USA demographic changes and political shifts: Asians, Latinos and Orange County

Good question regarding whether or not Asian Americans will be influenced by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric and actions:

The same sort of panic that hit California’s Latinos after the 1994 passage of the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 is now hitting many of this state’s almost 6 million ethnic-Asian residents.

Latino fears in the wake of Prop. 187, which sought to keep the undocumented immigrant out of public schools, hospital emergency rooms and seemingly any place its authors could imagine, led to citizenship applications and then voter registration by more than 2.5 million Hispanics over the next three years.

They caused a political revolution in California, which morphed from a swing state equally likely to elect Republicans or Democrats into one of the most staunchly Democratic states in the Union. Only one Republican has been elected to statewide office in the last 20 years, the almost non-partisan former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won out in the 2003 recall of ex-Gov. Gray Davis.

Now Asian immigrants are feeling fearful because of President Trump’s ban on entry to this country by residents of several Muslim-majority countries and his attempts to restrict the number of political and humanitarian refugees allowed in, plus a drive to deport Vietnamese refugees with any kind of crime on their record, no matter how old or minor.

Asians also remember the Japanese internment during World War II, in which 120,000 Japanese-Americans were held in remote camps for several years.

“You hope things like that can’t happen again, but they really can,” said one green card holder from Thailand. “So I will become a citizen.”

Like her, thousands of Asians in California, from countries as diverse as China, the Philippines and India, see citizenship as the best protection from a potential future expulsion.

If they become citizens in anything like the proportions of Latinos who felt similarly in California after passage of Prop. 187, they could spur vast political changes well beyond this state’s borders. In fact, if both they and citizenship-eligible Latino immigrants ever register in large numbers, they could turn several once-solid Republican states into battlegrounds or cause them to lean Democratic.

And Asians here are applying, although there are impediments Latinos did not face in the late 1990s. Example: Of the 220,000 immigrants in Orange County now eligible for naturalization, nearly 30 percent are Asian. Of them, about 4,500 applied for naturalization through the first three quarters of 2017. If that trend continues statewide for the remainder of Trump’s current term, more than 150,000 Asians will be added to California’s voting rolls.

Because they’re registering largely for the same reasons as Latinos once did, they probably won’t change this state’s political composition. But what about other states? Taking Texas as an example, more than 680,000 Asians are now eligible for citizenship but have not applied. That could make for big change in a state that in November almost gave a Democrats their first statewide victory in more than 20 years.

Yes, the $725 naturalization application fee is a roadblock for many. So is the required blizzard of paperwork. But Texas saw more than 20,000 citizenship applications from Asians last year. If Latinos, many even more apprehensive about Trump’s policies than Asians, register in Texas in similar percentages – and they have not yet – they could combine with Asians to turn Texas Democratic. For that state contains more than 3 million Hispanics who have not sought naturalization despite being eligible.

For sure, the numbers indicate fear among both Latinos and Asians has not reached the same levels it did among California Hispanics after Prop. 187.

But what happens when and if Trump begins serious work on his long-advertised border wall? And what if he attempts mass deportations of illegal immigrants, as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions advocated during his days in the Senate?

For sure, hate crimes against immigrants of all kinds increased during Trump’s presidential campaign and his first year in office. If that trend accelerates, it may spur the kind of fears that pushed Latinos to get naturalized here.

Isaac Newton’s third law of motion tells us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Just as former President Obama’s policies produced the backlash that elected Trump, so Trump’s policies may already have begun producing an even stronger national backlash against him and his party.

Source: Thomas D. Elias: Will Asians spur big new political changes?

And this analysis of the shift from solidly Republican to leaning Democratic in Orange Country is revealing:

To appreciate the vast cultural and political upheaval across Orange County over the last 40 years, look no further than Bolsa Avenue. The auto body shop, the tax preparer, a church, a food market, countless restaurants — all are marked by signs written in Vietnamese.

Or head seven miles west to Santa Ana, where Vietnamese makes way for Spanish along Calle Cuatro, a bustling enclave of stores and sidewalk stands serving an overwhelming Latino clientele.

