Success, Statistics and Stereotypes

In March the jobless rate for all Americans was 8.2 percent, compared with 6.2 percent for Asian-Americans. In 2011, Asians also earned more than whites on average, bringing in an average weekly salary of $866 while whites earned $775, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The numbers are stark enough to spark some prickly questions about ethnicity and economics, and the UNLV Office of Diversity Initiatives took up the challenge at a panel discussion April 12 at Greenspun Hall.

“Is their ability to keep jobs something other groups can copy?” UNLV professor and panelist Sue Fawn Chung asked the small audience.

The answer, she said, is yes.

Ironically, the impressive statistics could re-enforce old stereotypes rather than attesting to the global appeal of the multicultural worker. In general, Chung said, three familiar cultural factors helped Asian-Americans endure this recession in much the same way they survived the Great Depression 80 years ago:

Asian-Americans value education. Eighty-five percent of Asian-Americans have high school diplomas, and 57 percent have college degrees—compared with 39 percent of white workers.

Most Asian-American cultures place such a strong emphasis on work stability that they are willing to work beneath their skill level rather than not work at all—leaving them perhaps underemployed but not unemployed.

Most Asian-American and Pacific Island cultures instill dedication to helping their own ethnic communities. Those who work for large corporations will often invest in their ethnic group’s mom-and-pop restaurants and stores, and those business owners are likely to employ “fellow regionals or relatives,” creating a trickle-down effect. Still, Asian-Americans, like all Americans, suffered in the economic meltdown. Panelist Rozita Lee lost her 18-year business providing Polynesian entertainment at Imperial Palace, but was able to get back on her feet as a paid consultant two years later.

Still, she warned that future generations of Asian-Americans need to be more politically active to protect their economic interests.

“We are too quiet,” said Lee, who was appointed to the White House Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders in 2010. “It’s time we have our voices heard.”