Arthur Sakamoto (@sakamoto_arthur), sociologist at Texas A&M, discusses three myths about Asian Americans.
0:00 The questionable claim of a high dropout rate
08:00 The poverty rate and wealth of Asians and non-Asians
14:01 Are Asians disadvantaged by living in costly neighborhoods?
20:10 Assimilation and the mobile labor market
23:40 Why do sociologists selectively talk about cost of living?
25:31 White privilege and the alleged bamboo ceiling
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Chris Martin: Welcome to Half Hour of Heterodoxy. I’m your host Chris Martin. On today’s episode, Arthur Sakamoto. He’s a sociologist at Texas A&M and he writes extensively about inequality and Asian Americans. He has been a guest on the show before and this episode is in some ways a continuation of that older episode. If you have the time, you might want to listen to that episode first. This episode does work as a standalone episode too though. So you could just listen to this.
Before we begin, I should explain the term “majority/minority paradigm” because that’s a term we use in this episode. It refers to the paradigm in which majorities are viewed as oppressive and minorities are viewed as oppressed.
Both Arthur and I have written about how this paradigm doesn’t seem to be valid any longer in the US because Asian-Americans falsify that pattern. So here is Arthur Sakamoto.
Welcome to the show.
Arthur Sakamoto: Hi. Thank you for having me on.
Chris Martin: So we’re here today to talk about Asian-Americans and how they’re represented in sociology. For new listeners who may not know this, I’m Asian-American myself and my guest Arthur Sakamoto is of Asian descent and we’re talking about myths today. I thought we would start off with Asians are too heterogeneous to be a category, since that has been coming up a lot in the last couple of years, due to Jennifer Lee’s work in particular and Karthik Ramakrishnan as well. What do you have to say about that?
Arthur Sakamoto: Yeah. The idea that Asians are very heterogeneous has – as you said, received a lot of attention in the last couple of years. But actually, really for the past 10, 20 years, people have also been noting that and so it’s not really a new idea. It’s just that you hear it quite a bit very recently and it certainly is important and it certainly is in many ways true. There are a lot of different countries in Asia. There’s a lot of cultural, heterogeneity, different religions, different languages, different countries at varying levels of economic development.
Asian immigrants have come under a variety of historical circumstances to the US, whether it’s the big ones or the Korean War or Vietnam War or the post-1980 exodus and so forth. So yes, it is an issue that needs to be recognized and it’s a characteristic of the Asian-American population, which is disproportionately foreign-born.
But having said that, I’m a little concerned that this discussion is being kind of motivated by a particular politicized view that is sometimes really not recognizing sort of what this implies about racial and ethnic stratification in the United States.
So for example, if you read a recent article by Jennifer Lee and Ramakrishnan and Janelle Wong, I mean they say it’s – I’ve noted elsewhere in print that for example Hmong Americans have a higher dropout rate from high school than African-Americans and Hispanics. I believe the figure they give is like 40 percent.
So the problem with these sorts of calculations – and you can see these references in other books on Asian-Americans recently. The problem is the authors are sort of confusing heterogeneous immigrants with racial stratification in the United States. So for example, Laotians have a population with different age groups and the older Laotian-Americans emigrated from Laos in the 1980s or late ‘70s and at that time, there were very few high schools in Laos. So they came. They had no education. They had families and children. But the stratification that their children experienced in the United States is a separate sociological indicator from the educational attainment of their children from their parents. So the parents didn’t have any education because Laos didn’t have many high schools. But they didn’t drop out of an American high school.
So we see this sort of confusing calculation of a high school dropout rate that’s including elderly people from Laos who never went to high school in the United States. So that gives a misleading characterization of racial and ethnic stratification in the United States.
So when you see this kind of statistic that’s repeatedly being said by – not only by those authors but by others that have such high dropout rates, that’s patently not true. Hmong Americans actually have lower dropout rates than non-Hispanic whites and to be saying that they have higher dropout rates, then African-Americans and Hispanics is not indicative of racial stratification of the second generation or those Asian-Americans that experience the American stratification system, rather than the stratification system in Laos or Vietnam and then brought that here with them as their background.
So yes, it’s heterogeneous. But the second generation may not be as heterogeneous as the first generation because the second generation is a group that is socialized in the US and English becomes their dominant language and the issue that I have is that they’re confusing immigration with stratification in the US and they frankly aren’t really doing the sort of research that we need on the second generation.
