Benign Neglect

The result of being considered the model minority is benign neglect. That is what the director of a social service agency told me. She finds it difficult to raise funds and obtain grants from government and foundations because people think that the families her organization serves – Asian Americans – do not need help. After all, aren’t they smart, hard-working, thrifty and well off?

As C.N. Le of Asian Nation notes:

Many people go even further and argue that since Asian Americans are doing so well, we no longer experience any discrimination and that Asian Americans no longer need public services such as bilingual education, government documents in multiple languages, and welfare. Further, using the first stereotype of Asian Americans, many just assume that all Asian Americans are successful and that none of us are struggling.

Indeed, another director of an Asian serving nonprofit noticed what she calls “congenial discrimination.” Politicians and other community leaders are civil, even friendly most of the time, but little attention and hardly any support is given to her constituency. While this lack of influence and access to resources may also be due to Asian Americans being a minority among minorities, she suspects that it has more to do with the myth of Asian affluence and independence.

A report from Asian American LEAD, Invisible Americans: The Hidden Plight of Asian Americans in Poverty, concedes that there is reason why the idea persists.

Looking at aggregate figures, one might easily assume that virtually all Asian Americans are living the American Dream. Census data puts Asian Americans as a group at the top of the income scale, with the highest education levels of any racial group. Asian Americans are more likely to graduate from college and doctoral programs, and to come from two-parent homes than any other population in our country today.

Moreover, Asians are less visible than other minority groups again due to sheer numbers and to a non-confrontational culture as well. However, the report’s authors quickly add that

… a closer look at these figures tells another story. While as a group Asian Americans fare well, a substantial subgroup falls far below the poverty line. Per capita income for Cambodian, Hmong, and Laotian Americans is about half that of whites, and below that of African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians. The homeownership rate for Asian Americans lags that for white Americans by 20 percentage points. Asian American households are more overcrowded than the general U.S. population by 10 percent. One in eight Asian Americans lives in poverty. This figure includes one in every six Vietnamese Americans, and more than one in every four Cambodian Americans. High school graduate rates range from 88 percent for Japanese Americans to 31 percent for Hmongs. One in five Asian immigrants has less than a high school diploma. Asian Americans as a group are more than four times as likely as Caucasians to have no formal schooling; that figure includes one in four Laotian women and one in two Hmong women in America.

The ongoing recession has been affecting the Asian American community just as much as other groups. Last December, the International Examiner reported the rapid increase in the number of unemployed Asian Americans during the previous months.

Nationwide, 72,000 Asian Americans were unemployed in November 2008.This brings the current reported unemployment rate among Asian Americans up to 4.8 percent. According to U.S. Labor Department unemployment statistics released on December 5, the total number of Asian Americans without work in November was 343,000 compared to 271,000 unemployed workers in October, or 3.8 percent of Asian Americans nationwide. The number of unemployed persons in other ethnic or racial groups for the same period (October and November) rose as follows: Caucasians, from 6,923,000 (5.5 percent) to 7,336,000 (5.8 percent); African Americans, from 1,952,000 (11 percent), to 1,979,000 (11.2 percent). Unemployment among Asians (from 271,000, 3.8 percent, to 343,000, 4.8 percent) increased by a full percentage point, while rates in the other two groups increased by only 0.3 and 0.2 percent, respectively. The statistics show that the month-to-month impact has been highest on Asian Americans.

The Asian American community and its leaders need to work together and advocate for those in need within the community – low-income families, newcomers, at-risk youth, battered women, the elderly and those with mental health issues. They need to speak up and dispel the myth that all Asians are successful and that we do not need help.

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