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Asian American Education and Income Attainment in the Era of Post-Racial America

by Alejandro Covarrubias & Daniel D. Liou - 2014

Background: Prevailing perceptions of Asian Americans as model minorities have long situated this population within postracial discourse, an assumption that highlights their educational success as evidence of the declining significance of race and racism, placing them as models of success for other people of color. Despite evidence to repudiate the model minority thesis, the visibility of Asian Americans in higher education continues to reinforce essentialist paradigms about their presumed success while rendering invisible the educational experiences and diminished educational earning power of low-income, women, and noncitizen Asian populations.

Purpose: The purpose of this article is to situate the most recent data on the mobility of Asian American students within the K–Ph.D. educational system in the new so-called colorblind postracial America. This article presents the most recent national educational outcomes for Asian Americans by looking at differences in attainment across race, class, gender, citizenship, and educational earning power.

Research Design: Drawing from the March Supplement of the Census’ 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS), we carried out multiple cross-tabulations that allowed us to disaggregate the educational attainment and earning power for Asian Americans across various social categories. The March Supplement of the CPS, referred to as the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), is given once a year over 3 months—the 2010 ASEC was given to 77,000 households, with a response rate of over 91.5%. This quantitative analysis of the intersectional effect of race, class, gender, and citizenship provides a more nuanced examination of their interactional impact on educational attainment.

Findings/Results: Our intersectional analysis of educational attainment and earning power reveals the multiplicity of experiences and heterogeneity among Asian Americans. There is a clear positive relationship between class and educational attainment, but the intersectional impact of gender with class, and gender with citizenship points to a nonlinear relationship between these constructs and educational attainment when they are examined together. The data also make evident important gaps in earning power for Asian Americans compared with White Americans, and an especially disproportionate burden of diminished earnings for Asian American women.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study sounds the alarm as postracial discourse has created several new challenges on issues related to Asian Americans, affirmative action policies, and the vitality of ethnic studies in the K–Ph.D. system. As a result of this study, the authors warn that the model minority thesis inaccurately depicts Asian Americans in policy discussions on education, race relations, poverty, and civil rights. This article makes important recommendations for coalition building, research approaches, and a new educational policy framework that can mediate current policy failures to include Asian Americans in discussions of equity.

The purpose of this article is to situate the most recent data on the mobility of Asian American students within the KPh.D. educational system in the new so-called colorblind postracial America. As the fastest growing immigrant population in the United States, Asian Americans constitute 6% of the overall population (Pew Research Center, 2012). The emergence of postracial discourse for other racial groups provides an opportunity to revisit the experiences of Asian Americans in education for three reasons. First, the achievement data on Asian Americans are often presented in the same breath with Whites when compared with the academic achievement of African Americans and Latinas/os. This often reinforces the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans that presumes their school success can be conflated with that of White Americans. Despite the various contested explanations of the origin of the model minority thesis, one certainty remains: This stereotype ultimately depicts Asian Americans as a group that has achieved educational success despite facing marginality and discrimination. Although some have described this representation of Asian Americans as a positive stereotype (see Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2003), the effects of this stereotype perpetuate notions that Asian Americans no longer encounter racism and White supremacy, and minimize the complexities of differential racialization for Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Latinas/os, and American Indians.

Another consequence of this stereotype is that it is particularly detrimental to those Asian Americans who are in dire need of structural resources, educational opportunities, and civil rights protections (Li, 2005; McGowan & Lindgren, 2006). In effect, the model minority assumption does not guarantee more positive views in the eyes of those with institutional power. In fact, their presumed success often adds fuel to the yellow peril discourse that incites an attitude of indifference, or even animosity, from other groups when Asian Americans do suffer from racism (Ono & Pham, 2009). This discourse also often incites fear among Whites in ways that negatively impact Asian Americans access to jobs and educational opportunities (Saito, 1997; Wu, 2002).

Second, by crowning Asian Americans as the model minority, the stereotype perpetuates the notion that structural barriers faced by this particular group are somehow less important to civil rights agendas. This flawed rationale continues to place Asian Americans and their presumed success as a wedge issue within the BlackWhite discourse on issues related to civil rights and affirmative action (Takagi & Omi, 1996). The rigidity of the BlackWhite discourse has rendered invisible the shared racialized and classed struggle of Asian Americans; this invisibility presents an added barrier to coalition building for Asian Americans across racial lines. The problem with the ways in which Asian Americans are visible and invisible stems from how this particular population is essentialized as a homogeneous group. Thus, any significant education and income gaps within the group remain overlooked and oversimplified (see Pew Research Center, 2012). Without a critical and comprehensive understanding about this population, it is easy for individuals to fall into the aforementioned problems of the dominant discourse, which serves as a trap to unknowingly participate in the model minority postracial thesis. For example, whenever there is conversation about hiring and diversifying the faculty within higher education, particularly in the social sciences, the need for more Asian Americans or those with a research agenda that centers on this population is often ignored and rarely a part of the conversation.

Third, there is a widely held assumption that Asian Americans are no longer considered people of color, or that their membership is suspect. This notion dismisses a history of institutional racism committed against Asian Americans through the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Gentlemans Agreement (1907), epochal immigration and antimiscegenation laws, housing and occupational segregation, Japanese internment during World War II (1942), and other laws and practices that demonized their humanity and justified their marginality and disempowerment. U.S. colonization of the Philippines and Pacific Island nations of Guam and Samoa is also relevant to this historical backdrop (Buenavista, 2010; Camacho, 2006). An ahistorical approach to understanding this population undermines the importance of examining how this group as an aggregate experiences racism today, as well as the respective experiences of different ethnic groups. Past conversations with our colleagues have addressed whether research data on the education of Asian Americans should be considered a part of White achievement or a result of Asian Americans presumed honorary White status. We have also engaged in similar conversations with our students in college classrooms about their perceptions that the civil rights struggle has historically been reduced to Black and Brown (Pulido, 2006).

Arguably, the emergence of the model minority stereotype was the beginning of a postracial discourse for Asian Americans, one that sets the stage for the current colorblind narrative. Because this postracial discourse assumes that racism is no longer a factor for Asian Americans, it simultaneously takes the power out of their hands to be able to tell their stories and define who they are.


Our work comes at a time when the postracial era is defined by Barack Obamas presidency and reelection, Californias ban on affirmative action (including all levels of its three-tiered system of higher education) through voter-approved Proposition 209 in 1996, a highly contested assault on immigrantserroneously presented as solely Latina/oand the efforts to dismantle ethnic studies programs in both the K12 system and higher education generally. In addition, controversies are ongoing surrounding the declining admission rates of Asian Americans at selective universities (see Chea, 2009). Still, the presumed success of Asian Americans provides fodder for the unrelenting argument of the declining significance of race and emergence of a colorblind society (Wu, 1995). However, in recent years, the heightened visibility of Asian Americans as model minorities has also given way for racist attitudes to reemerge. On March 11, 2011, UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube.com video with derogative remarks about Asian American students. The 3-minute rant by the third-year political science student alleged that Asian Americans at UCLA lacked the appropriate mannerisms, family values, and public behaviors in places like the universitys library. Wallace explained,

The problem is, these hordes of Asian people at UCLA [are] accepted into our school every single year, which is fine. But, if youre gonna come to UCLA, then use American manners. So it used to bug me, but it does not bother me anymore. But, all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me . . . and everybody that they know that they brought along from Asia with them comes here on the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries, and cook their food for the week. Its seriously without fail. You will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend. Thats what they do. They dont teach their kids to fend for themselves . . . What they dont teach them is also their manners, which brings [me] to the next point. Hi. In America we do not talk on our cell phones in the library . . . Ill be typing away furiously, blah, blah, blah, and then all of a sudden, when Im about to, like, reach an epiphany, over here from somewhere, Ohhhh! Ching chong ling long ting tong? Ohhh! . . . Are you freakin kidding me? In the middle of finals week?