I mean I haven’t done all of the work. But there’s some suggestive evidence that actually variation in educational attainment among second generation Asian-Americans could actually be lower than for other categories.
If you factor out the immigration aspect, it’s not at all clear that Asian-Americans are more heterogeneous on those particular socioeconomic outcomes that are of particular interest in talking about racial stratification in America.
I mean if you just want to talk about language or linguistic or religious background, that is another issue. But I guess I’m saying heterogeneous in terms of what? Part of this is that they haven’t looked at other groups. If you’re saying that a certain group is more heterogeneous, from a scientific point of view, well, what is heterogeneity among say whites and among blacks and Hispanics? We would like to see that kind of research. Actually Nigerian and Ghanaian-Americans, that second generation does very well. They have very high levels of educational attainment. Not only higher than third generation African-Americans, but also higher than whites and possibly as high as Asians.
There’s a variety of different – of white groups. There are white immigrants from Central Asia that have higher poverty rates as Middle Eastern earners, as Arab-Americans. We have traditional groups like Hutterites and Amish. There is variability in all of these groups and I’m all for studying this. I’ve done my research. But kind of what we see recently is people sort of exaggerating it because it’s sort of the political narrative of the times.
Chris Martin: What I see going on here I think is partly the attempt to burst the stereotype and the stereotype is a stereotype of Asian-Americans being highly educated and some of these authors seem to be saying, “Look, there’s this group of Asian-Americans that actually have somewhat low education levels,” and you see this with income as well and I’m actually partially sympathetic to it because I think sometimes, especially if you grow up in a place where it has a huge IT industry or really any urban area in America, you end up meeting a lot of Asian doctors and engineers.
You might truly not know that some Asians in America live below the poverty line. But I really have the same problem with this data, which is that a lot of the judgments are subjective and when you say there’s a lot of variability within Asians, compared to other groups, you need to have data on those groups and one thing I haven’t seen from Jennifer Lee and her co-authors is data on other groups like whites and African-Americans.
Now you mentioned that there seems to be a political narrative underneath that. Do you feel like that political narrative to some degree is justified or do you think that’s not justified either?
Arthur Sakamoto: I mean I agree with you that we definitely want to be concerned with low income groups and it is definitely true that there are Asians that are living in poverty and those particular ethnic groups that are often discussed, Cambodians and Hmong and Laotians in particular, I mean they do have above-average poverty rates and that needs to be recognized. But at the same time, this narrative seems to be again driven – I agree with you by a certain political kind of perspective, that is wanting to sort of make race the dominant factor in inequality in America today.
[0:10:00] You know, if we’re going to look at poor Asians, that’s excellent. But there’s also 17 million white people living in poverty. The largest group of poor people are non-Hispanic whites and if you had a poverty line that’s a little bit closer to the relative poverty line, rather than the absolute poverty line, which is what we use, then you would find that a majority of the poor actually are non-Hispanic whites and yet if we’re saying we’re concerned with poor people, I mean you rarely hear anyone talking about well, this also extends to whites.
Now, to be sure, the poverty rate among non-Hispanic whites is lower. It’s nine percent. But when you have a large group, nine percent turns out to be tens of millions of people.
So I’m sympathetic to this narrative but I guess we shouldn’t look at it too narrowly that excludes the largest group of poor white people. You know, this sort of gets into another topic but it is this issue of if there’s white privilege or if whites are dominant, then the political narrative is to play up poverty among Asians. But again, when you have this politicized view, it overlooks sort of inconvenient facts as [0:11:29] [Indiscernible] would say.
I mean for example, 80 percent of single race Asians in 2010 were just five groups. Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese are the great majority of Asian-Americans. So it doesn’t mean that the other 20 percent aren’t important. But I mean when you hear about, well, they’re too heterogeneous to be a category compared to the other groups apparently – you know, they don’t say that most of them are from these five groups, three of which have very strong Confucian cultural traditions.
So yes, it’s heterogeneous but this concern for – I think overemphasizing heterogeneity is politically-motivated to play up the racial aspect when in fact, if you look at second generation Asian-Americans, the poverty rates come down, even for these groups with initially high poverty rates.
The poverty rates are I believe lower than the poverty rates for African-Americans and for Hispanics. So we’re not seeing much intergenerational poverty the way we’ve seen with African-Americans who have lower rates of upward mobility socioeconomically and higher rates of downward mobility socioeconomically.
