Asian American overacheivers - ethnic stereotypes, war, peace, and immigration policy

Ethnic stereotypes can be rooted in empirical reality, but that reality can be war, peace, and immigration policy. The stereotype of Asian Americans as high academic achievers is directly traceable to US immigration policy, say Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou in "The Asian American Achievement Paradox." Chinese immigrants were banned from coming to the US through 1943; only after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was there a rise in Chinese immigrants and only those who were highly educated. Vietnamese immigrants came as refugees in the 1970’s fleeing war and political turmoil. Both groups were comparatively highly educated and highly skilled compared to Chinese and Vietnamese who did not emigrate. The immigrants to America were elites in their country of origin. Consequently, they brought certain with them values – like working hard, more than talent, is key to achievement – and certain institutions – like after-school cram schools – to their American communities. Lee and Zhou point out that although Chinese immigrants arrived more highly educated than most Americas while Vietnamese immigrants did not, similar strategies have served both well and led to high achievement.

In contrast, Lee and Zhou studied Chinese immigrants to Spain who arrived primarily as traders. Their cultural values and institutions emphasize business and entrepreneurship and there is not the same experience of high academic achievement and resulting stereotype.

They also note that Mexican immigrants to the US largely have lower levels of education and skills than Mexicans in general, which may contribute to some negative stereotypes Americans have of Mexicans.

Further, for Chinese and Vietnamese Americans the tension between the prevailing value in their ethnic community that achievement comes from effort and the stereotype held by the broader community that Asian Americans are inherently smarter leads to greater likelihood of depression and suicide among Chinese and Vietnamese American young people.

Read the original research

Lee, Jennifer and Min Zhou. The Asian American Achievement Paradox. Russell Sage Foundation, 2015.

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