The Democratic capture of four Republican-held congressional seats in Orange County in November — more than half the seven congressional seats Democrats won from Republicans in California — toppled what had long been a fortress of conservative Republicanism. The sweep stunned party leaders, among them Paul D. Ryan, the outgoing House speaker. Even Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor-elect of California, won the county where Richard M. Nixon was born.

But the results reflected what has been a nearly 40-year rise in the number of immigrants, nonwhite residents and college graduates that has transformed this iconic American suburb into a Democratic outpost, highlighted in a Times analysis of demographic data going back to 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president.

The ideological shift signaled by the most recent election results, on the heels of Hillary Clinton beating Donald J. Trump here in 2016, is viewed by leaders in both parties as a warning sign for national Republicans, as suburban communities like this one loom as central battle grounds in the 2020 elections and beyond.

Those new swing suburban counties were one of the central factors behind the 40-seat Democratic gain in the House in November. Many of them have been changed by an increase in educated and affluent voters who have been pushed toward the Democratic column by some of Mr. Trump’s policies. That partly accounts for what is happening here in Orange County, but the political shifts can also be explained by the rapidly changing cultural, political and economic face of the region and are on display in places like Bolsa Avenue, which is known as Little Saigon.

“There are so many of us here and that is what is contributing to these changes,” said Tracy La, 23, who is Vietnamese. Ms. La helped organize a rally in Westminster in mid-December to protest an attempt by the Trump administration to deport thousands of Vietnam War refugees. It drew hundreds of people to the Asian Garden Mall, one of the largest and oldest Vietnamese-operated malls in the nation.

“This is where the future is heading,” said Mark Baldassare, the president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “I don’t see anything that took place in these elections or the demographic trends that are ongoing, to make me think this is a one-time incident.”

That said, the critical question for Democrats — and for Republicans eager to get back in the game — is how much of the November outcome, and the large turnout of younger Latino and Asian-American voters, was because of Mr. Trump.

Kyle Layman, who ran the Southern California congressional campaigns for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said this election had apparently begun to cement long-term changes in voter behavior — an assessment that is not disputed by California Republican leaders.

“I think what we have done is built a foundation that is going to be sustainable,” he said. “These seats are going to be swing seats moving forward. They are going to be very, very tight. But this is part of a long-term trend.”

Indeed, even if the dramatic shift on display in 2018 was in reaction to Mr. Trump — and particularly the immigration policies he has embraced — analysts said that he had only accelerated political movements that were well underway.

“Because it’s becoming more diverse it’s becoming more Democratic, because the Democratic Party is more inclusive,” said Gil Cisneros, a Democrat from Yorba Linda who captured a House seat held by Representative Ed Royce, a Republican. “This is no fluke at all. It’s been this way for a long time and it’s going to continue to trend this way for a long time.”

There was a steady decrease in white voters in the seven congressional districts that are in and around Orange County between 1980 and 2017, according to census data. In 1980, whites made up 75 percent of the population in the district where Mr. Cisneros won. By 2017, that number dropped to 30 percent.

The county’s immigrant population grew five times as fast as the general population between 1980 and 2000, and while the pace of immigration has slowed, the Latino and Asian populations continues to increase, driven by the children of immigrant families born in the United States.

“The Republican Party in Orange County has been traditionally all white,” said Carlos Perea, 25, who moved to Santa Ana from Mexico to join his parents 11 years ago. “The party has pushed for policies that are very harmful to those communities: 2018 was a referendum on that old Orange County.”

Source: In Orange County, a Republican Fortress Turns Democratic

In contrast, Republican support among Latinos, although low at about one-third of voters, is holding steady:

The 55-year-old Colombian immigrant is a pastor at an evangelical church in suburban Denver. Initially repelled by Trump in 2016, he’s been heartened by the president’s steps to protect religious groups and appoint judges who oppose abortion rights. More important, Gonzalez sees Trump’s presidency as part of a divine plan.

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Gonzalez said of the president. “He was put there.”

Though Latino voters are a key part of the Democratic coalition, there is a larger bloc of reliable Republican Latinos than many think. And the GOP’s position among Latinos has not weakened during the Trump administration, despite the president’s rhetoric against immigrants and the party’s shift to the right on immigration.

