Jennifer Lee on Asian Americans

By
Jennifer Lee
July 01, 2021

The twin prods of a U.S. president trying to rebrand the coronavirus as the ‘China virus’ and a bloody attack in Atlanta that left six Asian women dead have brought to the fore a spate of questions about Asian Americans in the United States.

Columbia University sociologist Jennifer Lee has been answering many of those questions her entire academic career, and across four books, dozens of journal articles and untold media appearances. One of the first questions she answers in this Social Science Bites podcast is who are ‘Asian Americans’? As she tells interviewer David Edmonds, “No one comes to the United States and identifies as an Asian American.” Instead, if asked, they are likely to identify with national origin or ethnicity – say Chinese, or Japanese, or Filipino – rather than with the umbrella construct of Asian American.

“’Asian American,’” Lee explains, “was originally conceived as a political identity by student activists at Berkeley in the 1960s who coined the term as a unifying pan-ethnic identity to advocate for Asian American studies in university curricula and to build coalitions with other marginalized groups.” Since then, it evolved into a demographic category, and in 1997 the U.S. Census Bureau grouped together people from East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia under the classification of ‘Asian.’ (Those regions, of course, don’t include everyone from the continent of Asia – where are the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks, for example – and does include people from the islands adjacent to the land mass – Japanese, Malaysians, Filipinos.)

“These are groups don’t have a whole lot in common in terms of language, culture, religion, history,” Lee notes, but they are bound by various forms of exclusion in the U.S. But their presence in the United States is growing rapidly. Combined, Asians are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S.; their population is up 27 percent in the last decade to about 23 million people, or 7 percent of the total U.S. population.

Immigration is a key component of that growth, notes Lee, who herself emigrated to the U.S. with her Korean parents when she was 3. Some two out of three current Asian Americans are foreign-born (four out of five among Asian American adults), she explains, and continuing immigration replenishes the cohort of ‘new’ Asian Americans. That, she suggests, will keep the category of Asian American alive for some time.

Immigration also contributes to the trope – a trope Lee rejects – that “‘Asians have some set of values that make them successful.” Instead, she argues that due to who has emigrated, America “legally engineered this idea that Asians are successful.”

Asian immigrants coming to the United States are not just a random sample of the population in their countries of origin; they are extremely educated, more likely to hold a B.A. than those who don’t immigrate, and they’re also more likely to have a college degree than the U.S. mean. It’s this ‘hyper selectivity’ that largely accounts for educational and economic accomplishments of America’s Asians, she argues here and in her latest award-winning book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, written with Min Zhou.

Lee offers several data points during the podcast to buttress the idea that innate cultural values are not driving success. For one thing, the distribution of Asian American accomplishments are not evenly distributed: Indian Americans have exceptionally high educational achievements while Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong Americans have relatively low graduation rates. Plus, Lee says, if ‘values’ drove the success, we’d see the same successes in the immigrants’ Asian countries of origin or in other areas where Asian diasporas are represented – and we don’t.

Lee is the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences at Columbia and past president of the Eastern Sociological Society. She is or has been a fellow at the Center for the Study of Economy and Society, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation and a Fulbright Scholar to Japan. She will join the board of trustees for the Russell Sage Foundation this fall.