The Wall Street Journal
Asian-Americans are now the country’s best-educated, highest-earning and fastest-growing racial group. They share with American Jews both the distinction and the occasional burden of immigrant success.
By LEE SIEGEL
Last March, an interviewer archly asked President Barack Obama whether he was aware that he had been “surpassed” by basketball phenomenon Jeremy Lin “as the most famous Harvard graduate.” The question was misformulated. If there was any surpassing going on, it was that Mr. Lin had become, briefly, more famous than Mr. Obama as the country’s most exemplary figure from a hitherto marginalized minority.
Mr. Lin’s triumph on the basketball court is a living metaphor for the social group he comes from. No one would dispute the opening paragraph of the Pew Research Center’s massive study of Asian-Americans, released over the summer: “Asian-Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success.” Or as Mr. Lin put it in a video of congratulation he made last spring for the overwhelmingly Asian-American graduates of New York City’s famed Stuyvesant High School: “Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do.”
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Percentage of Asian-Americans who believe that hard work leads to success, versus 58% of the general public
Source: Pew Research Center
Mr. Lin might well have been thinking of a troubling backhanded homage to Asian-American success. Once upon a time, threatened elites at Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale secretly established a quota—known as the “numerus clausus”—for the number of Jews allowed through their exclusive gates. Today, some of these schools stand accused of discrimination against Asian-American students who, according to recent studies, must score higher than whites on standardized tests to win a golden ticket of admission. It seems that, despite their very different histories in this country, Asian-Americans now share with American Jews both the distinction and the occasional burden of phenomenal immigrant success.
Asian-Americans have become the immigrant group that most embodies the American promise of success driven by will and resolve. When, six years ago, the Korean-American management consultant Yul Kwon won the 13th season of “Survivor,” it must have been a social scientist’s dream come true. The show’s producers had separated that season’s contestants into ethnically and racially divided groups: white, black, Hispanic and Asian-American. Never mind the sorry lack of taste. The crude segregation also served as an illumination, bringing to the surface America’s eternal subterranean scrimmage between newly arrived tribes. Mr. Kwon’s victory made abstract social trends vividly concrete. Not only had Asian-Americans gone beyond Hispanics as the most populous group of new American immigrants. They had risen to the top in the pursuit of the American dream.
For the purposes of demographic studies, Asian-Americans are defined as Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese, with the Chinese being the largest group and the Japanese the smallest. The Pew study is rich with statistics: The Indians and Filipinos lead Asian-Americans in household wealth, Asian-Americans vote mostly liberal, the Japanese and Filipinos are most likely to marry outside their group, more Chinese-Americans than any other Asian-American group say they are doing better materially than their parents were at a similar age.
And Asian-Americans increased their numbers faster than any other race between 2000 and 2010, growing by 46%. From 1980 to 2010, the Asian-American population quadrupled, with Chinese-Americans becoming by far the largest group. Tom Buchanan, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s racist bully in “The Great Gatsby,” would have plotzed (as my Russian-Jewish relatives might have said). At one point in the novel, Buchanan expresses his alarm over the “yellow peril”: “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged.”
Although the fictional character’s fears might strike us as alien and repellent today, it is not just a blessing but also historically peculiar that more Americans don’t feel the same way, especially given Asian-Americans’ breathtaking success. America has always been a place where rapid assimilation of strangers was accompanied by brutal opposition to same.
To be sure, beginning with the large waves of Asian-American immigration in the latter half of the 19th century, the mostly unskilled Asians who worked the farms and mines and built the railroads met violent, sometimes lethal prejudice. Such hostility was officially sanctioned by legislation banning, at different times, Chinese women, all immigrants from China, and then, in 1924, immigrants from any Asian country, period. The internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor is unique in American history—no other immigrant group has ever been imprisoned on American soil en masse because of ethnic guilt-by-association. But since 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act opened the doors to immigrants from Asia, their assimilation into American life has proceeded without the turbulence often faced by other groups.
Asian Americans share with American Jews both the distinction and the occasional burden of immigrant success.
Contrast the Asian-American saga with that of American Jews, the immigrant group most like them in terms of accomplishment and stability. Central and Eastern European Jews also began coming to America in the late 19th century, but because they didn’t incite the ferocious racial hatred that Asian-Americans first confronted, they established themselves more quickly. At the same time, since they were less culturally reticent and more socially ambitious than Asian-Americans, Jewish immigrants also faced more egregious obstacles to mobility than Asian-Americans did when America once again allowed them in.
By the 1930s, when the only Asian presence in American movies was Charlie Chan, Jews had invented Hollywood out of whole cloth. Back in New York, Jews began redefining stagecraft and acting with the founding of the Group Theater in 1931. Though barred early on from elective office by the Irish, who for a long time had a monopoly on the insurgent ethnic side of mainstream American politics, Jews had already reached the highest political echelons as close advisers to President Wilson. In the 1930s, they were the core of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s so-called brain trust, his inner circle of wise men. By the end of World War II, Jews had achieved prominence in just about every realm of American life.