In November’s elections, 32 percent of Latinos voted for Republicans, according to AP VoteCast data. The survey of more than 115,000 midterm voters — including 7,738 Latino voters — was conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

Other surveys also found roughly one-third of Latinos supporting the GOP. Data from the Pew Research Center and from exit polls suggests that a comparable share of about 3 in 10 Latino voters supported Trump in 2016. That tracks the share of Latinos supporting Republicans for the last decade.

The stability of Republicans’ share of the Latino vote frustrates Democrats, who say actions like Trump’s family separation policy and his demonization of an immigrant caravan should drive Latinos out of the GOP.

“The question is not are Democrats winning the Hispanic vote — it’s why aren’t Democrats winning the Hispanic vote 80-20 or 90-10 the way black voters are?” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster. He argues Democrats must invest more in winning Latino voters.

The VoteCast data shows that, like white voters, Latinos are split by gender — 61 percent of men voted Democratic in November, while 69 percent of women did. And while Republican-leaning Latinos can be found everywhere in the country, two groups stand out as especially likely to back the GOP — evangelicals and veterans.

Evangelicals comprised about one-quarter of Latino voters, and veterans were 13 percent. Both groups were about evenly split between the two parties. Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist in California, said those groups have reliably provided the GOP with many Latino votes for years.

“They stick and they do not go away,” Madrid said. Much as with Trump’s own core white voters, attacks on the president and other Republicans for being anti-immigrant “just make them dig in even more,” he added.

Sacramento-based Rev. Sam Rodriguez, one of Trump’s spiritual advisers, said evangelical Latinos have a clear reason to vote Republican. “Why do 30 percent of Latinos still support Trump? Because of the Democratic Party’s obsession with abortion,” Rodriguez said. “It’s life and religious liberty and everything else follows.”

Some conservative Latinos say their political leanings make them feel more like a minority than their ethnicity does. Irina Vilariño, 43, a Miami restauranteur and Cuban immigrant, said she had presidential bumper stickers for Sen. John McCain, Mitt Romney and Trump scratched off her car. She said she never suffered from discrimination growing up in a predominantly white south Florida community, “but I remember during the McCain campaign being discriminated against because I supported him.”

The 2018 election was good to Democrats, but Florida disappointed them. They couldn’t convince enough of the state’s often right-leaning Cuban-American voters to support Sen. Bill Nelson, who was ousted by the GOP’s Spanish-speaking Gov. Rick Scott, or rally behind Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who lost to Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis.

Still, in the rest of the country, there were signs that pleased Democrats. Latinos voted at high rates in an election that saw record-setting turnout among all demographic groups. Latinos normally have among the worst midterm turnout rates, and while official data won’t be available for months, a number of formerly-Republican congressional districts in California and New Mexico flipped Democratic.

That’s why Republicans shouldn’t take solace from being able to consistently win about one-third of Latinos, said Madrid. They’re still losing two-thirds of an electorate that’s being goaded into the voting booth by Trump.

“That is contributing to the death spiral of the Republican Party — even if it holds at 30 percent,” Madrid said. “That’s a route to death, it’s just a slower one.”

Gonzalez, the pastor, sees the trend in Colorado. He distributed literature across Spanish-speaking congregations supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, who was crushed by Democratic Rep. Jared Polis as the GOP lost every race for statewide office.

Gonzalez understands the anger among some Latinos at the GOP and Trump for what he says is a false impression of a solely hardline immigration stance. “In the community that is not informed, that is following the rhetoric of the media, there’s a view that Donald Trump is a bad guy,” Gonzalez said. Evangelicals “understand that he’s there to defend values.”

Gonzalez’s church is Iglesia Embajada del Reino, or Church of the Kingdom’s Embassy. On a recent Saturday night, an eight-piece band played Spanish-language Christian rock before Gonzalez walked to the podium. Wearing a blue corduroy blazer, blue shirt and grey slacks, Gonzalez, a onetime member of a Marxist group in Colombia, told his congregants that they were ambassadors of a higher power — the kingdom of God.

