In light of the #StopAsianHate movement during the wake of the pandemic earlier this year, Asian Americans are demanding recognition for our social issues and rejecting the notion of the model minority. The issues of racism and discrimination facing the community have often been blanketed over by comparing the struggles of other POC communities. Asian American suffering has been denied not only by a culture that values non-confrontational behavior, but by this fallacy that Asian Americans occupy an advantageous position in America due to our superior economic status, and should thus not possess the right to voice our struggles.
When asked to address the issue of wealth inequality in the U.S., our instinct is to assume that Asians occupy job positions with relatively high earnings. In the past few decades, Asians have even surpassed whites as the highest-mean earning ethnic group in the U.S. However, the average conceals significant disparities amongst ethnic groups. In fact, Asian-Americans display the highest and fastest-growing rates of wealth inequality against any other ethnic group in the U.S.
In New York, for instance, over a quarter of the city’s Asian population lives in poverty.1 From 1970 to 2016, the gap in the standard of living between Asians on the top and bottom of the income ladder has doubled, rendering the wealth distribution of Asians the most unequal amongst all other ethnic groups in the U.S. As of 2016, Asians in the top 10% of the income distribution are earning 10.7 times as much as Asians on the bottom 10%, compared to 9.8 for Blacks, 7.8 for whites, 7.8 for Hispanics, and 8.7 on average.2 Asian Americans also exhibit the fastest growing rate of income inequality. In 1970, the top 10% of Asian Americans earned 6.3 times more than the bottom 10%. However, that rate has grown to 8.7 times in 2016, an increase of 27%.3 Now, why might this be?
Immigration trends in the 20th century may help explain the extent of this disparity. After all, immigrants accounted for 81% of the growth in the Asian adult population in the U.S. from 1970 to 2016. The first wave of Asian migration was ushered in by the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 that encouraged family reunification, and by the influx of refugees following the Vietnam war in 1975. The first wave expanded the low-income proportion of Asians in the U.S, thus decreasing the share of high-skill Asian American immigrants. With the technology boom in the 90s, the Immigration Act of 1990 sought to increase the inflow of educated workers from Asia, many under the H-1B visa program, through the Immigration Act of 1990.
Additionally, different ethnic groups amongst Asian Americans exhibit stark differences in wealth and educational levels. According to Kochhar and Cillufo’s research, the share of Asians with at least a bachelor’s degree among adults over the age of 25 ranged from 72% among Indians to 9% among Bhutanese, with median household income varying from $100,000 among Indians to $36,000 among Burmese. These data reflect the vast array of circumstances and origins that have driven Asian ethnic groups to the U.S. and that continue to shape their statuses. In other words, these differences expose the impossibility of homogenizing the Asian American experience under a single perception of socioeconomic class and educational level.
In the wake of the 2020 pandemic, many working-class Asian Americans suffered devastating losses despite the popular perception that Asians have fared well in comparison to other ethnic minorities. As pointed out in Amy Yee’s article in Scientific American, national polls often present grossly misleading information in regards to Asians by neglecting non-English speakers in data collection processes. The 2020 national poll from Harvard School of Public Health, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that only 37% of Asians experienced serious financial problems during the pandemic, which flails in comparison to 72% of Latinos, 60% of Blacks, and 55% of Native Americans. Based on these stats alone, we’re likely to falsely assume that Asian Americans have experienced limited hardships due during this time. However, as Lee points out, the poll was conducted in only English and Spanish, instantly excluding non-proficient English-speaking Asians, who are likely especially vulnerable to financial instability.
Contrary to the grossly misrepresentative statistics, working-class Asians have endured particularly ruinous impacts from the pandemic. If in doubt, I urge you to take a walk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s Chinatown, and what is regarded as New York’s last true working-class Asian neighborhood. As I strolled through at 9pm the other night, during Manhattan restaurants and bars were undoubtedly alive and booming on the night before Halloween, only one or two stores per block had their lights on. Dozens of storefronts lined against the streets faded into the pitch black, shut off permanently by metal enclosures. It’s difficult to cross through Sunset Park without feeling an eery sense of dismal emptiness in the air.
A significant portion of the Asian population at Sunset Park is comprised of small business owners and blue-collar workers for non-essential businesses, who proved especially vulnerable during the onset of COVID. As Kimiko de Feytas writes in her article for the New York Times, several businesses have laid off as many as 80% of their employees, and workers struggle to feed even their own mouths. While the remaining businesses attempt to stay afloat by leveraging the new noise pouring in from the city’s reopening, many others do not plan on reopening at all.
The pandemic has merely exposed the fragility of low-income Asians against turbulent economic conditions. Unfortunately, America’s monolithic view of Asian American socioeconomic status derives from the experiences of the wealthy and educated, thus concealing the struggles of our most vulnerable. By unveiling the discrepancies among Asian American populations and bringing light to the persistent misrepresentations of statistics and popular perception, our community and the rest of America can work to deconstruct the Asian American monolith. I’m hoping that by doing so, we can direct our attention to serve the vulnerable and underrepresented Asian American working class and help lift them from these dire circumstances.