The online video quickly caught national attention, sparked numerous memes, and elicited public responses from concerned individuals and university officials. Threats and public outrage eventually led Wallace to withdraw from school. Yet, despite growing public concerns within Asian American communities, along with students demands for a campuswide diversity requirement for graduation, this story quickly dissipated from the public eye. The university soon dropped its investigation and, on March 19, 2011, pronounced the phenomenon as a solitary act of free speech (Gordon & Rojas, 2011). By doing so, the university administration implied that Wallaces conduct was an isolated, individual incident without analyzing the lack of structural support that would otherwise assist her and other students to gain greater understanding about the diverse environment in which we live, let alone the support that Asian American students would need after such a vicious attack. There was neither a campuswide forum nor a collective faculty response on the matters of race, diversity, and what it means to have Asian Americans constitute 35% of the UCLA student body. The reputation of UCLA was seemingly not tarnished in any way, nor was the question raised about whether the campus was a safe space for Asian Americans. This was a concern to us because Wallaces outburst was not seen as a problem for many people of color. Some people suspect that had another racial group fallen victim to Wallaces verbal assault, there would have been a faster and more deliberate response from the university and outside organizations. There was a level of silent complacency that assumed the incident would not negatively impact the super, indestructible model minority.

In 2010, the families of Asian American high school students sued the School District of Philadelphia for deliberate and discriminatory indifference and failure to provide safe learning conditions. The lawsuit is a direct result of an incident that occurred on December 3, 2009, when Asian American students were physically assaulted at South Philadelphia High School, and many were later sent to the hospital (Walters, 2010). The school district was accused of covering up and downplaying the unsafe conditions for Asian Americans, many of whom described school administrators and teachers as largely responsible for not stopping the recurring crimes and bullying incidents targeting Asian Americans. With little response from the school district, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights group based in New York City, intervened on behalf of the students. In January 2010, the Philadelphia Commission of Human Rights commenced a series of 11 public hearings that led to a March 2011 report calling for large-scale reform to address the lack of district policies and procedures regarding intergroup conflicts.

If this is truly a postrace era, racial attitudes, stereotyping, and hate crimes would cease to be problems. Yet the key is not to ignore the severity of these problems; the colorblind approach is clearly ineffective in creating campus environments that are antiracist and antioppressive. Indeed, this article concerns itself with the ways in which the presumed postracial model minority construct impacts the education and economic mobility of many Asian Americans. Our research asked the following questions: (1) What does the KPh.D. educational pipeline tell us about the status of Asian Americans educational attainment? (2) To what extent do race, class, gender, and citizenship status play a role in Asian Americans educational attainment? (3) What is the relationship between Asian Americans educational attainment and earning power when compared with White Americans? (4) What should district and school leaders do to ensure that Asian Americans continue to be part of a social justice agenda in educational policy making?


That Wallaces rant took place in a diverse urban center such as Los Angeles reminds us that on a large scale, Asian Americans are still a deeply essentialized, misunderstood, and underresearched population. In fact, Asian Americans are a group of vastly diverse populations that cut across ethnicity (UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2011), culture (Lee & Kumashiro, 2005; Lowe, 1996), socioeconomic status (Teranishi, 2010), political affiliation (Nakanishi & Lai, 2003), educational attainment (Chou & Feagin, 2008; Lee, 1996; Lew, 2006; Louie, 2004), immigrant versus refugee status (Kiang, 1995; Um, 2003), citizenship status (Buenavista, 2012), and multigenerational status (Takaki, 1998). The 2010 United States Census Bureau reports that Asian Americans make up more than 17 million residents in the United States, with California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Texas having the highest concentration of residents. In terms of geographic distributions, 48% of Asian Americans live on the West Coast, 20.7% on the East Coast, 18.8% in the South, and 11.7% in the Midwest (Chen, 2005). In 20092010, 12% of Asian American students attended high-poverty schools, compared with 6% of White students (National Center for Education Statistics, 20092010).

Research on Asian Americans shows a remarkable internal diversity within each Asian American subgroup. As an example, the Chinese American population, broadly defined, has distinctively different realities: low-income Cantonese speakers living in the Los Angeles Chinatown, and the highly educated Mandarin speakers who live only 15 minutes away in the San Gabriel Valley (Fong, 1994; Li, 1999). The same dissimilarities can be found between the Chinese American students in San Franciscos public schools, such as those who attend the highly selective Lowell High School, and those at Galileo High School, who come from low-socioeconomic-status backgrounds (San Francisco Unified School District, 2013). As a group, the Asian American population is tremendously heterogeneous, with arrays of communities shaped by both international and domestic circumstances that led to each groups immigration, migration, and settlement patterns (Takaki, 1998).

It is important to acknowledge that this article only focuses on the existing social disparities within the educational pipeline for Asian Americans. We believe that district and school leaders need to understand the broader international and domestic circumstances that brought children into their school system. For example, Des Moines Public Schools are currently experiencing an influx of Asian refugee students from Southeast Asia and other regions of the world, where many were born in refugee camps and had no formal schooling before to coming to the United States. The needs of these students are vastly different from those of other Asians immigrating to the United States through the 1965 Family Unification Act, or those who came before the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 (see Takaki, 1998). These issues are also complicated by the receiving context and the social infrastructures that exist to serve the needs of these communities. This article does not expand empirically on these important issues, but we urge district and school leaders to pay close attention to a variety of political and economic forces that shape different groups institutional experiences and the degree to which they may vary by the variables not discussed in this article, such as ethnicity, refugee status, language, sexuality, and settlement patterns.

It is not our intention to make examples of the Wallaces who exist among us for the racial attitudes that people harbor toward Asian Americans. Instead, we argue that Wallaces video is an example of the daily realities that many Asian Americans experience, and a sign of the presumed tolerance for anti-Asian hate speech. The only difference is that Wallace went on record to publicly state her opinions. In 2007, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights reported a slight decrease in hate crimes committed against Asian Americans when compared with other racial groups (Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, 2009). Relating this back to the bullying and assaults in Philadelphia, a disturbing pattern has emerged in which most hate crimes against Asian Americans seem to be committed by children against children (Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, 2009). Wallaces video reflects the two prevailing stereotypes of Asian Americans that are still deeply embedded in the minds of many Americans: the perpetual foreigner and model minority.


The perpetual foreigner and the model minority are two stereotypes that have become important points of reference for the racial hostilities faced by Asian Americans (Ng, Lee, & Pak, 2007; Tuan, 1998). The perpetual foreigner stereotype suggests that a person is either perceived as a foreign person or guilty of being foreign by her or his association with non-English-speaking relatives and friends. For example, many Asian Americans face questions such as, Where are you from? or Where are you originally from? or Where are you really from? These are questions that Asian Americans have to deal with more frequently than most other racial groups to prove their country of origin and acumen about the American way of life. When the inquisitive person does not get a satisfactory answer to fulfill her or his assumptions, there is the follow-up question, Were you born here? or Where is your family from? In certain social contexts, such probing may continue until a response about being foreign is given. In Wallaces case, she believes that her values and behaviors are what defines the norm, and anything that deviates from that would be considered un-American and foreign. It was with this notion of being un-American that she critiqued various forms of behaviors, such as students talking on the cell phone in the library or having parents come visit their children on campus during the weekend.