“It’s important that your political opinions, your social opinions,” not enter into it, Gonzalez said. “We need to represent the position of ‘The Kingdom.’ ”

Gonzalez did not mention Trump in his sermon, though he spoke about the Bible as a book of governance.

Afterward the congregation gathered for bowls of posole, a traditional Mexican soup. When politics came up, church-goers struggled to balance their enthusiasm for some of Trump’s judicial appointments with their distaste at his rhetoric and actions.

“I think the president has good, Christian principles,” said Jose Larios, a parks worker. “But we feel as Latinos that he doesn’t embrace our community, and our community is good and hard-working.”

Oscar Murillo, a 37-year-old horse trainer, is not a fan of Trump’s. But he tries to stay open-minded about Republicans. He voted for the GOP candidate for state attorney general, who visited the congregation before the election. “He’s in the same party as Trump, but he seems different,” Murillo said.

Source: Latino support for GOP steady despite Trump immigration talk

 

 

Why Trump’s Census Change Could Hit Asian-Americans Especially Hard

Some interesting analysis of how certain groups of Asian Americans will be more affected (and the corresponding groups that overall are doing well and are unlikely to be affected, which the article does not mention):

The Trump administration’s decision to add a question about citizenship to the census does not bode well for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, civil rights groups fear.

Research has already shown that the minority group is significantly undercounted in the survey, with one-fifth of Asian-Americans and one-third of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders living in hard-to-count census areas. This is partly due to the fact that some Asian-American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, subgroups have relatively high rates of poverty, unemployment and educational attainment, among other factors.

Experts say the question about citizenship will significantly reduce participation in the census, and Asian-American civil rights organizations are worried about how the question could affect the growing minority group.

“Given the high number of Asian immigrants, any question regarding citizenship is likely to scare the Asian community. We are very concerned that the addition of citizenship question will disproportionately cause an undercount in the Asian community,” John C. Yang, president and executive director of the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, told HuffPost by email.

“The community already is fearful of the anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration policies advanced by this administration,” Yang added. “At a minimum, the addition of this question will make it even more challenging to ensure that the community has sufficient trust in the census such that they will respond.”

Treating AAPIs as a monolith ignores how poverty and other factors contribute to undercounting in particular AAPI subgroups, according to a joint fact sheet by the Leadership Conference Education Fund and Georgetown Law’s Center On Poverty and Inequality. While it’s often assumed that AAPIs are financially well-off, reports show that Cambodian-, Hmong- and Laotian-Americans, who predominantly came to the U.S. as refugees, experience higher than average rates of poverty and lower levels of income. More than one-third of Nepalese-Americans also live in poverty.

Communities with lower educational attainment are more difficult to count, too. And Southeast Asian-Americans have some of the highest dropout rates in the country, with about 34.3 percent of Laotian-American adults lacking high school diplomas, as well as 40 percent of Hmong-American and nearly the same percentage of Cambodian-American adults. Yet about 90 percent of the general U.S. adult population finishes high school or gets a GED certificate.

Lower rates of English proficiency contribute to undercounting in the census as well. More than one-third of AAPIs have limited English proficiency, defined as a limited ability to read, speak, write or understand English. And the majority of AAPIs speak a language other than English.

What’s more, much of the AAPI community in the U.S. is made up of immigrants. In fact, almost 60 percent of AAPIs were born in another country, and an estimated 1.7 million undocumented AAPI immigrants live in U.S. The concept of a census is completely foreign for many new immigrants, Yang said, which, along with the citizenship question, would further discourage many AAPIs from participating.

Increased undercounting of AAPIs could have notable repercussions, Yang noted. A report from the GW Institute of Public Policy shows that more than $800 billion of federal funding in fiscal year 2016 relied on census data. And with census data meant to determine political representation, lower participation in the survey could mean AAPI concerns go ignored while resources for hospitals, disaster relief services, health care services and more are misallocated, Yang said.

“Undercount of the Asian American Pacific Islander community will leave the community underrepresented, under-resourced, and under-protected,” he explained. “An undercount will mean that congressional districts will be allocated and drawn without an accurate understanding [of] the Asian American community.”

Already, several AAPI organizations have spoken out against the citizenship question. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) chair, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), issued a statement condemning the new measure and expressing her commitment to using the legislative process to stop its implementation.

