Posted on July 17, 2019

Stereotypes of Asian Americans Skew Estimates of Racial Wealth Gap

Dylan Walsh, Yale Insights, July 9, 2019

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{snip} “When people think of Asian Americans, they tend to think of high-achieving Japanese or Chinese or Indian Americans,” says Michael Kraus, a social psychologist at the Yale School of Management. “Maybe the person in mind is quiet and a bit awkward; they are going to excel in school, probably get a job in medicine, finance, or tech, and have money—those are the beliefs that come to mind when we think of Asian Americans.” But this collapse of a diverse population into a simplified image doesn’t represent reality. And in fact, according to new research by Kraus, even such a seemingly positive stereotype may be causing significant harm.

The label “Asian American” captures people from more than a dozen countries who together represent a vast spectrum of backgrounds. Contrary to the stereotype of the Asian American educational and socioeconomic pedigree, nearly 40% of Hmong Americans, 38% of Laotian Americans, and 35% of Cambodian Americans drop out of high school; these groups, along with Vietnamese Americans, earn incomes below the national average.

Kraus, who has long studied race and inequality, wanted to understand how the stereotype of the high-achieving Asian American influences what people believe about the gap in wealth between Asian and white Americans. In a recent study, forthcoming in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, he found that the presence of this stereotype drives people to overestimate the level of wealth equality between Asian and white Americans.

{snip} The reality is that for every $100 that a white American earns, an Asian American averages about $85.

In one experiment, half of participants read and heard the story of Sophia Meng, a Cambodian-American refugee who escaped civil war with her parents; her mother is a supermarket cashier, her father is unemployed, and she works part-time. The other participants read about a doppelganger Sophia Meng who immigrated to the U.S. with a software engineer father and a radiologist mother; her biggest concern is whether she’ll be accepted at Harvard. After this setup, Kraus and his coauthors asked participants to estimate the wealth gap between whites and Asians.

Another experiment asked half of participants to guess the Asian-white wealth gap for Asian Americans in general; the participants were then asked the same question across 10 Asian subgroups. The other half of participants was asked the same questions in reverse order. Splitting Asian Americans into distinct subgroups was designed to counter the stereotype.

{snip} “But when people were deliberately prompted to think about the several subgroups that constitute Asian Americans and were disabused of their ‘high-status’ stereotypes,” he says, “their estimate of the gap became much more accurate.”

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Kraus pointed to two core problems raised by the misperception of Asian American wealth demonstrated in the new study. First, “conceiving of Asian Americans as uniformly high-status may divert social safety net programs away from Asian American communities that are, in fact, living in poverty,” he says. “It can obscure the most vulnerable.”

Second, seeing Asian Americans as a monolithic, successful minority can reinforce troubling stereotypes of other minority groups—and cause people to underestimate the effect of institutional bias. Even though Asian Americans face discrimination, the argument goes, they are able to succeed because of a cultural orientation toward education and hard work. And if they can do it, why can’t other minority groups? By this distorted logic, a cultural deficiency in the other groups is the clearest answer. Kraus’s work is one way of showing that this cultural argument rests on an inaccurate perception.

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