The model minority stereotype is another powerful and persistent social condition that consistently puts Asian Americans in the frustrating position of needing to prove and disprove their membership within the racial hegemony. When coauthor Daniel Liou was going through his masters program on the East Coast, he came across an example that speaks to the ways in which these two stereotypes interrelate. During that time, he was enrolled in a sociology of education class, and in the discussion section was a small group activity in which all students were asked about their high school experiences. Daniel was the last person to speak, and just as he was about to start, one of his classmates jumped in and said, We should be aware that not everyone here has gone to a high school in the United States, so we should be sensitive to that. Once the students learned that Daniel had attended a high school in California, another person in the group asked, So how many AP (Advanced Placement) courses did you take? without understanding that Daniel was the first in his family to attend college and had spent most of his high school career on the vocational track. He was startled at the assumptions made about him and decided to approach his teaching assistant about the problem.

The following week, the teaching assistant facilitated an exercise called the privilege walk, during which she read from a list of privileges that give individuals advantages that in turn increase their potential social mobility. The activity requires students to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a straight line to depict the idea that everyone starts life on equal footing. The facilitator of the activity then read from a list of life experiences that are closely associated with students material realities and asked those to whom this applied to step forward. The intended purpose was to demonstrate the ways in which differential access to institutional privileges create remarkable differences in life circumstances and realities. The final staggered placement of students resulting from this activity represents a visual scatter plot of those who have experienced fewer or more privileges in life, but it also demonstrates the depth of social inequities that some people take for granted, whereas others experience them on a daily basis. It was only then that Daniels classmates realized the distinct privileges they had experienced in their lifetime, but also the erroneous assumptions they had made about other people. As it turns out, the result of the exercise showed that Daniel, an Asian American, had spent more time in the United States than most of his high-resourced and well-traveled classmates. The activity also showed that most of Daniels classmates had far more educational advantages, with access to private schools, at-home tutors and material wealth. Daniels classmates did not learn about his background as a first-generation college student until this activity. His classmates assumed, like Wallace, that because of his physical appearance, which they associated with the Asian model minority construction, he obviously would have had greater privileges and educational opportunities. He was de-classed, stripped of a citizenship status, and, for the most part, hastily assigned to the mainstream conceptualization of the successful, homogenous Asian student. As important as this exercise was to the class, Daniel also had to take on the responsibility to prove himself, whereas others did not have the same pressure to initiate dialogues about their backgrounds and countries of origin. Both the perpetual foreigner and model minority stereotypes cause tremendous stress for someone like Daniel, who has to constantly prove and disprove who he is.  

All things considered, our country seems to be in a permanent state of confusion about Asian Americans. We believe that the existing gaps in the literature have to do with the following factors: (1) topics concerning Asian Americans are the most underpublished and underresearched in the United States; (2) there is a need for research that uses the most recent census data to look at Asian Americans in the educational pipeline; (3) there exists a lack of tenure-track faculty positions across academic disciplines to promote a sustainable research agenda on Asian Americans; and (4) there is a lack of allies to call attention to the needs of Asian Americans in academia and broader communities. The postracial model minority thesis prevails in ways that continue to cause paralysis about this groups history and lived experiences in the United States. Part of the problem is the lack of research and foundational frameworks to understand the experiences of Asian Americans. Between 1996 and 2006, Poon (2006) discovered only 13 academic articles on Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders were published in higher education research journals. Similarly, Teranishi (2010) discovered that the number of academic articles on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders accounts for fewer than 250 articles combined, or 0.5% of articles in the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) database. Consequently, Asian Americans and their educational experiences are severely undertheorized to disrupt the basis for the model minority argument within and across subpopulations along the educational pipeline. The lack of information available to the public often makes the model minority thesis the default explanatory framework without a deeper analysis on this groups lived experiences. At the same time, the lack of opportunities to publish in this particular area may also be a symptom of the paralysis that has since desensitized the public from the need to get to know this fast-growing population.

Asians have lived in the United States from as early as the 1750s, punctuated by several waves of immigration shaped by both domestic and international policies (Baldoz, 2011; Ngai, 2004; Takaki, 1998). In the past decade, moreover, there has been an increase in Asian international students attending American colleges and universities (Altbach & Knight, 2007). To a large extent, decreases in federal and state funding for higher education have necessitated the rapid increase in enrollment of international students and their accompanying tuition. In turn, many international students eventually settle in the United States and become important contributors to the economy. Although this subject merits further research and long-term analysis, it appears to us that the process of bringing the most educated Asians to the United States has continued to this day. In effect, the range of diversity for Asian Americans has actually widened throughout U.S. history, and yet the ways in which this population is being perceived in the public continue to pin them to long-held stereotypes.

Given the wide range of internal diversity, Lee and Kumashiro (2005) illuminated that educational attainment for Asian Americans is influenced by ethnicity, social class, immigrant versus refugee status, generation, language, gender, and sexuality. Through their examination of these factors, they shed light on the vastly different realities in the educational experiences for Asian Americans between and within subgroup populations. Their report shows a close relationship between the educational attainment and family income of Asian American subgroups as one example of the diverse needs of students. For example, although Asian Indians and Korean Americans are more likely to experience a high level of educational success in this country, members of these groups from low-income and immigrant backgrounds face particular barriers and challenges similar to other Asian American subgroups. To further complicate the aggregated outlook of Asian Americans educational attainment, Lee and Kumashiro also identified Pacific Islanders, Hmong Americans, Cambodian Americans, and other subgroups that are disproportionately underserved by the school system. To simply compare achievement levels among Asian Americans and other racial groups is tantamount to dismissing the needs of those who still face enormous structural challenges in the educational system (Wing, 2007).


To better understand the complexity of Asian Americans as a population, we posit three theoretical frameworks to effectively examine their experiences in the KPh.D. pipeline. These frameworks were chosen from two vantage points. First, we situate critical race theory within the field of education to examine this populations educational attainment as an aggregated group and seek to understand the status of their social and economic mobility in the United States. We then use Lowes (1996) conceptual frameworks of heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity to look within this population for dissimilarities in educational attainment by social class, gender, and citizenship. Finally, Bonilla-Silvas (2006) concept of abstract liberalism helps to bring these concepts together to understand how the larger narratives of race and colorblindness coexist to politically position Asian Americans in wedge issues such as affirmative action. Looking from these lenses allows us to capture a more complex understanding of the coherence of race and colorblindness, and how they work simultaneously to put Asian Americans in a politically vulnerable place to be neglected in policy discussions about race, opportunity gaps, and affirmative action.

Critical race theory in education provides an analysis of race through the following principles: (1) the centrality of race and racism and their relationships with other forms of subordination in education, (2) the challenge to dominant ideology that renders stereotypes and deficit thinking about low-income people of color obsolete, (3) the commitment to social justice in education and beyond, (4) the centrality of experiential knowledge, and (5) a transdisciplinary perspective (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Solorzano, 1997, 1998; Solorzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001; Solorzano & Ornelas, 2002, 2004; Solorzano & Yosso, 2001). This framework allows us to begin with a set of questions concerning the model minority and perpetual foreigner stereotypes and their connections with postracial discourse. We then focus on Asian Americans as the point of the analysis and critically examine the ways dominant racial ideologies are operative within education for this population.

