by Jane Iwamura
Last week, the Pew Research Center released a major report from its recent survey of Asian Americans. Pew's press release tagged Asian Americans as “the best-educated, highest-income, fastest-growing race group in the country,” and the highly regarded research institution further buttressed their claim with eye-catching and easily digestible graphics featuring buzzwords and catch-phrases such as hard work, education and tiger moms. Reporters ran with Pew's interpretative frame and generated their own headlines: “Asians eclipsing Latinos in immigration to the U.S.” (Reuters); “Asian Americans more educated, successful” (UPI); “Asian American parenting attitudes explored in Pew Study” (Washington Post).
Asian American politicians, advocacy groups and scholars were quick to write back with their own copy: “Asian Americans respond to Pew: We're Not Your Model Minority” (Colorlines). While there has been significant outcry, most of these criticisms are only prominently featured in West coast newspapers (Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times) and liberal publications (NPR, Huffington Post) or circulated through Asian American news outlets and blogs. The rest of the country (including Pew) seems content with its cherished stereotypes of Asian Americans.
Now one might ask why Asian American commentators are up in arms about the Pew Research Center report. After all, is it all that bad being the “top of the class”? As critics aptly point out, the summary report's focus on Asian American mobility, happiness and sense of national belonging, as well parenting attitudes, only reinforces the discourse about Asian Americans as the “model minority.” This stereotype obscures sharp disparities within a highly diverse population. The trope is also used to discipline other minority groups, e.g., “undocumented” Latinos and “low achieving” African Americans. Furthermore, the public release of the report and much of the news coverage that followed lends itself to older stereotypes that have plagued Asian Americans: “Asian invasion,” “Yellow Peril” and “Perpetual Foreigner.”
The data generated by the report is important. Pew's “spin,” however, borders on the sensational and does little to encourage a more nuanced look at the numbers. (Compare “The Rise of Asian Americans” with other Pew titles, more neutrally posed: “When Labels Don't Fit: Hispanics and Their Views of Identity,” or “A Religious Portrait of African Americans.”)
Representation is arguably one of the biggest challenges facing Asian Americans. And here is where news media play an especially key role. Pew obviously has an interest in garnering headlines with its reports, and journalists must try to dig beneath the hype. In this particular case, reporters might consider pre-existing stereotypes (both positive and negative), investigate the survey's construction and examine to what degree it reinforces prevailing attitudes and views. I served as an adviser to the Pew study, but only received one query from a journalist. While Pew did take into consideration some of the advisory committee's input, it failed to incorporate three of our biggest concerns: the inclusion of parenting or “tiger mom” questions; contextualization of the data (how selective migration is a significant factor in Asian American “success”); and a portrait that reflects the diversity of the group.
The Pew Research Center plans to release a second report from the Asian American survey in July; this report will focus on the religious affiliation, beliefs and practices of Asian Americans. If Stephen Prothero's “Belief Blog” for CNN is taken as any indication, the forthcoming report might only add to the misrepresentation and misunderstanding. In his editorial, Prothero ponders the significance of some of preliminary data on religion included in last week's report. He points to the high numbers of the “unaffiliated” (26 percent) and surmises that Asian immigration “may be making the United States less religious.” But if one looks at Pew's own Religious Landscape Survey, one will see that whites (non-Hispanics) make up the majority of the “unaffiliated” (73 percent) followed by Hispanics (11 percent) and blacks (8 percent). The 4 percent that Asian Americans contribute to this category—even with increased immigration—makes a very small dent in the overall figures.
Superficial interpretations do more than spread inaccurate portrayals. They also can do tremendous damage to a community. When I read Prothero's blog, I could not help but recall a time in (Asian-)American history when Chinese and other Asian Americans were labeled as “heathens” and suffered terrible consequences because of it. It is too easy for commentators and reporters to read and interpret such findings in stereotypical ways. Instead, we might use the forthcoming report on Asian Americans to ask new questions about religion and religious belonging: How might existing categories of religion fail to capture the Asian American experience (e.g., Chinese traditional religion)? How do race and class intersect when it comes to religious affiliation? What accounts for the large number of Asian Christians who migrate to the U.S.? What challenges have Asian American Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims had to face in the U.S. environment? Such questions will help to move us away from illusion and more towards insight.
Jane Iwamura is a Visiting Scholar at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She is the author of Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America.