Some 70 years ago, this was the Asian stereotype. (Russell Lee, July 1942, Twin Falls, Idaho. Library of Congress)

For those who doubt that racial resentment lingers in this nation, Asian Americans are a favorite talking point. The argument goes something like this: If “white privilege” is so oppressive — if the United States is so hostile toward its minorities — why do census figures show that Asian Americans out-earn everyone?

In a 2014 editorial, conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly pointed out that Asian household incomes were 20 percent higher than white household incomes on average. “So, do we have Asian privilege in America?” he asked. Of course not, he said. The real reason that Asians are “succeeding far more than African-Americans and even more than white Americans” is that “their families are intact and education is paramount,” he said.

This claim has been with us since at least the 1960s, when it served as a popular rejoinder to the challenges issued by the civil rights movement. Many newspapers printed flattering portraits of Asian Americans to cast skepticism on the people marching for economic and social justice.

“At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift the Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own,” claimed a 1966 story in the U.S. News and World Report, which noted their “strict discipline” and “traditional virtues.”

To the extent that all myths are rooted in truth, this model minority stereotype recognizes a real pattern of Asian upward mobility. A century ago, Asian Americans were known as laborers of the lowest wage. They were ditch diggers, launderers, miners. Yet over the decades, despite poverty, racial violence and widespread discrimination, many Asians managed to clamber up the socioeconomic ladder.

Until now, the story of how that happened has been poorly understood.

“The widespread assumption is that Asian Americans came to the United States very disadvantaged, and they wound up advantaged through extraordinary investments in their children’s education,” says Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger.

But that's not what really happened, he says.

Hilger recently used old census records to trace the fortunes of whites, blacks and Asians who were born in California during the early- to mid-20th century. He found that educational gains had little to do with how Asian Americans managed to close the wage gap with whites by the 1970s.

Instead, his research suggests that society simply became less racist toward Asians.

Asian Americans have been part of the United States for most of its history. The first major wave of immigrants came in the 1800s, when Chinese laborers flocked to California to help build railroads. Their presence soon stirred up resentments among white Americans. The Chinese Massacre of 1871, which took place in the streets of Los Angeles, counts among the largest lynchings in U.S. history.


Asians in the United States have often endured racism. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is one of the most infamous examples. (Russell Lee, April 1942, Los Angeles. Library of Congress)

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which shut the door on the influx of low-skilled Chinese labor. By 1924, nearly all immigration from Asian nations was banned. Despite widespread discrimination, many families remained, settling mostly in California. Opinion surveys from that era show that whites expressed extreme prejudice against both Asian and African Americans. Asians also lived in segregated neighborhoods and often sent their children to segregated schools. To survive, many opened their own businesses because no one would employ them.

Hilger’s research focuses on native-born whites, blacks and Asians to rule out the effects of subsequent immigration. In 1965, changing laws ushered in a surge of high-skilled, high-earning Asian workers, who now account for most of the Asians living in the United States today.

But even before the arrival of those highly educated immigrants, the Asians already living in the United States had more or less closed the wage gap with whites.

At the time of the 1940 census, Hilger found, California-born Asian men earned less than California-born black men. By the 1970 census, they were earning about the same as white men, and by the 1980 census, the native-born Asian men were out-earning white men.

Throughout this time, many Asian American families did invest, increasingly, in their children's education. But Hilger discovered that the improvements in educational attainment were too modest to explain how Asians' earnings grew so fast.

The picture became much clearer when he compared people with similar levels of education. Hilger found that in the 1940s, Asian men were paid less than white men with the same amount of schooling. But by the 1980s, that gap had mostly disappeared.

“Asians used to be paid like blacks,” Hilger said. “But between 1940 and 1970, they started to get paid like whites.” The charts below shows average earnings for native-born black, white and Asian depending on how much education they had.


(Nathaniel Hilger)

In 1980, for instance, even Asian high school dropouts were earning about as much as white high school dropouts, and vastly more than black high school dropouts. This dramatic shift had nothing to do with Asians accruing more education. Instead, Hilger points to the slow dismantling of discriminatory institutions after World War II, and the softening of racist prejudices. That’s the same the explanation advanced by economists Harriet Orcutt Duleep and Seth Sanders, who found that in the second half of the 20th century, Asian Americans not only started to work in more lucrative industries, but also started to get paid more for the same kind of work.

In other words, the remarkable upward mobility of California-born Asians wasn’t about superior schooling (not yet, anyway). It was the result of Asians finally receiving better opportunities — finally earning equal pay for equal skills and equal work.

Why couldn’t African Americans close the wage gap? It’s hard to say. Hilger found some evidence that there were underlying differences in skill. Between Asians and African Americans with the same amount of schooling, African Americans tended to achieve lower scores on military enlistment tests during the 1940s.

But it’s also likely that postwar racial attitudes shifted differently for Asians than for African Americans. In the 1850s, newspapers in California complained that Chinese immigrants were the dregs of the laboring class, having “most of the vices and few of the virtues of the African.” Yet by the 1960s, attitudes had completely flipped. Journalists praised Asians for being hard workers who cherished education, kept their heads down and rarely complained.

“Still being taught in Chinatown is the old idea that people should depend on their own efforts — not a welfare check — in order to reach America’s ‘promised land,’” the 1966 U.S. News and World Report article said.

Since then, waves of high-skill immigration have further cemented the stereotype of Asians as a studious, well-off demographic. Highly educated parents encourage their children to become highly educated, compounding the advantage. About half of Asian Americans over the age of 25 now hold college degrees, compared with only 28 percent of Americans overall.

Hilger's research found that 50 years ago, Asians were held back primarily by lack of opportunities. Now that discrimination against Asians has lessened somewhat, the Asian edge in education is apparent: Average incomes among Asians Americans are higher because Asian Americans have higher rates of college attainment. (To be clear, we are talking about averages only. As a group, Asian Americans have considerable socioeconomic diversity.)

But if we take a page from Hilger and focus on people with similar educational backgrounds, the residual disadvantages become clear. Asians actually earn 5 percent less compared with whites who also have advanced degrees — while blacks and Hispanics earn 20 percent less.


This is one of several problems with the model minority myth. (Here’s another.) Many people hold up Asian Americans as proof that hard work and education leads to success no matter your skin color. On the contrary, these statistics show that being a minority in the United States often means working harder to earn less.

More education will help close racial wage gaps somewhat, but it will not resolve problems of denied opportunity. In fact, recent studies suggest that income disparities are growing at the very top between blacks and whites. According to an Economic Policy Institute report from September, the difference between what a white college graduate earns and what a black college graduate earns has widened since the 1980s.

Emphasizing the power of educational attainment also obscures the barriers that remain. Despite the complaints of Stephen K. Bannon, President-elect Donald Trump’s alt-right adviser who’s a darling of white supremacy groups, it is simply false that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia.” Even among technology companies, which hire a disproportionate number of Asian workers, Asians are vastly underrepresented in upper management. Yet, the model minority myth makes a statement like Bannon's feel true to many.

Asian Americans — some of them at least — have made tremendous progress in the United States. But the greatest thing that ever happened to them wasn't that they studied hard, or that they benefited from tiger moms or Confucian values. It's that other Americans started treating them with a little more respect.