The framework of critical race theory provides us with the analytic lens to recognize the permanence of the model minority thesis as central to the problems associated with interpretations about the academic achievements of Asian Americans. With this framework as the foundation for our research, we look to extend our theoretical understanding of the ways in which race is not only salient in the educational pipeline for Asian Americans, but also a reality even for those who may have obtained a high level of success. Critical race theory gives us the interpretive lens through which we understand how race has meanings for Asian Americans. It also helps us to best understand race in relation to other institutional experiences across gender, citizenship, and class, which have an intersectional influence on the educational attainment and earning power of Asian Americans (McCall, 2005).

To help us understand the depth and complexity of Asian Americans as a population, our analysis of their internal diversity is anchored in the theoretical frameworks of heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity (Lowe, 1996). In her illuminations about the ways in which a particular identity is evoked in given social and historical situations, Lowe (1996) outlined her conceptual frameworks of heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity as a way to identify and describe the existence of internal diversity within particular groups in a setting. Lowe defined heterogeneity as a way to indicate the existence of differences and differential relationships within a bounded category. In other words, the concept of heterogeneity points to the proximity of ones social location, self-identification, and behaviors in relation to the rest of the larger population, as well as the institutional factors that shape relationships between preconstructed groups (McCall, 2005).

Moreover, Lowe (1996) defined hybridity as an identity constructed without having to assimilate to dominant norms, instead highlighting the historical relationships of domination and resistance. As such, dual identities, such as being an American of African descent, bring about a particular cultural sensibility about the history and current conditions with racism, and a hybrid identity that is created to distinguish a particular experience as different from members outside the African American identity. Last, Lowe defined multiplicity as the internal diversity due to individualized relationships with capitalism, patriarchy, and race relations. Lowe indicated that the utilization of these concepts to determine ones relationship with his or her race and material conditions will foster a better understanding about the social location a person is situated in, within a continuum of power, social hierarchy, stratification, and marginalization.

Connecting these concepts of identity to ones association with culture and race as a broad category, Lowes (1996) theory is extremely important for social scientists to avoid essentializing individuals lived experiences as they relate to multiple forms of social dominations, personal transformations, and civic participations within the norms of the society. She argued that ones culture is not closed and static, and it does not suggest a definitive boundary for an individual to associate with other group norms from one context to another. Conversely, the cultural systems that exist outside of ones group norms also do not have a strict definitive boundary when it needs to associate with ones normative context. This point repudiates the fixed notion of the Asian culture that is often used to homogenize the experiences of Asian Americans into a singular racialized construct. Masemann (1999) wrote, Considerable criticism has been leveled at earlier definitions of culture in their unquestioning assumption of homogeneity and that seeming denial of plural perspectives in any one social group (in Arnove & Torres, 1999, p. 116). Applying this concept to the definitions of ones cultural identity, how ones identity is negotiated through history and institutional experiences cannot be reduced to a singular set of social norms and behaviors. Lowes concepts of heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity are useful in our approach to a more complex understanding of race and how other identities are evoked simultaneously in various social contexts and institutional relationships.

To help us understand how race operates within the era of postracial politics, we must discuss the ideology of colorblindness (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). Postrace advocates often use the presumed declining significance of race as the primary reason to promote a colorblind agenda (Wilson, 1978), which argues that any references to the idea of raceor, for that matter, social inequalityis discriminatory toward Whites (McIntosh, 1988). The argument makes the presumption that we live in a powerblind society in which everyone should be treated the same across the board without regard to systemic barriers and structural mechanisms that are still in place and continue to promote social stratification that reinforces the ideology of racial superiority and inferiority (Wise, 2010).

Additionally, Bonilla-Silvas (2006) framework of abstract liberalism helps to serve as an explanatory lens to examine the ways in which Asian Americans educational attainment serves to contradict the ideology of White meritocracy. Bonilla-Silva defined abstract liberalism as political liberalism based on the principles of individualism, liberty, and prosperity underlying the framework of equal opportunity that is ostensibly perceived as democratically progressive. Bonilla-Silva described the ways in which abstract liberalism works as a double-edged sword, giving those with institutional power the privilege to determine the extent that equal opportunities can be an operative principle in a meritocratic society, so long as their individual pursuits to maintain that power are not impeded. This is one way to apply Bells (1980) theory of interest convergence to understand how Asian Americans are situated as a wedge in the discourse of race relations; their presumed success is used to pit them against other populations and to buttress the values of individual pursuits and meritocracy. Bonilla-Silva (2006) observed, By framing race-related issues in the language of liberalism, whites can appear reasonable and even moral, while opposing almost all practical approaches to deal with de facto racial inequality (p. 28). From this perspective, Asian Americans are often used as the racialized moral imperative for the arguments against affirmative action policies.


This article aims to contribute to discourse about Asian American educational experiences by challenging homogenizing and essentialist constructions of race and social status. As such, we offer the latest Asian American educational pipeline, examine it through an intersectional analysis that captures some of the immense diversity within this racialized group, and investigate the impact of intersecting social relationships. To do this we do the following:

1. Offer a generic Asian American educational pipeline that captures anyone who self-identified as Asian in the March Supplement of the 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS)

2. Illuminate the intersections between race and other social categories by disaggregating this data using family income levels (used as a proxy for class), gender (by separating men and women), and citizenship (capturing the unique influence of undocumented status for foreign-born migrants educated in the United States from 1986 to 2001)

3. Examine the earning power for Asian Americans at different levels of educational attainment in comparison with White Americans

These different processes allowed us to cross-tabulate specific categories of social identity (race, class, gender, and citizenship) for educational attainment of adults over the age of 25the standard typically used to capture educational outcomes (Crissey, 2009)in order to consider their intersectional impact.

Critical race and Black feminist scholars introduced the theoretical concept of intersectionality within American jurisprudence and womens studies (Carbado & Gulati, 2001; Crenshaw, 1989, 1991; Hill Collins, 1998a, 1998b; Valdes, 1995), but its utility and challenge to other fields, even outside the country, have gained quick recognition and traction (Bowleg, 2008; Covarrubias, 2011; Covarrubias & Lara, 2013; Covarrubias & Velez, 2013; Hankivsky & Cormier, 2009; Knudsen, 2006). An intersectional analysis serves to reveal and grapple with the multiple identities, structures, and relationships we encounter (McCall, 2005), including at various levels of the educational pipeline (Covarrubias, 2011). Intersectionality is a new paradigm which seeks to counteract one-dimensional approaches by bringing to the forefront the complexity of social locations and experiences for understanding difference (Hankivsky & Cormier, 2009, p. 1). Central to an intersectional analysis is the assumption that among variously constructed social, economic, and political groups, we encounter a multiplicity of simultaneously interacting relations of power that almost make these categories of difference elusive, yet necessary to examine historic structures of privilege and domination (McCall, 2005). Indeed, because social positions are relational, attention to social power is essential (Yuval-Davis, 2006). From these intersectional identities, experiences, and spaces, we can produce experience-based knowledge that allows us to form new questions and perspectives that can help us strive for educational equity (Delgado Bernal, 2002). Elsewhere, Covarrubias and Velez (2013) contended that a critical race quantitative intersectional analysis not only is valid and possible but also should be used in pursuit of the central critical race tenet and guiding principle of the theory of intersectionality: social justice. Counter to singular-lens analyses of raced, sexualized, or gendered groups, intersectionality maintains that different dimensions of social life cannot be separated into discrete or pure strands (Brah & Phoenix, 2004, p. 76). Accordingly, here we use the principles of intersectionality to explore intersecting social categories within the Asian diaspora in America, which can tell us more about the multiplicity of their educational experiences and help us develop more specific and historically informed educational policies.

