- Center for Migration and Development
- Program in Asian American Studies
The fastest growing ethno-racial group in the United States, Asian Americans are the most highly educated, the highest earning, and the most likely to intermarry. Once deemed diseased, morally bankrupt, and unfit for citizenship, Asian Americans have attained unprecedented racial mobility, now boasting educational and economic outcomes that surpass those of native-born whites. Their socioeconomic attainment has led some social scientists to speculate that Asians are rapidly assimilating into American mainstream and remaking it in the process. While Asian American attainment defies theories of racial disadvantage, their experiences with xenophobia, racism, and anti-Asian violence vex theories of assimilation — pointing to an assimilation paradox. At no recent time has the paradox become more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. We argue that the paradox reflects two tensions: the ahistorical nature of sociologists’ research on assimilation; and the disjuncture between the way sociologists normatively measure assimilation and the way ethno-racial minorities experience it. The gap between the normative and the subject-centered occupies the epistemological space between canonical assumptions of assimilation and the lived experiences of Asian Americans. Integrating the legacy of exclusion into theories of assimilation and incorporating a subject-centered approach into empirical measures of it, we advance theory and research, and reclaim narratives of Asian American assimilation in the process. Despite their socioeconomic attainment and rapid racial mobility, the majority of Asian Americans do not feel they completely belong in the United States, and perceive their racial status as more similar to people of color than to Whites by a margin of three-to-one.