“The census is essential for ensuring fair and accurate representation and distribution of government resources,” Chu wrote. “But by including a question on citizenship, which is not required by the Constitution, the Trump Administration is exploiting the fear of immigrant communities who are already reticent to divulge personal information to the federal government.”

Social services nonprofit Asian American Federation, along with 35 partners, sent letters to both the CAPAC and the New York Congressional Delegation to advocate against the question. Citing the cost of hiring additional staff for follow-up on unanswered census questions, the question’s lack of testing, and the concerns of immigrant communities, the federation’s executive director, Jo-Ann Yoo, called on legislators to speak out.

Yang is now encouraging members of the public to fight back and make their views known once the U.S. Census Bureau seeks public comment on the questions. He also urges people to call members of Congress to show them how important the issue is to them.

via Why Trump’s Census Change Could Hit Asian-Americans Especially Hard

Poll: Asian-American Discrimination Marked By Individuals’ Prejudice : NPR

Latest in NPR polling on discrimination:

New results from an NPR survey show that large numbers of Asian-Americans experience and perceive discrimination in many areas of their daily lives. This happens despite their having average incomes that outpace other racial, ethnic and identity groups.

The poll, a collaboration among NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also finds a wide gap between immigrant and non-immigrant Asian-Americans in reporting discrimination experiences, including violence and harassment.

“Our poll shows that Asian-American families have the highest average income among the groups we’ve surveyed, and yet the poll still finds that Asian-Americans experience persistent discrimination in housing, jobs and at college,” says Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard Chan School who co-directed the survey. “Over the course of our series, we are seeing again and again that income is not a shield from discrimination.”

In addition to asking about personal experiences with discrimination, we also wanted to find out what people’s perceptions are of discrimination within their own neighborhoods. The numbers for Asian-Americans were lower on this measure than for personal experiences but still show that a notable level of discrimination exists in everyday life.

The survey was conducted among a nationally representative probability-based telephone (cell and landline) sample of 500 Asian-American adults. The margin of error for the total Asian-American response is 5.8 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence interval. Interviews were conducted in English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese. Complete methodological information is in the full poll report.

Looking at the split according to immigration status, we found that nonimmigrant Asian-Americans are more than three times as likely to say they’ve experienced violence because they are Asian and more than twice as likely to say they’ve been threatened or non-sexually harassed because they are Asian.

We also saw a similar gap based on immigration status in terms of experiencing sexual harassment. But it’s important to note that our poll was done earlier this year, before the country’s widespread discussions of sexual assault and harassment in the fall. “These national conversations may have affected how people viewed or responded to their own experiences, or on their willingness to disclose these experiences in a survey,” Blendon says.

via Poll: Asian-American Discrimination Marked By Individuals’ Prejudice : NPR

What’s Keeping Asian-American Lawyers From Ascending The Legal Ranks? : NPR

Useful analysis, including breakdowns by different Asian ethnicities, and the importance of role models:

In 2015, the California Supreme Court reversed the ruling [against non-citizens joining the California Bar – Chang was unable to become a citizen given the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882]. “Even if we cannot undo history, we can acknowledge it and, in doing so, accord a full measure of recognition to Chang’s path-breaking efforts to become the first lawyer of Chinese descent in the United States,” the judges wrote in their decision.

“That case got me thinking about the fact that Asian-Americans have been formally excluded from the legal profession as Chang was, and of course, [with] all the informal barriers,” says California Supreme Court justice Goodwin Liu, who reviewed the case. He said he realized he hadn’t seen a comprehensive study of how Asian-Americans came into the legal profession — so he took it upon himself to lead one.

In the study, Liu shows that though Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the legal field, there’s still a stark lack of Asian-American lawyers in top positions in this country.

In 2015, 10 percent of graduates at the top-30 law schools were Asian-American, according to the study. Yet they only comprised about 6 percent of federal law clerks and 4 percent of state law clerks. Compare that to white students, and you’ll see a striking contrast: 58 percent of students from top-30 schools were white, but still landed 82 percent of all federal clerkships and 80 percent of all state clerkships.