The Current Population Survey provides the latest educational attainment data for the U.S. population, collected monthly from a rotating representative sample of over 57,000 households (Bureau of the Census, 2010; Covarrubias & Lara, 2013). The CPS goes through a complicated multistep two-stage ratio adjustment process intended to capture the most accurate sampling of demographically diverse (i.e., race, class, age, gender) populations: The projections are derived by updating demographic census data with information from a variety of other data sources that account for births, deaths, and net migration (Bureau of the Census, 2006, p. 193). These ensure that close approximations of the true estimates for the population are provided and are reflective of the population they intend to describe (Covarrubias & Lara, 2013). The March Supplement of the CPS, also referred to as the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), is more extensive than the decennial census and provides greater analytical power because of its additional variables. The ASEC is given once a year over a 3-month period; the 2010 ASEC was given to 77,000 household and had a response rate of over 91.5%. These data have been effectively used by researchers to capture and report educational attainment, labor market statistics, housing conditions, health indicators, and other descriptive data used to capture trends, predict patterns, and shape policy. For our purposes, the CPS provides educational attainment data for all the major racialized groups in America. Although a powerful comparative tool, the CPS is limited in that it does not disaggregate Asians into their unique ethnic groups or by refugee status, or indicate language barriers. These limitations forbid the examination of these characteristics in this study. Nonetheless, the CPS can still serve our purpose of describing some of the diversity within this group through other indicators.1

Though the CPS does not offer a class marker, income has been used in this and other studies to serve as a proxy for class (Covarrubias, 2011). In this case, we have used family income as a consistent approximation for the impact of class. Although this is limited, in that it does not capture or describe the unique power of accumulated wealth (which is much more stable and easier to transfer), it does provide us with a consistent measure to capture impact over time because it is collected regularly.2 Given that traditional classifications of classlike working class, middle class, and upper classare neither consistently agreed on nor reported in the CPS, for this study, our class proxy divided Asian American families into four relatable groupings: (1) $0$49,999, (2) $50,000$99,999, (3) $100,000$149,999, and (4) $150,000 and over. These were used to create four simultaneous pipelines that could demonstrate the influence of class on educational attainment for Asians of different income levels.


To disaggregate American Asians by citizenship status, we used three of the citizenship categories used by the CPS. Although the CPS does not ask for citizenship status from all respondents, place of birth for every household member and his or her parents is asked in the CPS sample (Bureau of the Census; 2010; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). This, in turn, is used by census coders to assign citizenship status. For this study, we only used native-born (in the United States) citizens, foreign-born naturalized citizens, and noncitizens (excluded were those born in Puerto Rico or other outlying area of the U.S. and those born abroad of U.S. citizen parents, both of which accounted for insignificant numbers of Asian Americans).

The noncitizen category captures those who are undocumented3 and those who have temporary or permanent legal residency but are not actual citizens. To account for only undocumented residents who were educated in the United States, we sampled people who entered the country after 1986 and were between the ages of 1 and 16 at the time of entry.4 With this, we could closely analyze the potential influence of citizenship at three points along the citizenship continuum: undocumented residents (n = 89,899), foreign-born Asians who eventually naturalized (n = 321,399), and those granted citizenship by birthright (n = 904,776). Selecting foreign-born residents entering between the ages of 1 and 16 ensured that our sample was most likely to have been educated in American schools rather than in their country of origin, allowing us to capture their educational outcomes in the United States. Also, selecting a sample entering after 1986 and under the age of 16 limits our samples to those ineligible for amnesty through the last major American immigration legislation; the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act granted undocumented workers in certain fields to apply for and attain legal status (Donato, Durand, & Massey, 1992). This method permits us to most closely select for those of undocumented legal status in the United States. Appendixes A and B report standard errors and confidence intervals for Asian Americans by citizenship status.


For all disaggregated citizenship and class groups described earlier, we further separated people by sex to capture the impact of gender. Although gender can encompass more than the traditional sex binary of male and female, the U.S. census uses these two categories to report on men and women, regardless of their gender identity and performance. Although limited, it allows us to make the closest approximation (using these data) of the bearing of gender on educational attainment. Appendixes C and D highlight the standard error and confidence intervals for Asian Americans by gender.


Having mined the data for an intersectional analysis of educational attainment along the dimensions of race, class, gender, and citizenship, we shift our analysis to an examination of the earning power5 that specific educational outcomes yield for Asian Americans in comparison with White Americans. Although an examination of the earning power of other racialized groups (i.e., African Americans, American Indians, and Latinas/os) could offer a broader contextualization of Asian American earning power, it is beyond the scope of this study. Our analysis used two different measures. First, we used average individual income to capture earning power. Average individual income was calculated for Asians and Non-Hispanic Whites and compared by educational attainment. These findings allowed us to make initial comparisons of earning power for each educational outcome along the dimensions of race. Second, we sought a deeper comparison that allowed us to capture the earning power for members of different racialized groups along the intersection of race and gender for people with the same educational credentials. These findings reveal that a singular race-centered analysis of educational outcomes conceals the intersectional influence of racism and sexism on Americans educational earning power.


The Pew Research Center reported that 94% of a nationally representative sample of parents expect their child to obtain a college education regardless of their racial, educational, and economic backgrounds (Taylor et al., 2011). As we begin to think about meritocracy as an institutional mechanism to arrange social norms, it is easy to assume a strong association between ones education and earning power as tangible rewards in a capitalistic society. On the contrary, our data revealed that educational attainment is not a straightforward and equitable determinant for an increase in earning power for Asian Americans, especially when compared with Whites. There is another factor in the works for Asian Americans that defies our understanding of meritocracy. Our data suggest that race, especially at its intersection with gender, is an important factor in the income gap between Asian Americans and White Americans. Furthermore, our findings point to the internal differences within Asian American communities when we examine the intersections between educational attainment, race, class, gender, and immigration status; the heterogeneity of this group allows for a multiplicity of experiences that are manifested in both educational outcomes and earning power. To best situate the educational outcomes posted by Asian Americans, see Figure 1, which provides overall educational outcomes for all the major racialized groups in the United States, with educational outcomes for women presented first and those for men presented second. Viewed uncritically, evidence from this data supports the dominant narrative that Asian Americans have consistently uniform high educational outcomes among these groups at all levels of the pipeline.

Figure 1. 2010 U.S. educational pipeline by race/ethnicity and gender


Notes. Source: Census CPS March 2010 Supplement. Attainment rates are presented in the format females/males.

