What Numbers Mean for Southeast Asians

Last year, UNAVSA released an article discussing the model minority myth and the disaggregated data between different Asian communities. It sought to highlight the historical context of the said “positive stereotype” and also examine the biases and shortcomings within the Vietnamese community. One of the most prominent and persisting difference between Southeast Asians and other Asian groups is the discrepancy in educational attainment. This, perhaps, may be difficult to see as statistics are often aggregated. Even within our own Vietnamese and Southeast Asian community, this fact is often overlooked or forgotten. The nature of UNAVSA’s student organization base lends itself to comprising of predominantly college educated members who are fluent in English. It is a joyous time of year for people who are graduating from high school or college–many of which are our own family and friends. May is also a month dedicated to commemorate the achievements and contributions of the people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent in the United States. However, let us not forget that these achievements and contributions did not come easy. There are still pressing issues within our community that need to be addressed. This model minority myth brushes over the diverse lived experiences of Asian communities within the U.S.  

The model minority stereotype “maintains the dominance of whites in the racial hierarchy by diverting attention away from racial inequalities by setting standards for how minorities should behave”

-Stacy J. Lee

Data from the Pew Research Center and Center for American Progress in collaboration with AAPI Data indicates that people of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian descent have lower rates of educational attainment, income, and higher rates of poverty and limited English proficiency (LEP). Low degree attainment, unemployment/low wage jobs, and language barriers make it extremely difficult for Southeast Asian communities to be able to gain the social and cultural capital needed for social mobility.

Below examines the educational attainment discrepancies between three different populations (Chinese, Vietnamese, and Laotian) in the U.S. Aggregated data would suggest that 51% of Asians in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, a closer analysis of the data highlights a stark contrast between various populations. While 54% of the Chinese population have a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 29% of Vietnamese and a mere 16% of the Laotian population have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The later two groups fall below the national average of 30%. As a result, aggregated data might indicate that Asians are achieving well above the national average. However, disaggregated data indicate that Southeast Asians actually fall below the average.

Educational attainment of Chinese population in the U.S., 2015 (% of those ages 25 and older)

Educational attainment of Vietnamese population in the U.S., 2015 (% of those ages 25 and older)

Education attainment of Laotian population in the U.S., 2015 (% of those ages 25 and older)

***Data obtained from Pew Research Center Fact Sheets

Below examines the income and poverty discrepancies between three different populations (Indian, Vietnamese, and Hmong) in the U.S. Aggregated data suggests that Asian Americans have a median 12-month household income of $71,709 (12.8% poverty rate) compared to the national average of $53,046 (15.7% poverty rate). However, a closer analysis of the data indicates that there are huge income in poverty discrepancies between various populations. While Indian Americans have an average income of $95,000 (8.5% poverty rate), Vietnamese Americans make $58,800 (13.9% poverty rate), and Hmong Americans make $52,500 (27% poverty rate). As a result, aggregated data might indicate that Asian Americans have a much higher income than the national average. However, disaggregated data show that Southeast Asians may only be making around the average or lower with some groups living in a much higher poverty rate.

Income and poverty of Indian American population in the U.S., 2015

Income and poverty of Vietnamese American population in the U.S., 2015

Income and poverty of Hmong American population in the U.S., 2015

***Data obtained from the Center for American Progress (Indian, Vietnamese, Hmong)

It is important, therefore, to recognize the discrepancies in educational attainment, income, and poverty within the Asian population in the U.S. Lending to this discrepancy is the language diversity. 53% of Vietnamese people in the U.S. have Limited English Proficiency (LEP) compared to 24% of Japanese people in the U.S. The national average is 8.5%. This language barrier makes it difficult to learn in school and apply for financial assistance and jobs. The assumption that Asians in the U.S. are well-off has dangerous consequences. It ignores the lack of social, economic, and political power within the Southeast Asian community. An inability to properly address these issues will only further the education and income gaps.

These differences in lived experience are rooted deeply within the historical context of each group and its relationship with the U.S. This is largely due to different periods of immigration/refuge to the U.S. The term “model minority” was first used in 1966 to describe the prosperity of Japanese Americans two decades after World War II. Japanese immigrants had been coming to the U.S. since the 1880s as labor workers. This created a facade that Asian Americans were model citizens that did not welfare or assistance. However, the Vietnamese population in the U.S. did not surge until 1975 when refugees were fleeing from their war-torn country. Assimilating to a country that believed all Asian Americans were well-off meant that there was little help for those that needed it most. Currently, Cambodians who have been convicted of a crime are being targeted for deportation. The same targeted acts of oppression can be seen with the Japanese internment camps during WWII and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The relatively recent influx of Southeast Asians to the U.S.–and thus the relatively recent exclusionary and oppressive acts against them–have made it difficult for Southeast Asians to prosper and grow in the U.S.

So what are some ways in which we can help our Southeast Asian community break these barriers? How can we address low educational attainment, poverty, and language barriers that have marginalized and hindered Southeast Asians?

Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) highlights the importance of both local and federal solutions. Programs and initiatives that advocate for both grassroot/community based organizations (CBOs) and call for legislative action. At the local level, this requires utilizing disaggregated data to develop properly access the performance and needs of Asian subgroups (not just Asians overall). This also requires partnerships with various CBOs and grassroots that will help increase college readiness for first generation students. Providing educators, counselors, and administrators that understand the needs of the SEAA community is another important local solution. Research by Loc V. Truong (2016) also suggests the importance of expanding mental health services to be able to meet the needs of Vietnamese students in college. On the federal level, SEARAC advocates for increased investment and support for CBOs that can help address different community needs. Policies that expand culturally and linguistically appropriate services is also needed. This includes language programs, bilingual SEAA mentors, and family-friendly programs that promote involvement from parents who are LEP. Truong (2016) discusses the need for more research on the SEAA college experience and career trajectories. Going to college is one issue; but to graduate and live healthy, sustainable lives during and after is another issue yet to be addressed.  

UNAVSA hopes that through the collective action of our educated and diverse member base, we can generate action to break down these barriers. It is important to both celebrate the accomplishments of our people but remain critical of information and aware of the changing faces of oppression. It is easy to take for granted the education and privilege that we have as college educated people. We hope this reading served as a reminder that, as we celebrate API Heritage Month, we must also continue to be advocates for education and change within our community.

Kevin Le

Civic Engagement Director 2018-2019, UNAVSA