The Economics of Asian American Privilege

Students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino

[also posted at]

 Age group competitive soccer in the San Francisco bay area is essentially comprised of two social classes: the affluent, predominantly white families that at away tournaments eat at nice restaurants and stay at expensive hotels and the non-white predominantly Latino immigrant families that bring their own food and extended family to games. At a recent tournament, I made small talk with one of the dads as we attempted to fit into the first group. He’s a middle-aged Russian immigrant and I asked him what he did for work. It turned out he’s a data scientist who works for a large insurance company. He creates data models that predict things like bay area housing price trends.
He in turn asked if I was a programmer. I told him I was a pastor but it was a good guess. He agreed. After all his algorithm had calculated the probability was high. I love immigrant candor.
This question encapsulates why I live in the bay area. Where else do I get mistaken for a software engineer? In the bay area, I can walk into a nice restaurant wearing outdoor performance gear and because the wait staff will presume I’m a stock option baller who works at Facebook or Google or some start-up company with a clever-sounding name that has a tenuous relationship with the product made, I will be seated pronto. They treat me well because I’m a nerd and in the bay area, nerds rule the world. If I lived in some rural town in the Midwest, people would see me and think “Who are you? Why are you here? Are you bringing me Chinese take-out?”
Asian American privilege, in its highest form, exists in major metro areas with a high rate of professional employment, a prestigious university, and a large immigrant population. In my new church, we have white people moving out of the area to quaint places like Shingle Springs, CA and Bend, OR. Educated Asian Americans don’t move to those areas. We have no privilege there. What kind of work would we do? More importantly, how would we eat? Who is going to seat us immediately when we walk in wearing a Patagonia 100% recycled fleece pullover? Who is going to serve Japanese noodle soup that we wait two hours for and then post pics of on Instagram? Where are Asian women going to dine with their white boyfriends? Where are Asian guys going to congregate? That stuff is important to Asian Americans like me.
My wife’s cousin from Taiwan can tell if someone at first glance is an American, including Asian Americans, not based on their attire but by their body language. There’s a difference in posture. We stand up straighter and we strut. We tend to look down on people rather than look up in submissiveness. We take up more space. If you’re a male, it’s called man-spreading. Our facial expressions are more expressive and we use expansive hand gestures. We are louder in public – not just louder in groups but louder in public as individuals. An American is the only person in the world that can be as loud solo as in a group.
I have British-born Chinese friends in Scotland. Their parents were Chinese immigrants (mainly from the Guangdong area) and came over to open restaurants. I observed their body language. When we were in public, it felt like they crept around the margins – not quite fitting in and feeling sort of invisible. That doesn’t happen very often to me in the bay area. When it does, it’s when the white to non-white ratio is worse than 10:1 like at an Irish pub in Los Gatos. And then I’m only invisible because everyone is taller than me. You’ll never see anything approaching a white:non-white ratio of 10:1 in any high-tech company except perhaps in the sales or HR department.
Therefore, body language is a proxy for the degree of privilege you enjoy. The greater the privilege, the more expansive the body language. That’s another metric for Asian American privilege. You’ll see it in the way bay area Asian Americans move. We strut around like we own the place. Because we often do.
Claire Jean Kim, a political science and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine, writes:
Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a “model minority” whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites.
She doesn’t provide support for the first claim. And her second statement contradicts the claim of the first. I agree with her second statement but the adjective I want to challenge is Kim’s contention that Asian American privilege is “priceless”. That’s inexcusable hyperbole coming from a professor because it is simply not true. Privilege is quantifiable and it is bounded. The price of Asian American privilege in the bay area is between $1.5 – $2M. You can come straight from China with a boatload of cash and your suitcases of money will buy you an older three bedroom, two bathroom house in a predominantly Asian (or significantly affluent immigrant) city like Cupertino or San Jose neighborhood like Almaden. For the money, you will receive social cachet and the privilege for your children to go to school with their Tiger Mom-raised peers. This is where the future software engineers of America will grow up. For the same price, you can buy 5-8 decent homes in rural Missouri but you will be utterly priced out of the social cachet market. That’s why affluent Asian Americans live here. The housing may be ridiculously expensive but at least there’s access to social capital. Asian American privilege absolutely has a price tag. Your dollar can buy you privilege here whereas in other places it gets you pennies on the dollar.
Let’s take the economic perspective even further. Consumer demand theory dictates people consume goods and services in order to to maximize utility. Utility is the abstract amount of satisfaction derived from the consumption of a good or service. Given a scarcity of goods and services, a consumer will spend his money in a way that maximizes utility. Now replace “utility” with “privilege”. Privilege is the social status conferred from the purchase of goods and services – specifically, the house you live in (and its surrounding neighborhood) or your occupation. I’m absolutely arguing that privilege can be bought. So with that in mind, here’s my hypothesis:
A consumer will spend his money to live in an area or pursue an occupation that maximizes the amount of privilege he will receive in return.
This explains why ethnic enclaves (or “ethnoburbs”) exist. Immigrants move to an area/neighborhood, bid up home prices, make the schools more competitive, and once a critical mass is attained, the momentum of privilege will shift in their favor. That is what has happened in cities like Cupertino and neighborhoods like Almaden. The homes are ridiculous expensive but Asian consumers understand the privilege their money is buying. It’s privilege that can’t be bought in Shingle Springs or Bend. It’s the privilege of having your kids grow up in an atmosphere of software engineer aspirations and the accompanying pressure to excel in math and science.
It also explains white flight. The author of this article about white flight from “ethnoburbs” like Cupertino and Johns Creek, a suburb of Atlanta, thinks it’s all about racism. She writes:
Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism. They’ve defined the term so narrowly, their own individual acts of prejudice don’t meet it. I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that Asians possess a sort of primal urge to self-segregate, that they choose to live in clusters, that these clusters of predominantly Asian neighborhoods make whites feel uncomfortable, so they leave. The so-called “choice” to live together ignores the very real social and economic realities of Asians who immigrate to the U.S.
The half-Indian author presumes racism is the motivation behind white flight and yet somehow when we Asian Americans segregate in ethnic clusters, we aren’t guilty of the same thing because racism. And yet if you view privilege in terms of utility and we’re all consumers making rational choices about maximizing privilege, then it all makes sense. It’s not so much about overcoming or expressing racism but consumers acting in their own self-interest. When white people complain about their kids growing up in an over-competitive (code for Asian) environment, what they’re really saying is “The privilege my money buys in this neighborhood has declined because of the influx of Asians”. Of course they’re going to seek more affordable white privilege. They’re behaving as rational consumers.
Racism means privilege costs more when you’re not white but it doesn’t change the underlying economics. On the price spectrum of minorities, it’s cheapest when you’re Asian and most expensive when you’re black. But when you view the world solely through the lens of race, you’re holding a hammer and everything looks like a nail. There are other possible ways to view segregation. So before we start whacking on all the racist nails sticking out, it might help to put on a more pragmatic lens. It will lead us to an important possibility: it may be more helpful to understand segregation in economic terms rather than solely racial ones. At least that’s what my predictive data model says. You can trust me because even though I’m not a software engineer, at least I look like one.