The disparities in these outcomes are most dramatic within higher education, but especially at the graduate school level, where Asian Americans outperform all other groups by the highest factor. Also evident from these data is the fact that for all people of color except Asian Americans, women have greater educational achievement rates than men (from the original 100 elementary school enrollees) at all levels of education, excluding doctoral degree attainment. Asian American men, attaining higher numbers of degrees at all levels, far outperform all groups (including their female counterparts) at all points in the pipeline. It is these most talked about trends that often lend themselves to sustaining the model minority myth (see Pew, 2012), in that it depicts a portrait of consistent and universally high achievement among all Asian Americans. We were not able to disaggregate the distribution of doctorates by academic discipline with our data, but we suspect that this distribution is uneven for Asian Americans: higher representation in certain areas and STEM disciplines, and lower representation in the social sciences and humanities, due to institutional barriers, language discrimination, and underrepresentation in specific fields where they may not be considered for scholarship or affirmative action because of a presumed broader racial advantage. More research is needed to substantiate this claim, but these numbers render the heterogeneity that exists within this group invisible, often leading to false assumptions about a postracial Asian American experience.


On disaggregating the Asian American educational pipeline by class, we find a clear and consistent difference in educational attainment for the distinct class groupings (see Figure 2). First, most Asian Americans are concentrated within the two lowest income ranges, $0$49,999 (39% of Asian Americans) and $50,000$99,999 (32% of Asian Americans). A recent report perpetuates the notion that all Asian Americans are economically advantaged, asserting, Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated  . . . racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, [and] finances (Pew, 2012, p. 11). However, our intersectional analysis of this population repudiates this type of essentializing assertion. In fact, this disaggregation by class demonstrates that although the group may be generally more economically stable than other communities of color on average, Asian Americans living within lower economic conditions have lower educational outcomes when compared with those of higher means within their racialized group. As might be expected, those with the lowest income are least likely to earn a degree compared with those of the highest income at all levels of the educational pipeline. Nevertheless, there is still a higher level of achievement for all Asian Americans, regardless of their class membership, relative to other groups.

Figure 2. 2010 Asian American education pipeline disaggregated by class


Notes. Source: Census CPS March 2010 Supplement. Data are for those who identify as Asian only. Family income is used as a proxy for class. Attainment rates are presented in the format females/males, for those self-identifying as Asian only, ages 2540.

Still, this does not entirely capture the diversity that exists within this population, nor the multiplicity of relationships with educational institutions. Whats more, these data alone cannot confirm the postracial status of Asian Americans because they do not fully capture the distinct ways that the various ethnic groups within the Asian diaspora have been uniquely racialized by geography, context, and political economy (see Lee, 2005). We do, however, reveal some differences for men and women: For both high school completion and college enrollment, we see lower outcomes for women in all income groups; on the other hand, the men of each income group earn fewer baccalaureates than women, but more graduate or professional degrees and doctorates. The associates degree attainment rates are much less predictable; both groups earn the same number of degrees in two of the income groups, and women earn slightly more degrees in the other two. Overall, men are more likely than women to earn some type of degree in all income groups, but they are also more likely to leave college without any degree (except in highest income group), which may be a function of their larger college enrollment numbers. These outcomes suggest an interactional effect of gender, class, and race on educational attainment patterns for Asian Americans.


Our efforts to understand the unique pressures exerted on Asian Americans based on citizenship status led us to create three distinct educational pipelines: one for U.S.-born citizens, one for foreign-born naturalized citizens, and one for undocumented non-citizen Asian Americans (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. 2010 Asian American education pipeline by citizenship status


Notes. Source: Census CPS March 2010 Supplement. Attainment rates are presented as females/males, for those self-identifying as Asian only, ages 2540.

U.S.-born Asian Americans between the ages of 25 and 40 have incredibly high levels of educational attainment. Among this group, which is 45% male and 55% female, women surprisingly outperform men at most levels of the educational pipeline (except at the community college level), earning more high school diplomas and postsecondary and graduate degrees, and getting pushed out of both high school and college at lower rates. These findings run counter to our initial racegender analysis in Figure 1, which depicts Asian American males as achieving at higher rates than any group, including Asian American females. Although the attainment rates of American-born Asians continue to portray a high-achieving model minority, they begin to show the fault in this mythic construction when we introduce citizenship into our analysis, and the group begins to become more disaggregated. Although the high school and bachelors degree attainment rates of U.S.-born Asian American citizens in Figure 3 are much higher than for Asian American men and women in Figure 1, we find the graduate/professional degree and doctorate degree attainment rates are almost twice as high for the overall Asian American male population (Figure 1) compared with U.S.-born Asian American men; for women, those who are U.S. born actually attain higher rates of graduate degrees than the general Asian American female population. The homogenization of Asian Americans has the effect of concealing important and significant within-group differences that the model minority myth makes easy, and necessary, to ignore.

Among foreign-born naturalized U.S. citizen Asian Americans, we begin to see other nuances of attainment (see Figure 3). For example, high school attainment rates drop for women and rise for men, compared with U.S.-born Asian Americans. Among women, foreign-born naturalized citizens enrolled in college earn baccalaureate, masters/professional and doctorate degrees at much lower rates and earn nearly twice the rate of associates degrees than those who are American born. For foreign-born naturalized men, who enroll in college at the same rate as their U.S.-born counterparts, baccalaureate degree attainment is markedly lower, graduate/professional degree attainment is notably higher, and doctorate degree attainment is only slightly higher than for those who are U.S. born. Among these men, associates degree attainment is narrowly lower than it is for U.S.-born Asian American men. The most noteworthy difference is the 50% higher rate of college push-outs among foreign-born naturalized Asian American men compared with those who are U.S. born. These findings again point to the stark within-group differences that exist among Asian Americans but are lost in essentializing depictions of this widely diverse population.

Our final pipeline focuses on a rarely examined population: undocumented Asian American residents educated in the United States. This population, which is mostly female (56%), represents 20% of our foreign-born Asian sample. Among this population, we see remarkably high levels of high school graduation: nearly 94% for women and slightly over 86% for men, by far the lowest high school attainment rate among our three Asian American male populations. We then see a marked decrease in college enrollment rates as compared with our first two groups; this decrease is most pronounced among undocumented men, who are more than 10% less likely than the other two groups of men to enroll in college, and have a 20% push-out rate from higher education. Whereas the associates degree attainment rate for Asian American women is highest among the undocumented segment of the population (26%), the baccalaureate degree attainment rate for this group is the lowest (21%), and their graduate/professional degree attainment is highest (19.3%) among the three groups examined; however, both men and women who are undocumented earn no reportable doctorate degrees.6 Conversely, for undocumented male Asian Americans, the 4.4% associates degree and 28.9% baccalaureate degree attainment rates are the lowest among the three groups, but the graduate/professional degree attainment rate of 16% is the highest.

Analyzing the data from another perspective, these trends, demonstrated more readily in Figure 4, once again point to the need to investigate the multiplicity of Asian American educational experiences and outcomes using a critical race intersectional analysis that disrupts long-standing essentializing myths of perpetual foreignness and model minority. As opposed to earlier figures, in which we analyzed outcome data as a function of elementary enrollment numbers, in Figure 4, we take the attainment rates as a function of student enrollment in higher education. This higher education focus demonstrates that an intersectional analysis captures the interactional influence of citizenship and gender among Asian Americans that is not always predictable using traditional constructions of this group. In some cases, women perform better than men, and in other cases, men perform better; in some instances, being a citizen is associated with higher attainment rates, whereas in others, undocumented residents have higher outcome rates. For example, undocumented Asian women who attain a bachelors degree in slightly over a quarter of the cases after having enrolled in higher education (27.5%)significantly lower than all other groups examined hereare still much more likely to earn masters degrees at higher rates than any of the groups of men or citizens.

