population. As a result, many universities actually became alarmed at the growing Asian American student population on their campuses, so much so that once the Asian proportion of their student population reached 10%-15%, they began to reject Asian students who were clearly qualified. Soon, Asian Americans were accusing universities such as U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Brown of imposing a quota or upper limit on their admission numbers. After several protests and investigations, these universities admitted that there were problems with these admission procedures but never admitted any deliberate wrongdoing.

Soon thereafter, many opponents of affirmative action began to argue that these Asian American students were "victims" of affirmative action, just like Whites. In other words, these Asian American students were being denied admission when other "less qualified" ethnic groups (implying Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians) were being admitted.

As many Asian American scholars note, at first this argument may sound plausible. But after careful investigation and in-depth research, it became clear that the real issue is not that Asian students are "competing" with other racial/ethnic minority groups. Rather, the real cause of this controversy is the widespread use of admissions factors that always seem to favor White applicants.

These included "legacy clauses" in which the children of alumni are almost always admitted, regardless of their actual qualifications. Other factors that artificially lowered the admissions rates for Asian students included persistent stereotypes that Asian students were not "well-rounded" candidates and rarely participate in extracurricular activities. Again, national research showed that in terms of participating in sports, performing arts, academic and social clubs, and community activities, the rates for Asian students were almost identical to that of White students.

The point is, contrary to the superficially rosy picture of Asian Americans as the "model minority" who have overcome racism and achieved universal educational success, in many respects, Asian Americans are still the targets of discrimination. In discussing these and other issues, Asian-Nation (http://www.asian-nation.org) seeks to provide a concise but comprehensive exploration of the historical, political, economic, and cultural elements and issues that make up today's diverse Asian American community -- almost like an online version of Asian Americans 101 that the entire Internet community can use and learn from.

About the Author

C.N. Le is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY. He is also a Vietnamese American who came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He grew up in southern California but currently lives in Albany, NY. He has worked for several Asian American organizations, including the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS. You can get a little more info about him at http://www.asian-nation.org/aboutme.shtml

For more information about the Asian American community, visit http://www.asian-nation.org.

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