  1. Josh Deng says:

    Good stuff. I love that there are most posts showing up on this website!

  2. Robert Wilson III says:

    “And yet if you view privilege in terms of utility and we’re all consumers making rational choices about maximizing privilege, then it all makes sense. It’s not so much about overcoming or expressing racism but consumers acting in their own self-interest. When white people complain about their kids growing up in an over-competitive (code for Asian) environment, what they’re really saying is ‘The privilege my money buys in this neighborhood has declined because of the influx of Asians’. Of course they’re going to seek more affordable white privilege. They’re behaving as rational consumers.”

    I vehemently disagree with this. Your analysis of white motivation is off, as a white male in my 20’s who was born in raised in the bay area, Ca here’s my take on “white flight.”

    First off, when you hear white families complaining about schools being too competitive, there is no hidden agenda, they mean what they are saying in the literal sense. White people do not want their kids to feel pressure to compete with peers, and would rather, in general, have supportive classrooms where kids can make friends and be themselves without external forces making them feel inadequate — for many white people this sort of community is personally offensive. As such, if parents share their opinions to a school, and feel as if there voices are not being hear or are not being respected, this can be a real cause for a family to leave the neighborhood, and in bad contention no less, feeling bitter that their community where they’ve lived and built their lives for the past x years has turned against them. There is no conscious desire to buy privilege, it’s just that they do not want their children to live inside pressure cookers. Now it’s a real problem if the Asian community prioritizes their world views over that of other communities. The solution has to be compromise and mutual respect in order to prevent “white flight” though this has nothing to do with race, it has everything to do with people and their opinions of how things should be done. In essence, this is about culture influencing these opinions, and if one group of people is unwilling to compromise, conflict ensues and people become upset.

