There’s a popular idea in the United States that all Asian Americans are, as the title of a 2018 film put it, “crazy rich.” Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have the highest income of any race, including white people. Among U.S. residents, we are the most likely to graduate college and are visibly overrepresented in lucrative occupations like software engineers and doctors (NBC News, Vox). However, the false idea that Asian Americans are universally wealthy obscures the reality that income inequality among Asians in the United States is greater than within any other racial group (Pew). Ignoring the stark Asian wealth gap is corrosive to true solidarity and necessary change.
• Support Adhikaar, Burmese Community Services, the Burmese Rohingya Community of Georgia, LaoSD, Sakhi for South Asian Women, the Tongan Community Resource Center, Zomi Innkuan, or another organization working in an under-served AAPI community.
• Support the ACE Collaborative, the Asian Law Caucus, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, CAAAV, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, or another organization supporting working-class AAPI people.
When we picture Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), who comes to mind? It’s likely an East Asian person, like people of Japanese or Chinese descent. That’s why the movement to fight back against attacks against East Asian people unified under the banner of #StopAAPIHate. But AAPI isn’t a nationality or even a term of community affinity: it’s a U.S. Census category (NPR). AAPI people have vastly distinct cultures, customs, experiences, with roots in countries spread over half the globe, from Iran to Sri Lanka and Samoa to Kazakhstan (UNESCO). The countries with the largest Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu populations are all in Asia (Pew). Afghanistan is an Asian country. Because of the occupation of Guam, the Northern Marianas, American Samoa, and the state of Hawaii, the United States is, too. In fact, most human beings are AAPI: around 60% of the global population lives in an Asian or Pacific Island nation (Statista). Needless to say, not everyone in these dozens of countries is rich.
The same goes for AAPI immigrants in the United States. A quarter of Mongolian and Burmese American households are in poverty, over twice the national average. The median Burmese American household income is less than the median Black household income. Laotian, Nepalese, and Hmong American households make less than the national average. Just 15% of Bhutanese people in the United States have a bachelor’s degree (Pew).
The high average incomes of nationalities like Taiwanese and Indian Americans pull up the average AAPI income (NBC News). This is not because of the superhuman intelligence and work ethic of people from these countries, as the racist “model minority” myth claims, but because of an oppressive immigration system. Since 1990, one of the few avenues to legally work in the United States as a non-citizen is as a “skilled worker” on a restrictive H1-B visa (CNN). These visas “offer temporary status, and companies hold power over workers by offering eventual citizenship while paying them less than American workers” (Vox). H1-B workers are often employed by tech firms. Though paid less than their citizen coworkers, their wages are still high enough to paint the incorrect picture of Asian workers being universally wealthy. Of course, even high-earning AAPI nationalities have many members who work in low-wage industries like hospitality and food service.
“I go to a private college and when people see Chinese people, they assume I have a lot of money going to this school and that fits with the stereotype that Chinese people are rich,” said Rosa Chen, a student activist whose mother doesn’t work because of a disability and whose father is a cook in San Francisco’s Chinatown. “Everyone I grew up around was struggling economically like us” (NBC News). Asian Americans comprise both some of the victims and some of the beneficiaries of gentrification in Chen’s childhood neighborhood.
Working-class East and South Asian people and people from under-resourced communities like Laotian and Burmese Americans are unjustly thought of as privileged because other immigrants from the world’s largest ocean and largest continent have wealth. Many individuals face poverty and exploitation alongside language barriers and discrimination in healthcare, housing, and employment. Because of the stark Asian wealth gap, they include members of some of the poorest and most oppressed nationalities in the United States.
In the words of sociologist C.N. Le:
“There’s an assumption that white Americans make about Asian-American social class status based on racial identity. It’s the idea of the model minority; that Asian Americans are successful, high income, studious, hard working, quiet. That’s the prevailing image that white Americans have and it’s of course a set of stereotypes” (NBC News).
Supporting AAPI communities has to mean more than simply objecting to us being stabbed at bus stops or beaten with cinder blocks (CNN). It should go without saying that acknowledging that these things are bad is literally the bare minimum of human decency. But AAPI communities in the U.S. need more than just not being stabbed. We need Asian communities to be empowered to fight off predatory developers. We need the self-determination of the Pacific Island nations occupied by the United States. We need power and justice for Asian workers and unemployed people. We need communities like those of Bangladeshi and Hmong people to be recognized and resourced. And we need the elimination of an immigration system that benefits tech executives while barring working-class people from entry or forcing them to work under the table.
• Asian American and Pacific Islander people in the U.S. have the highest median income.
• The Asian wealth gap is also the highest of any racial category, meaning that some Asian nationalities are among the worst-paid.
• Working-class AAPI people of all ethnicities face structural obstacles and exploitation.