Asian Americans don’t see same returns on education as whites in Chicago

Photo by Emily Jan

Salma Mukhi (left) owns a fabric store on a section of Devon Avenue that is home to a large South Asian population, one of the many diverse Asian American communities in Chicago.

May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Filled with celebrations of Asian American culture and achievements, the month commemorates the vital role Asian American and Pacific Islanders have played in U.S. history. But often forgotten—or overlooked—is the fact that Asian Americans have been historically discriminated against and continue to face many barriers.

Stereotyped as a “model minority,” they are viewed by many as prime examples of successful assimilation and what is possible for other immigrants with a bit of hard work. Most people thus assume that Asian Americans are uniformly thriving. The reality is much more complicated.

A new report from the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy shows that the lives of Asian Americans in Chicago are fundamentally shaped by racial inequities that force them to work harder to receive the same opportunities and benefits as white Chicagoans.

In housing, education, and economics, there is great diversity of experiences among the many national and ethnic groups falling under the umbrella of “Asian American.” Originating from all parts of the Asian continent, speaking many different languages, and having distinct histories and cultural traditions, one could argue that there is very little in common across the many ethnic and nation origin groups that fall under the label “Asian American.”  But across this diversity, Asian Americans in Chicago are collectively burdened by stereotypes framing them simultaneously as “model minorities” and as “forever foreign.” As a result, many Asian Americans in Chicago have a harder time finding good jobs, receiving equal pay, and acquiring basic services.

In education, Asian Americans are often seen as having an advantage, whether because of some imagined inherent talent or because of some imagined unique “cultural disposition” towards educational success. This assumption of universal educational accomplishment masks important variation across Asian ethnic groups. Asian Americans are overrepresented not only among Chicago’s most educated, but also among the least educated. For example, when you look at group level educational achievement levels you see that on average Asian American Chicagoans are just as likely as white Chicagoans to have a college degree. Yet, they are also twice as likely as whites to have never graduated from high school. In fact, as our report documents anew, groups like Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian Chicagoans have some of the highest percentages of individuals who have never graduated from high school.

Attending to variation across Asian American Chicagoans in educational outcomes is important.  Also important is recognizing that even for those Asian American Chicagoans who have achieved high levels of education, they do not receive the same returns to education.  For those Asian Americans who have achieved high levels of education, the payoff they receive for these additional years of schooling is lower than it is for whites.  For instance, on average Asian American Chicagoans with a college degree only make $10 an hour more than Asian American Chicagoans who have less than a high school degree. For whites, this return on education is $15 an hour.

These patterns of discrimination show up across a number of important domains of social and economic life.  When looking at housing, for example, we found that Asian Americans in Chicago are three percentage points less likely to be approved for a home loan than whites, even when their income and the requested loan amount are the same. This gap in home loan approval is even larger if they are applying to live in majority-white neighborhoods.

The report debunks any notion that Asian Americans are a “model minority” unaffected by racial inequality. Like blacks and Latinos in Chicago, Asian Americans are also disadvantaged by structures of racial inequity that privilege whites.

As many in Chicago honor Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, our celebrations should take place alongside reflection of the ways this group is affected by racial inequity. To truly honor Asian Americans, we need to do more than celebrate. We need to raise our awareness of the racial inequities affecting this group and commit to challenging the barriers that stem from it.