Liu and his co-researchers also found that while Asian-Americans comprise 5 percent of lawyers in the U.S. and 7 percent of law students, only 3 percent of federal judges are Asian-American, and three out of 94 U.S. Attorneys last year were Asian-American.

The study noted that some obstacles Asian-Americans face include a lack of access to mentors, as well as stereotypes of Asians as being unable to assimilate or socially awkward.

“Whereas Asian Americans are regarded as having the ‘hard skills’ required for lawyerly competence, they are regarded as lacking many important ‘soft skills,’ ” the researchers wrote.

The study also pointed out that there’s a dearth of Asian-American lawyers in public service roles:

“It is notable that few Asian Americans appear motivated to pursue law in order to gain a pathway into government or politics. … Greater penetration into these public leadership roles is critical if the increasing number of Asian American attorneys is to translate into increasing influence of Asian Americans in the legal profession and throughout society. A major challenge is to encourage Asian American lawyers to pursue public service roles and to eliminate barriers for those who do.”

When asked to break out the data further by ethnicity, Xiaonan Hu, one of the researchers, told NPR that she noticed Filipino-American and Indian-American respondents were more likely to say they enrolled in law school to work in government or politics than, say, Japanese-American or Korean-American respondents. Two percent of respondents who were Japanese-American and 3 percent of Korean-Americans ranked the entry into government or politics as a top motivator for going to law school, compared to 11 percent of Filipino-Americans and 5 percent of Indian-Americans.

So what could account for this?

“It doesn’t seem like it’s as much about those groups [being] MORE interested in government and politics, but less averse to it,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, wrote in an email.

“For Filipino Americans, many of them made advancements in government and local politics in California and Hawaii, where they have large populations and there were relatively long-standing Filipino communities,” Ramakrishnan, who also runs the project AAPI DATA, said.

“Indian Americans, by comparison, are much more recently arrived in the United States (with their population booming in the last 2 decades). That normally would mean that we would not expect them to be involved in politics. But, past research indicates that prior experience with democracy and high English proficiency tend to mean greater political participation.”

And while there are rampant structural issues that need to be addressed, Chris Kang, former National Director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said that emphasizing role models can sometimes be powerful.

When Kang was working with the Obama administration as Pres. Obama’s Deputy Counsel, he helped appoint federal judges. Kang said he and his team tried to highlight each new justice’s ethnicity and gender.

“It wasn’t just, ‘the first Asian-American judge in the district,’ but we really went and highlighted ‘the first Vietnamese-American, the first Filipino-American,’ ” Kang told NPR.

“If there’s someone of your particular ethnicity — or an Asian-American woman, [where there’s] only been two to the federal bench before — seeing now a dozen of them starts to make a difference,” Kang said, “and you start to think as you’re going into law school or you’re a lawyer considering what’s next for you, that a judgeship might be possible.”

Source: What’s Keeping Asian-American Lawyers From Ascending The Legal Ranks? : Code Switch : NPR

The real secret to Asian American success was not education – The Washington Post

Interesting and relevant study on how barriers affect mobility:

This claim has been with us since at least the 1960s, when it served as a popular rejoinder to the challenges issued by the civil rights movement. Many newspapers printed flattering portraits of Asian Americans to cast skepticism on the people marching for economic and social justice.

“At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift the Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own,” claimed a 1966 story in the U.S. News and World Report, which noted their “strict discipline” and “traditional virtues.”

To the extent that all myths are rooted in truth, this model minority stereotype recognizes a real pattern of Asian upward mobility. A century ago, Asian Americans were known as laborers of the lowest wage. They were ditch diggers, launderers, miners. Yet over the decades, despite poverty, racial violence and widespread discrimination, many Asians managed to clamber up the socioeconomic ladder.

Until now, the story of how that happened has been poorly understood.

“The widespread assumption is that Asian Americans came to the United States very disadvantaged, and they wound up advantaged through extraordinary investments in their children’s education,” says Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger.

But that’s not what really happened, he says.

Hilger recently used old census records to trace the fortunes of whites, blacks and Asians who were born in California during the early- to mid-20th century. He found that educational gains had little to do with how Asian Americans managed to close the wage gap with whites by the 1970s.