So the poverty situation in terms of the intergenerational transmission is very different for Asians and that’s not being recognized in this dialog that’s trying to sort of use, as we’ve discussed before, this old kind of paradigm of the majority/minority view of inequality as being driven by racial discrimination.
What we see is actually – you know, the Asians don’t really fit that model very well.
Chris Martin: Yeah, that connects to the idea of white privilege and undoubtedly, whites do have a certain status advantage. But sometimes sociologists don’t want to get into the nuances of how they don’t necessarily exclusively have that advantage and you would – if you start talking about Asian-Americans, you end up having to get into those nuances and that’s why, as we talked about in an earlier episode, sometimes Asian-Americans are just missing from sociology books altogether.
Arthur Sakamoto: Right.
Chris Martin: Anyway, we should probably jump to myth number two, which is Asians are economically-disadvantaged because they live in areas with a high cost of living. Tell me a bit about that one.
Arthur Sakamoto: Yes, that’s another conventional wisdom and – I’m happy to have a discussion that connects with people. But as a social scientist, I think that there’s a lot of sort of social scientists and sociologists that are using the word “myth” too much. So I personally prefer to use the word “conventional wisdom” because “myth” is suggesting that it’s impossible.
I mean Jack and the beanstalk is impossible. That’s a myth. But it’s – I mean do Asian-Americans have higher levels of educational attainment? I mean maybe some people said that’s a myth but it’s not impossible. So I prefer the term “conventional wisdom” because it recognizes that more research needs to be done.
About COLA, that is another conventional wisdom that has been going on for decades. But in the last few years, along with heterogeneity, it’s being played up.
Chris Martin: Just let me jump in for a second. By COLA, you’re using cost of living adjustments?
Arthur Sakamoto: Yes, cost of living.
Chris Martin: That’s the abbreviation. I just want to make sure our listeners know about that.
Arthur Sakamoto: Right. Cost of living is higher in – traditionally-calculated in places like New York and California and Hawaii and West Coast of Washington and a lot of Asians live in these areas. For decades, people have noticed this and first of all, let me just say that this is an important issue. But I think it’s being played up recently along with heterogeneity in the past few years because what’s happening is that the bivariate difference between Asians and whites is widening.
Immigration is becoming more socioeconomically centered on people with higher education and the second generation which has high education is moving into the labor force and doing well. So what we see is that if you look at the bivariate difference between Asians and whites, Asians have moved up and whites have been stagnant.
So what has happened is that it has becoming increasingly obvious that Asians don’t fit the majority/minority paradigm the way people have been saying for decades. I mean decades ago, you could find more Asians in a secondary labor market. But today, there are increasingly fewer of them.
So as Asians increasingly have this rising advantage over whites, there’s this greater need for academics at least to sort of rationalize it away. In terms of the COLA argument, again because there’s a lot of political motivation there, I mean it’s obvious that people choose to live in places that they prefer to live in based on the amenities.
So people dream about taking vacations to San Francisco and to Los Angeles and to Seattle and to New York City. I mean if you can live there, you have the benefit of all of those amenities. I mean California has the best weather and the best beaches, the world’s greatest state park system. If you talk to Californians, they love their state.
So Asian-Americans traditionally were concentrated – at least East Asian-Americans were traditionally concentrated there and they grew up in California. So they have a preference for that and they’re less likely to move to other places because they prefer at least the native born folks in California to – they’re more likely to prefer those amenities.
Now having said that, something that I predicted a few years ago is that we see a rapid spatial assimilation of Asian-Americans. Yes, there are those California Hawaiian guys. But what is happening now is we have a new second generation of Asian-Africans from the South, from the North Central, from some of the Mountain states where once there were very few Asians. Now we’re seeing that Asians in the West Coast are no longer a majority of Asians.
So there is a spatial assimilation that the post-196F5 immigrants came in and settled in places like the South and their children now are entering the labor force and because they didn’t grow up in California, they don’t have a particular preference for that state.
So there’s a rapid – diversification of Asian-Americans. So the entire COLA argument is slowly fading away as Asians spatially assimilate and by now, at this point, Asian-American women – you know, if you look at their incomes and wages, the COLA factor really doesn’t affect the conclusions about Asian-American women relative to white women. It’s more about Asian-American men and specifically, if you look at South Asian-Americans, they are not so heavily concentrated in the West Coast through the historic immigration patterns.