Figure 4. Higher educational attainment of Asian Americans by gender and citizenship status, 2010


Notes. Source: Census CPS March 2010 Supplement. Attainment rates for postbaccalaureate degrees are presented as a function of college enrollment numbers (not elementary enrollment, as presented in previous figures).

This more nuanced examination allows us to challenge homogenizing representations of Asian Americans as uniformly high achievers whose within-group needs are largely neglected because of such expected high outcomes for all. In the following section, we explore how the mainstream colorblind analysis of Asian educational attainment conceals the very real color-conscious experiences of, and bearing of race on, Asian Americans.


We now turn our attention to individual earning power as a function of educational attainment. We have found that Asian Americans collectively outperform all other major racialized groups and that there are distinct differences shaped by class, gender, and citizenship within this group. We now examine whether this educational prowess transforms seamlessly to greater earning power in a supposedly postracial environment. We find that in fact, race continues to leave a detrimental impression on the earning power of Asian Americans despite their generally superb educational outcomes (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Earning power for White and Asian Americans by educational attainment, 2010


Notes. Source: Census CPS March 2010 Supplement.

Indeed, at all levels of the pipeline, Asian Americans post lower individual average earnings than their White counterparts, except for those who earn a graduate or professional degree. Asian Americans make less than $1,900 annually, on average, more than Whites, a difference of about 2%; this difference is specifically among the women: Asian American women earn slightly more than White women.

By far the greatest difference is found among those with no high school diploma; Whites earn $5,024 more on average, or 37% more, than Asian Americans with no diploma. The range of earning power privilege for similar educational attainment that Whites benefit from is between 9% ($8,561/year) for a doctorate degree and 33% ($8,914) for those with some college but no degree, or those who are pushed out of college (not shown on this graph but found in our data analysis)which, we found out earlier, is highest among Asians who are undocumented and foreign-born naturalized citizens, both of whom were educated in the United States. When we introduce gender into the analysis, the largest discrepancy can be found between Asian and White American men with a baccalaureate degree: White men earn a whopping $15,678 more than Asian American men (see Figure 6). These numbers are especially concerning because they also have a geographic dimension not captured here: Asian Americans are most concentrated in major cities on the West Coast and in the Northeast (Pew, 2012), where the cost of living is higher than in smaller, more nationally central locations; thus making their earning power less equitable since their buying power is less than if they were concentrated in other locations with cheaper costs of living. This is to say nothing about the wealth disparities that racial divisions have created and sustained over time, especially after our most recent economic recession (Luhby, 2012).

Figure 6. Earning power for White and Asian Americans by gender and educational attainment, 2010


Notes. Source: Census CPS March 2010 Supplement.

There is a clear gender difference that jumps out from this data. Clearly, Asian American males make much more than their female counterparts for the same and even lesser educational attainment levels. For example, a female Asian American with a doctorate degree earns $77,767 on average, compared with an Asian American male with a masters or professional degree, who earns $100,334 on average. Similarly, an Asian American woman with a baccalaureate earns $38,090 on average, compared with an Asian American man with an associates degree, who will earn, on average, $44,165. This, however, does not paint the complete gender story; the gender differences are much more dramatic between White American men and White American women.

Undoubtedly, the racial differences that the data illuminate make clear that we are not past our racially restrictive pasts. To be sure, the high educational attainment among Asian Americans does not negate the fact that in spite of these educational outcomes, earning power has yet to be equalized. Obviously, there remains a racial restriction to Asian earning power. Moreover, it is equally important to address the continued earning disparities that gender makes almost inevitable, where Asian and White American women are earning much less than their male compatriots, regardless of educational attainment. The multiplicity of experiences that arise within such a heterogeneous group from various ethnic backgrounds, range of economic resources, diverse levels of citizenship status, and hybridization of cultural practices necessitates that we use an intersectional analysis that can help develop specifically responsive policy and institutional practices. Indeed, Zeng and Xie (2004) found that place of education plays an important role in determining earnings of Asian-Americans (p. 1077). Thus, we should consider that there may be a substantive intersectional effect that impacts immigrant womens earning power, especially given that highly educated women get the lowest returns on education, and undocumented immigrants most often have lower levels of educational attainment that are shaped by their lower economic resources, multiple structural language barriers, and race-specific discrimination. This hypothesis requires more investigation of the impact of foreign educational degrees for undocumented immigrant women compared with the much better resourced groups of male citizens and the lesser status undocumented poor men they compete with.


Our findings raise concerns about how Asian Americans continue to be perceived, represented, and neglected within the educational system, in public discourse, and in policy areas such as labor rights, equal pay, affirmative action, and civil rights. In this article, we set out to closely examine the diversity within the Asian American population and how this diversity is reflected in educational attainment. We were specifically interested in the impact of race, class, gender, and citizenship in shaping educational outcomes for this population. Our findings reveal that despite the persistence of the model minority framework in the supposed postracial era, Asian American heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity of experiences call for a more nuanced intersectional analysis. The findings show that despite the ways in which this stereotype continues to embed assumptions about this population in the popular discourse, Asian American educational experiences are not uniform. The generalization that all Asian Americans will perform at the highest levels leaves those who do not meet this expectationa significant segment of the populationvulnerable to academic underperformance and limited support services. Furthermore, accounts of a postracial experience among Asian Americans are not supported by our data on earning power; they illustrate that race is a significant liability for this populationsimilar to that of other people of colorand that gender plays an equally important role in depressing the wages of Asian American women.

Our research suggests that race continues to play a significant role in how educational attainment has translated into earning power differently for White and Asian Americans. This particular finding requires policy makers and educators to be more deliberate in creating civil rights laws and educational opportunities that aim to ameliorate racism against Asian Americans in schools and the workplace. Similarly, our findings make clear that a race-only analysis and policy agenda cannot fully address the variety of inequities that impact this group; undeniably, Asian American women with high levels of education are the most undercompensated in relation to White men and women, and Asian American men.

The representation of Asian Americans as a homogenously successful group lacks a rigorous intersectional analysis of its various subpopulations. Monolithic depictions of this population have fed the dominant meritocracy narrative that exalts the model minority myth and its subjects. By presenting Asian Americans as an invulnerable ethnic group with the ability to overcome modern-day racism through hard work, this construct creates the conditions for district and school leaders to overlook ways to identify and address the needs of these populations. These essentializing narratives also create the conditions for non-Asians to spew the pejorative assertions (grounded in the long-standing perpetual foreigner theme) made at diverse prestigious universities throughout the country with little institutional response (Sethi, 1994). Consistent with the literature, our research reveals vast within-group differences shaped by class, race, gender, and citizenship that in turn shape educational outcomes, in addition to other differences not covered in this study: ethnicity, immigrant versus refugee status, generation, language, and sexuality. This study reveals, through its findings and limitations, that scholars and policy makers need to study and consider the intersectional effects that these other constructions have on educational attainment, earning power, and resource allocation for a diverse, fast-growing Asian American population.