Instead, his research suggests that society simply became less racist toward Asians.

Asian Americans have been part of the United States for most of its history. The first major wave of immigrants came in the 1800s, when Chinese laborers flocked to California to help build railroads. Their presence soon stirred up resentments among white Americans. The Chinese Massacre of 1871, which took place in the streets of Los Angeles, counts among the largest lynchings in U.S. history.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which shut the door on the influx of low-skilled Chinese labor. By 1924, nearly all immigration from Asian nations was banned. Despite widespread discrimination, many families remained, settling mostly in California. Opinion surveys from that era show that whites expressed extreme prejudice against both Asian and African Americans. Asians also lived in segregated neighborhoods and often sent their children to segregated schools. To survive, many opened their own businesses because no one would employ them.

Hilger’s research focuses on native-born whites, blacks and Asians to rule out the effects of subsequent immigration. In 1965, changing laws ushered in a surge of high-skilled, high-earning Asian workers, who now account for most of the Asians living in the United States today.

But even before the arrival of those highly educated immigrants, the Asians already living in the United States had more or less closed the wage gap with whites.

At the time of the 1940 census, Hilger found, California-born Asian men earned less than California-born black men. By the 1970 census, they were earning about the same as white men, and by the 1980 census, the native-born Asian men were out-earning white men.

Throughout this time, many Asian American families did invest, increasingly, in their children’s education. But Hilger discovered that the improvements in educational attainment were too modest to explain how Asians’ earnings grew so fast.

The picture became much clearer when he compared people with similar levels of education. Hilger found that in the 1940s, Asian men were paid less than white men with the same amount of schooling. But by the 1980s, that gap had mostly disappeared.

“Asians used to be paid like blacks,” Hilger said. “But between 1940 and 1970, they started to get paid like whites.” The charts below shows average earnings for native-born black, white and Asian depending on how much education they had.

In 1980, for instance, even Asian high school dropouts were earning about as much as white high school dropouts, and vastly more than black high school dropouts. This dramatic shift had nothing to do with Asians accruing more education. Instead, Hilger points to the slow dismantling of discriminatory institutions after World War II, and the softening of racist prejudices. That’s the same the explanation advanced by economists Harriet Orcutt Duleep and Seth Sanders, who found that in the second half of the 20th century, Asian Americans not only started to work in more lucrative industries, but also started to get paid more for the same kind of work.

In other words, the remarkable upward mobility of California-born Asians wasn’t about superior schooling (not yet, anyway). It was the result of Asians finally receiving better opportunities — finally earning equal pay for equal skills and equal work.

Why couldn’t African Americans close the wage gap? It’s hard to say. Hilger found some evidence that there were underlying differences in skill. Between Asians and African Americans with the same amount of schooling, African Americans tended to achieve lower scores on military enlistment tests during the 1940s.

But it’s also likely that postwar racial attitudes shifted differently for Asians than for African Americans. In the 1850s, newspapers in California complained that Chinese immigrants were the dregs of the laboring class, having “most of the vices and few of the virtues of the African.” Yet by the 1960s, attitudes had completely flipped. Journalists praised Asians for being hard workers who cherished education, kept their heads down and rarely complained.

The Asian Advantage: Kristof – The New York Times

Looking at the various factors that may play a role:

Does the success of Asian-Americans suggest that the age of discrimination is behind us?

How Are Different Asian-American Groups Faring Economically? : Code Switch : NPR

Asian AmericansSome highlights from a US Department of Labour Report on Asian Americans:

“Overall, 53.4 percent of Asians over the age of 25 have a bachelors degree or higher — the highest percentage by far among the major race groups.”

“The AAPI community has the second highest share of unemployed workers who are long-term unemployed 41.7 percent … Asian Americans who are unemployed, are without work for longer than whites and Hispanics.”

“When controlled for age, sex and educational attainment, unemployment rate for Indians is actually higher than comparable whites. This difference suggests that the Indian community as a whole tends to be more educated, but when looking at similarly situated white workers, their employment outcomes are less favorable.”

How Are Different Asian-American Groups Faring Economically? : Code Switch : NPR.