If you just aggregated Asian-Americans and look specifically at South Asian-Americans, [0:20:00] the COLA factor is not as important. So it’s something that is – you know, have been traditionally said. People are trying to exaggerate it now. But as an empirical factor, it’s sort of withering away as Asians spatially assimilate and in general, what we see is actually a mobile labor market. I mean I can go online and look at housing prices and see photographs of real estate all over the country, just looking at my internet connection.
So people are very savvy now about cost of living and real estate differences and today with, you know, highly mobile, educated workers, I mean these are national labor markets. So the entire COLA issue is going to be I think becoming less significant in the next few years and there are additional issues there about, OK, these folks that are in California, I mean no one has mentioned – well, why is it bad to own property in Los Angeles? Why is that a disadvantage? I mean my uncle owns a house near Culver City. That’s worth probably at least a million dollars and yet he paid a tiny fraction of that decades ago.
There’s Proposition 13 in California. It’s property taxes can’t go up as much as the value of the property. I mean his actual cost of living for people that bought their property earlier actually could be quite low because he bought his real estate at a time when – before it appreciated greatly.
So if you have a lot of Asians from this area, it’s not at all clear that this average COLA differential applies to them. It applies more to new immigrants that are moving there. But for Asian-American families, even native born ones are more likely to pool their money across generations. So they actually have real estate in these expensive areas.
When we think of it intellectually, I mean what do you mean cost of living? I mean if you are the poorest person in Beverly Hills, California, because you only make $300,000, does that mean you’re poor? I mean what is the right unit of analysis when we’re talking about cost of living, if that issue hasn’t been raised? Not all of California is expensive. Merced County or the Eastern Counties for example are cheaper.
So I mean this issue is – has a political kind of feel to it and people are not sort of seriously looking at it. The unit of analysis, the preference for amenities that people have.
Chris Martin: Right. There’s almost an infinite number of ways to compute this sort of thing. I think to play devil’s advocate for a second, one thing people are trying to bring up – and I say “devil’s advocate” because I don’t entirely agree with this. It’s that Asians tend to live in areas where the cost of living is higher, which means their incomes don’t go quite as far. It doesn’t mean they’re disadvantaged, which is why I say I don’t agree with the larger point. But the relative advantage is high.
What I find problematic about this, which is a little different, is that this cost of living adjustment isn’t used when it comes to other ethnic groups.
Arthur Sakamoto: Right.
Chris Martin: So traditionally, if you’re talking about the median income difference between African-Americans and whites, you generally don’t use that cost of living adjustment even though African-Americans tend to be clustered in the South, which has a lower cost of living.
Arthur Sakamoto: Right.
Chris Martin: So it does seem to be a selective application again and I feel like – again, when it comes to sociology textbooks, sometimes Asian-Americans are invisible. So you don’t even start to get into this topic. But when you start to look into papers about income differences, you see that people will suddenly throw in the cost of living adjustment when it comes to Asian-Americans. That’s a great point.
That is sort of – you know, illustrates the ideological aspect when the argument is completely ignored with other groups. Native Americans are much more likely to live in rural areas. Latinos are more likely to live in the states bordering Mexico. The cost of living is lower there. Blacks, as you said, are more likely to live in the Southeast where the cost of living can be very low and it’s all the rage in sociology to talk about how African-Americans are disadvantaged by living in low income neighborhoods.
I mean there are entire sessions and books written, arguing that African-Americans are constantly disadvantaged, because they live in low-income neighborhoods.
Well, logically, why is it that Asian Americans are disadvantaged by living in high-income neighborhoods? I mean it’s an exact contradiction of what we say for African-Americans.
So what you’re saying is exactly right. It’s used so selectively and then that just shows why it’s ideologically-motivated.
Chris Martin: To get to our third point now – I guess it’s almost time to wrap up maybe. But to get to the third point we wanted to discuss, it’s the point that Asian family incomes are lower than whites, which I think is relevant because we were just talking about those Asian family incomes are lower than whites because whites have white privilege. What do you consider problematic about that argument?
Arthur Sakamoto: Well, I’m glad we’re running out of time because that is a bigger discussion. But I think that there’s a lot to be said about racial differentials in the US and I plan to be working more on this. But sort of the simple and quick answer is that – you know, the way we think of relations with whites and blacks, it shouldn’t shape or define or determine necessarily everything that goes on with Asians versus whites.
