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Posted Jul 23, 2012, 3:38 pm
In the June throes of the president's mini-Dream Act and frenzied anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court's SB 1070 ruling, the following headline gave but a brief pause to otherwise engaged Arizonans:
Asians eclipsing Latinos in immigration to U.S.
Indeed, as Reuters and other news organizations heralded, Asian immigrants (numbering about 430,000) accounted for 36 percent of all new immigrants in 2010 – up from 19 percent in 2000.
Incoming Hispanic immigrants amounted to "just" 31 percent on the 2010 influx – down from 59 percent the previous decade, according to a new Pew Research Center study that served as a foundation for the news sources.
Those figures are for all immigration, both legal and illegal (with the drop-off in Latinos largely attributable to better border enforcement, a prolonged weak U.S. economy and certain states' harsh immigration rhetoric and policy, including Arizona's).
None of this means Asians will soon replace Latinos as the majority ethnic minority in the United States.
Overall, Asians are 5 percent of the Census Bureau's estimated 2011 U.S. population of 311 million and 3 percent of Arizona's estimated 6.5 million residents. Latinos are 16.7 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
The U.S. undocumented population is estimated somewhere in the 12 million to 13 million range. About 75 percent of such individuals are Hispanic, compared with perhaps 11 percent Asian.
But it's the human contrasts drawn by the Pew report, rather than the many numerical comparisons, that tells a different story altogether and should have captured the headlines.
The headline easily could have read:
If only Latinos could be more Asian
In its attempt to put the survey, analysis and data in context, Pew's The Rise of Asian Americans report essentially declared that not all immigrants are re-created equal.
Pew's example: A century ago, Asian Americans were "targets of official discrimination," essentially low-skilled, low-wage laborers confined to "ethnic enclaves."
In other words – and these are my words – Asian immigrants were yesteryear's version of today's Latino immigrants. But over the years, Asian Americans have transformed themselves, managing to shed their tattered clothes in exchange for smart suits layered in college degrees, top incomes and laser-like confidence in the American Dream.
The overview's opening lines of the 215-page report surmises:
"Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success."
Not to suggest the opposite, but do Asians really place a greater "value on hard work?"
Can anyone question the work ethic of one ethnic group or another without opening themselves up to charges of being just a little racially insensitive?
Or is the lawn statute of the lazy Mexican sombrero man in siesta cast in stone, even as Latino immigrants are doing the actual yard work?
Oh, to be Asian in 2012.
To emphasize the desirability to be Asian American today, Pew curiously even made note in its June report that "newly minted medical school graduate Priscilla Chan married Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg" the previous month.
Presumably that's a multi-billion-dollar blown opportunity for Latinas, since there's only one Mark Zuckerberg.
My point is, such a broad-brush, flattering if not gushy portrait of one particular ethnic group can prompt critics to question the art of analysis by reputable policy centers, even the likes of Pew.
And indeed, that's what has happened – including especially harsh criticism by Asian Americans.
The Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, a network of civil rights advocacy groups, said it was "deeply concerned" that Pew report's authors would "paint a picture of Asian Americans as a model minority, having the highest income and educational attainment among racial groups. These portrayals are overly simplistic."
Cited examples in a recent ColorLines magazine article:
"It's hard to comport Pew's statistics about Asian Americans' supposed happiness and the we're so great stats with all the other stats we know," said Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.
Just as disturbing, Yeung said, is the framing of the Pew analysis. It makes it appear that claims of institutional racism or racial discrimination by ethnic minorities are unfounded. The misguided conclusion: Latinos, Blacks and Native Americans just need to be more like Asians and pull themselves up their bootstraps.
"There's this aspect of the media coverage where races are being played against each other," said Yeung. "The not so implicit message is Asians are the better people of color whereas blacks and Latinos are seen as having all these kinds of problems, so why can't all people of color be like us."
The "us" in the Asian community is not what we may think either.
The Latino community likes to point out it's not a monolith. But while the Pew report notes that 83 percent of the Asian population is Chinese, Korean, Indian, Japanese, Filipino or Vietnamese – therefore the main focuses on its study – the "Asian Pacific American" umbrella actually consists of more than 45 distinct ethnicities speaking over 100 language dialects.
They are not all engineers. They are not all math whizzes. They are not all gainfully employed. They will not all marry a Mark Zuckerberg.
Each individual and each individual group will have a unique American experience.
Some will succeed while others will struggle with language, education, poverty and prejudice – just like any other immigrant not handpicked for their high-tech and highly marketable skills (27 percent of Asian immigrants were granted employment-based green cards compared to just 8 percent of all other immigrants, according to Forbes).
If there is any repeating storyline in American history, it's the traditional hazing of immigrants. The Irish went through it. So did the Italians. And the Asians apparently are emerging from it, no worse for the wear. Latinos may be next, although one might hope it wouldn't take a century to do so.
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The subtext has never been, however, that one race is better than another, which could be the misconstrued message from the Pew study based on certain phrasing or wording, especially in the opening lines.
Even Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside who served on Pew's advisory council, has raised concerns about "the danger in framing the study the way Pew did and the way the media picked up on it."
There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating success, but not by dismissively diminishing the struggle of some and altogether ignoring the obstacles of others. The challenge of all Americans – including ethnic minorities – is an American story worthy of many headlines to better understand ourselves and our nation's progress.
Pew Senior Researcher Cary Funk defended The Rise of Asian Americans report in a rebuttal published in ColorLines:
"What we're trying to do is portray the information and present it in a way that is clear to everyone, and one of the things we're not trying to do is take a stand. We're not advocates one way or another, and we're not in the business of trying to tell people what to think about this information."
In other words – again my words – art is in the eye of the beholder. A painting of a big red barn, even if titled "Big Red Barn" and praised for being a big red barn instead of a brown one, is left up to interpretation.
It can be a confusing if not abstract portrait, this racial/ethnic thing in America. We're continually being reminded to become more colorblind while at the same time told to be more sensitive to color.
How can we do both?
The real question is, how can we not?
True, the result is not always a pretty picture, as criticism of the Pew report attests.
But as most art experts would tell you, the right frame sometimes makes all the difference – just as an old newspaper editor would tell you the wrong headline seldom tells the correct, much less full, story.
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.
The director of communications for the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at ASU, Garcia is a longtime, award-winning journalist whose experience as a top editor, columnist and reporter included positions at The Arizona Republic, The Daily Times, Tucson Citizen, USA Today and The Associated Press.