    Now, “white flight” has other explanations, none of which mentioned in this article. The first and foremost is that many white people can no longer afford the price of housing in Cupertino, and are forced to move where it is cheaper, say $800,000 – $500,000 homes. Along these lines, many white people have had their homes foreclosed in recent years due to an inability to pay their mortgages. The reason is that almost no white people are engineers, and as such the only ones who can afford housing in this area are those with high enough incomes, which means they have to be a part of management or in medicine and affiliated positions such as dentistry and what have you. The reason for this is that the fact is that most white people are naturally very bad at mathematics and science, and prefer to study humanities, or are good at humanities and naturally bad with STEM. And in fact, this struggle with mathematics caused many white families today to drop out of college with no degree, often citing failing calculus 1 as the reason. The white people you see in engineering jobs come from a different lineage than most white people in general, many of which having semitic ties — note, most white people you see come from an English or Mediterranean (East Europe, Slavs, Italians and Spanish/Hispanic, and Greek) background, and a great many others come from an Anglo-Saxon background (German) and finally some are Nordic (Northern Europe) and some are Celtic (slightly different from traditionally English people). So it’s a huge mistake to assume white people are monolithic, in fact, it’s just as bad as assuming all Asians are Chinese. Again, most white engineers are Semitic whites, with Jewish heritage. The rest likely do not even have a bachelor’s degree, which in the 70’s and 80’s was normal. In their 20’s most white people only needed a high school diploma to get a good job, which is why most baby boomers are not very educated today. This distinction, then, is what proves that “privilege” is not an economic decision or behavior, rather privilege is a set of social circumstances such that white people grew up in this country as the majority and homogeneous group of people with their own cultures, given that we kidnapped Northern Africans and brought them to the US as slaves and later oppressed their descendants with our politics, African-Americans. Much like Asian countries today. Imagine White-Americans immigrating to South Korea in clusters, eventually populating an entire city opening Barbecue shops, Biker Pubs and Pizza Parlors. Maybe even an “American Town,” bringing Harleys and Chevys with them, and that would be the equivalent of, say, China Town in SF or whatever. I would expect many Koreans to move out of this town due to many factors, the primary being differences in opinions of how things should get done in schools, local politics and culture. The story would be even more similar if only wealthy Americans immigrated to Korea, and bought up all their most expensive properties in cash, displacing Koreans, possibly forcing them to live in lower-income neighborhoods. I would expect this sort of thing is unthinkable in Korea right now, but it is exactly what is going on in California.

    Now, with this said, the privilege of Asian Americans definitely exists, but it is a different sort of privilege than White Americans, it is primarily an economic priviliage. To have wealthy parents who have advanced degrees, to live in the most expensive neighborhoods in the country with the lowest crime rates — is a privilege. To have families who unconditionally support funding your education is a privilege. To be able to buy up an entire town and live in familiar culture is a privilege, and to earn advanced degrees because of this is a privilege, and in my opinion, Asian Americans should start recognizing their privilege and perhaps may one day deserve to be told to “check their privilege” as whites are often told today. I say this as a 23 year old white male struggling to pay for college because my family makes $250,000 a year but doesn’t feel like paying for my education. So I did community college, and then had to wait until now turning age 24 to be considered as an independent student with the fafsa, in order to go to a good university, while working 30 hours a week as a full time student at CC. And mind you, many are not even as fortunate as I, many continue working full time at something like a CSU because the tuition is lower, even if their family income is high because their family is likely spending their money on themselves and will not prioritize their children’s education, or were irresponsible and had to file for a bankruptcy, had a home forclosed, got divorce(s) (yes, plural) and continue to spend on themselves rather than ever even consider their kids education as a worthy expense. And this, in my honest opinion, is the true “Asian Privilege.” Asian families, and the opportunities they afford their children, are their privilege. Their unconditional commitment to their success is their privilege, and the realities and manifestations of this attitude — the nice neighborhoods they live in, the college education they get, and the jobs that these things give them: software engineers, for instance, are their privilege, and their oblivious nature to never have to ever think about these privileges, is their privilege. The ability to think that all of these things are of their own accomplishment and hard work, and not their family situation is their privilege. And their ability to expect other people in their communities to adhere to their way of doing things or else force the opposition to leave with their majority power play, is their privilege.

    Yes white people have privilege, but a different kind of privilege, and a worse kind of privilege than Asians.

    I say this as a progressive left wing type of guy, and I do not in any way endorse prejudice and racism, but I do endorse calling people out on their double standards, and right now the Asian American community is a plenty with double standards that aren’t fair to the people they assail.

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