Yet furtive prohibitions against Jews, as well as entrenched anti-Semitic attitudes, thrived even after the Holocaust, though that unprecedented atrocity had the effect of eventually ending the Ivy League quotas on Jewish admissions. What socially ambitious Jews aspired to were the Elysian fields of WASP bastions such as rarefied country clubs, exclusive professional clubs, white-shoe law firms, prestigious foundations and the like, and these were the very institutions that resisted them the most intensely. As late as 1975, Saul Bellow could complain to an interviewer that “a few years ago it was fashionable to describe Roth, Malamud and me as the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of writing. The Protestant majority thought it had lost its grip, so the ghetto walls went up around us.”
As it happened, 1975 was one year before Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize, after winning the Pulitzer once and the National Book Award twice. Contrary to Bellow’s somewhat delighted fantasy of persecution, the ghetto walls had come down around Jewish cultural figures decades before. The perception of anti-Semitism often exceeded its reality because, after the Holocaust, any expression of hostility toward Jews got amplified from muted social ugliness into loud moral crime. But there was another factor at work. Having attained prominence and social power, Jews could be disproportionately vociferous and visible in their complaints about rejection and exclusion.
Asian-Americans say American parents put too little pressure on their children to succeed in school
Source: Pew Research Center
Along with their outsider theological status—something not shared by Asians, many of whom are practicing Christians—one reason that anti-Semitism persisted even as Jews ascended in American life was that Jews were frequently in the vanguard of American social and political dissent, from the anarchist Emma Goldman to Yippie Abbie Hoffman and beyond. Not only that, but many of the architects of America’s archenemy, Soviet Communism, had been Jews. As the WASP establishment lost ground to Jewish newcomers, the words “communist” and “Jew” often became synonymous. The association of Hollywood with lax morality, and of Jews with Hollywood, heightened a kind of low-grade hum of anti-Jewish feeling, even as it proved the general acceptance of the Jewish sentiments and sensibility that permeated American entertainment.
Asian-Americans have followed the opposite trajectory from Jewish-Americans. Toxic racism and then prohibitions against immigration prevented them from rising in American society for nearly a century. And then they did so with unique alacrity. Jewish immigrants, whether in the 19th century, in the 1930s as refugees from Hitler or in the 1980s as refugees from the Soviet Union, came here for the most part without a penny to their name. Today, Asian-Americans arrive in America more highly educated, and more prosperous, than any other immigrant group.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu
Comedian Margaret Cho
Asian-Americans have tended to avoid realms of activity, like politics and entertainment, where what might otherwise be considered the liability of transparent emotion—or the easiness of faking emotion—is a natural asset. Asian cultural prohibitions against public emoting play a role in these choices. There are, of course, numerous Asian-American culture figures and a handful of Asian-American national politicians. But physiognomies whose expressiveness is often lost on Western eyes and a deeply ingrained modesty have, relatively speaking, kept most Asian-American groups away from the public glare and thus out of the cross hairs of American bias and hatred. Insofar as they do play public roles, Asian-Americans are more likely to do pro bono work as lawyers, or to serve in public clinics as doctors, than to appear behind a podium at a political debate or to flicker on the silver screen.
Yet the astounding success of Asian-Americans raises the dark question of how long they will be able to resist attracting the furies of fear and envy, especially during times of economic stress, or of economic and political conflict with countries like China, where the preponderance of Asian-Americans still come from. If China does one day become an explicit antagonist, it seems likely that the anxiety among Chinese-Americans will be even more intense than that of American Jews every time the allegiances of the American-Jewish lobby are questioned.
Some of the more vehement attacks on Amy Chua’s deliberately provocative 2011 memoir of child rearing, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” were perhaps fueled by resentment of Asian-American ascendancy, especially in the context of raising “perfect” children. Confession: I was one of the book’s more vocal detractors. Was I, a Jewish-American writer, driven to pique, in part, by a member of a group that threatens Jewish-American cultural domination, just as American Jews once threatened the WASP mandarinate? Well, maybe.
The subtle vying for success in various realms of American life between Asian-Americans and American Jews makes one wonder what mores and tastes will look like when Asian-Americans begin to exert their own influence over the culture. Will the verbal brio and intellectual bent of Jews, their edgy irony and frank super-competitiveness give way to Asian discretion, deference to the community, and gifts for less verbal pursuits like music, science and math? Will things become, as they once were under WASP hegemony, quieter?
Not if the mercurial nature of culture has anything to do with it. Think of the wild Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho, who belongs on the same family tree of comic art as the wild Jewish-American comedian Sarah Silverman. Jeremy Lin himself, in his video for the class of 2012 at Stuyvesant, included an antic rap song performed with an Asian-American friend. And the speaker who addressed the high school’s graduates in person last June was the 32-year-old Chinese-American actor Telly Leung, a star of the hit TV series “Glee.”
Mr. Leung spoke for over 20 minutes, joking, shouting, making ironic quips, teasing and provoking. At one point, he boasted that he had overthrown his parents’ middle-class expectations of stability and security and made them redefine their idea of the American dream. He sounded, dare I say it, like a certain type of Jew. Which is another way of saying that he sounded like everyone who comes to America from somewhere else and ends up exemplifying, anew, a native irreverence and vitality that is as old as the American hills.
—Mr. Siegel is the author of four books and, most recently, the e-book “Harvard is Burning.”
A version of this article appeared October 27, 2012, on page C1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Rise of the Tiger nation.