Fellows' Corner, From the AAPSS|

This month, the Dispatch will introduce a new regular feature, the “Fellows’ Corner.” In addition to posts from our president and executive director, the AAPSS will periodically publish pieces by our fellows reflecting on their work, their inductions, and more. This first essay comes from Jennifer Lee, our 2023 Samuel A. Stouffer Fellow.

If you are an AAPSS Fellow and would like to contribute to this column in future editions of the Dispatch, please contact Jessica Erfer.

I began graduate school more than three decades ago, in the fall of 1992—just a few months after the Los Angeles riots. I felt helpless as I witnessed the coverage from the East Coast, and I grew increasingly frustrated by the predictable tropes of both violent Black customers and the prejudiced Korean immigrant merchants who served them.

Jennifer Lee,
2023 Samuel A. Stouffer Fellow

Media accounts would soon focus on Black–Korean tensions as the source and engine behind intergroup conflict in poor, Black neighborhoods like South Central, West Philadelphia, and Harlem. As a daughter of Korean immigrant merchants who had worked in my parents’ businesses since I was 12, I recognized just how reductive this framing was.

So, I began graduate school with a mission to advance theories of race relations beyond the Black–white binary and to conduct research that would shed light on the effects of immigration—especially Asian immigration—on the U.S.-born population. During my time as a graduate student, I took courses on race and ethnicity, urban sociology, stratification, inequality, law, and so on, but not once did research on Asian Americans appear on my syllabi. Since absence was the norm, it never occurred to me to ask for—let alone demand—a more diverse reading list; so, like any determined graduate student, I created my own.

Now, as a faculty member, I realize the absurdity of this absence. It would be inconceivable for us to teach a course on race without including research on the experiences of African Americans, and we would not imagine teaching a course on immigration without including Latino immigration. Yet we have taught—and still teach—courses on immigration and race that exclude research on Asian Americans, even though more immigrants come to the U.S. from China and India than from Mexico.

Asians are the only American ethnoracial group that is majority foreign-born—a fact that belies stereotypes of Latinos as the quintessential immigrant group. By 2055, the number of Asian immigrants will surpass the number of Hispanic immigrants, and the U.S. Asian population will have doubled.

As observers of the social world, we must ask ourselves what we are missing and getting wrong when we fail to include Asian Americans in our research.

Allow me to give an example based on a recently published study by two economists, Ying Shi and Maria Zhu. The authors analyzed administrative data from North Carolina, covering students from third to eighth grades. Their data provide a key analytic advantage by including both students’ standardized test scores in reading and math and teachers’ assessments of the students’ skills in these areas.

Comparing the two sets of scores, the authors find that teachers “overrate” Asian students in their subjective evaluation of them compared to white students with comparable standardized test scores—even after adjusting for nativity, class, and a host of behavioral measures like school absences. They also find that the presence of Asian students has spillover effects for Black and Hispanic students: a single Asian student in a classroom amplifies teachers’ negative assessments of Black and Hispanic students relative to academically comparable white students.

Hence, the mere presence of Asian students in a class widens the Black–white and Hispanic–white achievement gaps when achievement is assessed by teachers. In addition, teachers’ positive bias towards Asian students is larger than their negative bias towards Black and Hispanic students. Social scientists have studied the depressive effects of “stereotype threat” on the academic performance of otherwise high-achieving Black students, yet they have paid scant attention to the potential boost in performance of Asian American students as a result of “stereotype promise.” Asian students account for only 3 percent of Shi and Zhu’s sample, yet their results show how including them in their research design changes the implications of their findings.

Their results have implications that go far beyond Asian Americans, but the way they framed their paper felt narrow to me. Did the authors—who happen to be two Asian American women—believe that their research was narrow because they centered their analyses on Asians? Or was this what they had been told by their advisors?

“Narrow” was the descriptor used by a senior faculty member to describe a paper I had submitted for his graduate seminar. Perhaps he made the comment to dissuade me from focusing on “marginal” subfields like race and immigration so that I would shift my attention and skill set to match his interest in the larger, macro, theoretical questions that he considered to be more significant.

“No one will be interested in research on Asian Americans,” he added for good measure.

Yet here I am.

If we, as social scientists, choose not to include Asian Americans in our funding priorities, in our data collection efforts, in our research designs, and in our analyses, we must ask ourselves: what are we missing? What are we getting wrong? And what message are we sending to our students?

I am committed to engaging in research that makes the study of Asian Americans essential to the social sciences, not only so that I am able to teach the type of courses that were never offered to me, but also because I recognize the cost and consequences of failing to do so.

As I was inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science last October, I remembered the legions of pioneering Asian American scholars who came before me, whose brilliance was overlooked, and whose research was dismissed. I stand on the shoulders of giants.

—Jennifer Lee, 2023 Samuel A. Stouffer Fellow

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