By Dylan Walsh
A 1971 Newsweek story touting the extraordinary accomplishments of Asian immigrants bore the wince-inducing headline “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites.” Sixteen years later, in August of 1987, Time magazine walked a similar path with its cover story, “Those Asian American Whiz Kids.”
Such titles wouldn’t fly today, but the stereotype they reflect has persisted with surprising stubbornness. “When people think of Asian Americans, they tend to think of high-achieving Japanese or Chinese or Indian Americans,” says Michael Kraus, a social psychologist at the Yale School of Management. “Maybe the person in mind is quiet and a bit awkward; they are going to excel in school, probably get a job in medicine, finance, or tech, and have money—those are the beliefs that come to mind when we think of Asian Americans.” But this collapse of a diverse population into a simplified image doesn’t represent reality. And in fact, according to new research by Kraus, even such a seemingly positive stereotype may be causing significant harm.
The label “Asian American” captures people from more than a dozen countries who together represent a vast spectrum of backgrounds. Contrary to the stereotype of the Asian American educational and socioeconomic pedigree, nearly 40% of Hmong Americans, 38% of Laotian Americans, and 35% of Cambodian Americans drop out of high school; these groups, along with Vietnamese Americans, earn incomes below the national average.
Kraus, who has long studied race and inequality, wanted to understand how the stereotype of the high-achieving Asian American influences what people believe about the gap in wealth between Asian and white Americans. In a recent study, forthcoming in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, he found that the presence of this stereotype drives people to overestimate the level of wealth equality between Asian and white Americans.
Kraus; Enya Entung Kuo, a student at UCLA; and Jennifer Richeson, the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale, ran a series of experiments in which they asked participants to estimate wealth equality between the two groups after they either bolstered or punctured the “high-status” stereotype of Asian Americans. The reality is that for every $100 that a white American earns, an Asian American averages about $85.
In one experiment, half of participants read and heard the story of Sophia Meng, a Cambodian-American refugee who escaped civil war with her parents; her mother is a supermarket cashier, her father is unemployed, and she works part-time. The other participants read about a doppelganger Sophia Meng who immigrated to the U.S. with a software engineer father and a radiologist mother; her biggest concern is whether she’ll be accepted at Harvard. After this setup, Kraus and his coauthors asked participants to estimate the wealth gap between whites and Asians.
Another experiment asked half of participants to guess the Asian-white wealth gap for Asian Americans in general; the participants were then asked the same question across 10 Asian subgroups. The other half of participants was asked the same questions in reverse order. Splitting Asian Americans into distinct subgroups was designed to counter the stereotype.
Across all of the experiments, Kraus found that “high-status exemplars play a very strong role in misperceptions of the wealth gap.” When study participants were led to think of wealthy Asian American immigrants, or even when they were left to their default stereotypes, they estimated what was essentially wealth parity between Asian and white Americans. “But when people were deliberately prompted to think about the several subgroups that constitute Asian Americans and were disabused of their ‘high-status’ stereotypes,” he says, “their estimate of the gap became much more accurate.”
These results align with Kraus’s prior work examining the beliefs people hold about current levels of equality between black and white Americans. Looking at a range of indicators—from wealth and income to healthcare—Kraus found a gaping chasm between the rosy views people hold about inequality and the stark reality. (For every $100 in household wealth held by white households, black Americans hold just $5 in wealth; for every $100 in income earned by a white family, a black family earned $57.30.) This is explained, in part, by the inflated optimism people possess about America’s progress in pursuit of racial equality.
Kraus pointed to two core problems raised by the misperception of Asian American wealth demonstrated in the new study. First, “conceiving of Asian Americans as uniformly high-status may divert social safety net programs away from Asian American communities that are, in fact, living in poverty,” he says. “It can obscure the most vulnerable.”
Second, seeing Asian Americans as a monolithic, successful minority can reinforce troubling stereotypes of other minority groups—and cause people to underestimate the effect of institutional bias. Even though Asian Americans face discrimination, the argument goes, they are able to succeed because of a cultural orientation toward education and hard work. And if they can do it, why can’t other minority groups? By this distorted logic, a cultural deficiency in the other groups is the clearest answer. Kraus’s work is one way of showing that this cultural argument rests on an inaccurate perception.
On the bright side, Kraus’s work hints that puncturing assumptions about groups of people can potentially help curtail the many discriminatory effects that flow from stereotyping. “People have strong beliefs about how well other people are doing relative to them—beliefs that are often wrong and difficult to change,” Kraus says. “This small manipulation seems to work pretty well in getting people to think beyond the exemplars they have in mind.”
Enya Entung Kuo, the study’s lead author and an undergraduate at UCLA, was part of the new Yale Summer Internship in Organizational Behavior, an immersive experience for nontraditional and underrepresented students, both undergraduates and recent college graduates, who are considering careers in the field of organizational behavior.