Hyper-Selectivity and the Remaking of Culture: Understanding the Asian American Achievement Paradox

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Abstract

Asian Americans are frequently deployed as racial mascots by pundits who fixate on their extraordinary levels of educational attainment. They comprise only 5.5% of the U.S. population, yet about one fifth of the entering classes in Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Pundits have attributed these educational outcomes to cultural factors, underpinned by values or traits that are innately Asian. However, this cultural explanation fails to consider the pivotal role of U.S. immigration law which has ushered in a new stream of highly educated, highly skilled Asian immigrants. Based on a qualitative study of adult children of immigrants in metropolitan Los Angeles, we find that hyper-selectivity (as opposed to hypo-selectivity) of contemporary immigration significantly influences the educational trajectories and outcomes in the members of the 1.5 and second generation beyond individual family or parental socioeconomic characteristics, leading to group-based advantages (or disadvantages) that are consequential. Our analysis of qualitative data shows that the children of hyper-selected immigrant groups begin their quest to get ahead from more favorable starting points, are guided by a more constricting success frame, and have greater access to ethnic capital than those of other immigrant groups. In turn, hyper-selectivity gives rise to stereotype promise — the boost in performance that comes with being favorably perceived and treated as smart, high-achieving, hardworking, and deserving students—that benefits members of the group so stereotyped. Our analysis also suggests that, while the so-called positive stereotype enhances the academic performance of Asian American students, the same stereotype reproduces new stereotypes that hinder them as they pursue leadership positions in the workplace. We suggest that Asian American professionals face a bamboo ceiling—an invisible barrier that impedes their upward mobility much like the glass ceiling does for women.

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