Asian Americans

January 24, 1986

Report Outline
Impact on the U.S.
Century of Restrictions
The New Immigrants
Special Focus

Impact on the U.S.

Reputations as America's ‘Model Minority’

America always has been a land of immigrants, and each wave has left its unique imprint on this country. Although comparatively small in numbers, the latest newcomers to make their presence felt are Asian Americans. Aided by liberalized immigration laws, the number of Asian immigrants increased more than tenfold over the last 20 years. More than 700,000 Indochinese refugees have entered the United States since 1975. The 1980 census counted 3.5 million Asian Americans; the Population Reference Bureau estimates that by last September the number had increased nearly 50 percent to 5.1 million, or 2.1 percent of total U.S. population. “These new residents,” the authors of the bureau's report wrote, “are having an impact on this country that far exceeds their numbers, yet Americans know surprisingly little about them.”

In most respects the impact has been positive, Asian-American children do well in school and their older brothers and sisters get into and thrive at the nation's best colleges and universities. Asian-American families are uncommonly stable and have the highest median income of any group of Americans, including whites. Willingness to work hard and to adapt their skills to new situations has helped thousands of Asian-American entrepreneurs and their families realize the American dream, Korean Americans own and operate hundreds of small grocery stores in New York City, Washington, D.C., and other Northeastern cities; Indian Americans run many of the small motels in California; Indians and Pakistanis own newsstands, stationery and card shops in New York City and its suburbs; and Vietnamese immigrants dominate the shrimp-fishing industry in Texas, These positive educational, social and economic factors have earned Asian Americans the seemingly enviable reputation as America's “model minority.”

Like most generalizations, the model minority appellation can be misleading. Not every Asian American qualifies as a model citizen. Many, especially the recently arrived refugees from Southeast Asia, are having serious difficulties adjusting to their new lives. Some Asian-American leaders argue that the overwhelmingly positive image of Asians in this country has had negative consequences. “It's unfair to characterize us as a ‘model minority,’” said Henry Mui, executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans. “A few years ago we were called in the media the ‘silent minority’ because we didn't make any noise. Now it seems like we're perhaps making a lot of noise and the stereotype is working against us.” Mui said the stereotyping gives a distorted picture of the Asian-American community and obscures serious problems that it faces. Any description of Asian Americans, he said, must take into consideration “the diversity and complexity of the community.”

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