These differences can only be exposed through an intersectional analysis guided by a critical race critique of the meritocracy narrative and the model minority myth. The constructions of race, class, gender, and citizenship have long served the interests of those in power. They have been effectively used to create and sustain efficient systems of privilege and oppression that simultaneously justify advantages for those closest to apex of each continuum, and the neglect of and assaults against those at the bottom of these hierarchies. Looking beneath the essentializing portrayal of Asian Americans, it is evident that wide differences exist within this population. When the myth of this meritorious, homogenous minority group is closely examined and deconstructed, we find that it cannot support meritocracy as a valid reward system based on effort. The diversity that exists within this group points to clear distinctions in achievement based on the social constructions established to mark differences. In the same vein, once examined with an intersectional approach, the fractured model minority myth begins to collapse as a bar that other people of color can be measured against. By examining how these constructions specifically impact Asian Americans individually and at their intersections, we can begin to make better, more intentional efforts at intergroup alliances to dismantle inequity through intentional policy.

Although Wallaces comments did not create these social constructions and their effectively divisive systems of privilege and oppression, it is comments like this that sustain inequity and recreate constructions like the model minority myth and the perpetual foreigner. These constructions, although not directly aimed at other communities of color, must be dealt with by all, lest they continue to reinforce a system that uses them to subordinate all people of color. Indeed, there are many points of convergence where other communities of color can and should come together with Asian Americans to form policy recommendation that cut across groups, like immigration, gender, and class inequality.

In a recent critique of the American colorblind narrative, Tim Wise (2010) proposed an illuminated individualism that our data would certainly support. Wise highlighted historic policies that have created and sustained racial difference in access and quality of housing, education, employment, and health. He argued that a colorblind framework negates these realities and does not even fulfill its intended goal of making Whites more agreeable to transformative change. In fact, he held that such policies allow for us to ignore efforts that truly can bring change because these policies do not have us address the true root of the issue; this allows many people to interpret lack of success as being rooted in lack of capacity and effort. Thus, Wise argued for an illuminated individualism that recognizes

that we are made up of many identities, and that these matter . . . it also rests on a recognition that a persons position in various groups will have affected their experiences, and thus their perceptions of life. In order to treat them as the unique persons they truly are [sic], as opposed to an abstraction, our institutions, our public policies and all of us on a personal level must resolve to take account of those factors that shape others, and ourselves. When it comes to race, we must be color-conscious, not colorblind. (p. 157)

Claude Steele (1997, 2010) similarly challenged us to talk directly about, and actively seek solutions to, the conditions that set off our internal responses to a history of racism. While he posited that racism has changed, he contended that we cannot escape our past, and those who are at the bottom of social identity hierarchies continue to be psychically vulnerable to past injustices. Therefore, the presumed unblemished Asian American educational achievement narrative, often depicted as a Horatio Alger story of perseverance, loses sight of the historic and contemporary Asian American experiences with race and racism. It dismisses the vast range of diverse experiences dealing with power along the dimension of race, gender, class, and citizenship.

Therefore, we offer the following policy recommendations to address the disparities found in our study:


We need to be intentional about not leaving out Asian Americans in research aimed at addressing inequity. This work needs to be guided by the idea that the social constructions of the model minority myth and the perpetual foreigner are not only bad for Asian Americans but also bad for all subordinated groups.


Our research and practice needs to be guided by a critical race intersectional analysis that examines race and racism at their intersections with gender, citizenship, class, and other constructions used to create and sustain difference.


The intersection of educational attainment and earning power should not be outside the realm of research and advocacy for those within the field of education. Earning power is one way to understand the symptoms of raced and classed struggles in a capitalist economy that implicates the material conditions that all communities face. Researchers who critique the mechanisms in place in the economy that maintain social inequities also have the responsibility to address the material conditions that currently exist for those who are impacted by them on a daily basis.


Finally, the development of a new educational policy framework to understand Asian Americans educational experiences in ways that translate into a broader equity agenda is necessary. Knowing that race still matters, we need to renew our focus on coalition building and affirmative action efforts toward intersectional equity and access that place social justice at the forefront of educational leadership and policy making.


The authors thank Jordan Beltran Gonzales for his assistance and feedback on this article.


1. For a detailed description of the strengths and limitations of the CPS, its comparison to the American Community Survey (ACS), and our specific extraction of and computational process for these data, see Covarrubias (2011), Covarrubias and Lara (2013), and Covarrubias and Velez (2013).

2. The authors acknowledge that class has been historically described as being influenced by factors other than income and occupation, including education, occupational status, and community of residence. Nonetheless, family income helps us offer consistently collected and useful data that can help in making a comparison between and within groups.

3. A wide range of academic literature and popular narratives label this population in different waysfor example, undocumented (Abrego & Gonzalez, 2010; Passel & Taylor, 2010), unauthorized (Bacon, 2009; Passel, 2005, 2006, 2007; Passel & Cohn, 2009; Passel & Taylor, 2010), illegal (Do & Goffard, 2012), and alienseach with its own unique origins and implications. We chose to use undocumented because of its wide acceptance in academic discourse about this population, although we recognize that it is not without limitations. By undocumented, we are referring to the population of the United States residing in the country without proper authority to do so; their immigration status is politically, socially, and legally constructed as outside rightful legal authority.

4. The methodology for further disaggregating this group has been described in detail by Covarrubias and Lara (2013). It should be noted here that for foreign born naturalized citizens and undocumented residents, a compilation of data for those who (1) identified as Asian only, (2) migrated to the United States between the ages of 1 and 16, (3) were born abroad to non-U.S. citizens, and (4) were 2540 years old in 2010 was used to create a collectively analyzed data set. These data were compiled for the period between 1986 and 2001. For the U.S.-born citizens category, we examined only those who (1) were between the ages of 25 and 40 in 2010, (2) were U.S. born, and (3) identified as Asian only; these data were collected and analyzed to offer a similarly aged comparison group for the other two groups.

5. In this study, we use the concept of earning powerdefined as the potential earning capacity as measured by average individual incometo consider the income one can reasonably anticipate for having completed specific educational outcomes.

6. With a sample this large, and the number of doctorate degrees becoming so small, the data will zero out because these are rates of attainment, which are dependent on the size of the sample and the number of places beyond the decimal.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 6, 2014, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17279, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 10:47:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Alejandro Covarrubias
    Institute of Service-Learning, Power, & Intersectional Research
    E-mail Author
    ALEJANDRO COVARRUBIAS, community scholar at the Institute of Service-Learning, Power, & Intersectional Research, uses intersectional theory to examine education policy implications of institutionalized privilege and oppression on different socially constructed groups. His current work studies the impact of intersectional subordination on the educational outcomes of diverse groups, including Asian Americans, people of Mexican origin, undocumented populations, and working-class individuals in distinct racialized spaces. He Covarrubias has also researched the experiences of students who have been pushed out of high school, the alternative educational settings that reengage them, and the linkages to the failed “war on drugs.” Recent work includes: Covarrubias, A., & Velez, V. (2013). Critical race quantitative intersectionality: An anti-racist research paradigm that refuses to “let the numbers speak for themselves.” In M. Lynn & A. Dixon, Handbook of critical race theory in education, Routledge; and Covarrubias, A., & Lara, A. (2013). “The (im)migration educational pipeline: The impact of citizenship status on educational attainment for people of Mexican origin. Urban Education, 1–36.
  • Daniel Liou
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL D. LIOU is an assistant professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. His current research focuses on equity-minded school reform and how students experience their school leaders’ expectations in the classroom. His article with René Antrop-González and Robert Cooper, “Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining Latina/o students’ college-going information networks,” was published in 2009 in Educational Studies.
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