So I guess that’s accepted by sort of most everyday people. But this penchant, as we’ve been talking about for sociologists, for trying to pigeonhole Asians into this majority/minority paradigm, I mean it doesn’t follow necessarily that Asians must be disadvantaged as a non-white minority because blacks are non-whites and are disadvantaged versus whites.
So the black-white issue is a bigger discussion. But I think I will just say that for Asians, from the Asian point of view – I mean the fact that blacks can be disadvantaged versus whites, that in itself does not determine the objective reality for Asians. We should be concerned with this issue of white privilege. But there’s too much trying to follow this narrative or ideological perspective that says, well, anything bad with Asians, we’re going to exaggerate and in some cases, be completely false about it and we’re not recognizing that Asians are different from other non-white groups.
Chris Martin: Have you actually seen people claim that white privilege causes Asian incomes to be lower?
Arthur Sakamoto: Well, they may not use the term “white privilege” per se. But they will argue that Asian-Americans face discrimination in the labor market because their wages are lower, because there’s a glass ceiling or a bamboo ceiling as some people call it or that there’s a disdain or skepticism or lack of acceptance of Asians.
I’m aware that some of that can exist sometime. But as an overall pattern, the data don’t really support that and sort of the commitment that a lot of sociologists have – and I invite you to read the textbooks on this. That Asians are disadvantaged. I mean that sort of is an implicit way of saying there’s white privilege, although they may not use that particular phrase per se.
Chris Martin: Right. I haven’t myself seen that either. I’ve seen some evidence for the bamboo ceiling. I haven’t looked at it in close detail. It does seem like there might be some truth to that. It’s hard to know what the cause of that is, whether it’s racism or whether it’s Asians tend to have certain qualifications, but not others, which means they don’t have the right qualifications to be promoted to management positions as easily. Have you seen anything that sheds more light on that?
Arthur Sakamoto: That’s a good issue and that gets me back to why I prefer talking about conventional wisdom rather than myths because it’s easy to say these things. But actually the research on Asian-Americans is inadequate for the most parts if you’re making strong generalizations in many realms. In terms of managerial attainment, I mean the census categories are so broad. I mean if you’re running a convenience store or an ethnic restaurant, you’re a manager. But – and Asians do fine in that. But if you actually ask people, “How many people do you supervise directly?” – there was a survey about 15 years ago that I analyzed and it – I found that Asians report anyway that they supervised about 80 percent fewer people than whites did, even when they had the same business background in terms of their field of study.
So controlling for age and region and other aspects that may affect – I’m not sure if they controlled for region, but other aspects that may [0:30:00] affect managerial attainment. There was a disadvantage for Asians. Now interestingly, the more recent data does not find that. So as the second generation is aging and getting more accepted into the workplace, that may be – I mean that’s just two surveys but it may be that it’s changing now.
The other thing that’s interesting about that is that I studied all the groups in those papers find that African-Americans and Hispanics were advantaged over whites in terms of supervisory power. That for the same level of educational and business background, blacks and Hispanics actually had greater managerial authority or at least reported that they did compared to equivalent whites.
Those results to my knowledge had never once been cited anywhere whereas the one study where I found Asians had a negative effect, that has been cited quite a bit. But if you read the next page, it says, well, blacks are doing. That’s never cited. So my same paper is only known as the paper that found disadvantage for Asians. It has never once been cited as the paper that found advantage for blacks.
Chris Martin: That’s interesting. Well, maybe over the next few years, we will see more citations of that. Anyway, I would love to talk further about all of this. It’s not often that I get to talk to someone who knows a lot about Asian-American sociology. As we’ve said, they tend to be invisible. It has been great having you on the show.
Arthur Sakamoto: Thanks so much. It’s always a pleasure and I always like being able to talk about Asian-Americans. Thank you again for having me on.
Chris Martin: If you would like to find some of Arthur’s papers, you can find most of them at www.Academia.edu under Arthur Sakamoto’s profile. You can also find them on his Google Scholar profile.
The first paper that shows up on his Google Scholar profile Socioeconomic Attainments of Asian-Americans is a good place to start.
On future episodes of this show, I will be having Zachary Wood and Fabio Rojas on as guests. Zachary Wood is author of Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America, which comes out later this year and Fabio Rojas is a sociologist at Indiana University and creator of the prominent sociology blog Org Theory.
Thanks for listening.
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Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at Fiverr.com