In the mid 1990s, when I began consulting with Agora, the business had its headquarters in a mostly black Baltimore neighborhood. It was about a mile from the inner harbor, where I had an apartment on the sixth floor of a new, rather luxurious, building. On pleasant days, I’d walk to work, always stopping for breakfast at a little market about a block from my office that was run by a family of Koreans.

There was nothing about the place that was exceptional. The lighting was poor and the aisles were narrow. But the shelves were overflowing with every sort of consumable you could possibly need. And it had a counter that was just long enough to accommodate four stools. The only way you could not have a clear picture of what I’m describing is if you have never been to any large- or mid-sized city in the USA.

The family that owned it – the parents must have been in their late fifties – had three teenage daughters. The parents worked from opening to closing. The girls worked after school and on weekends. They were not, by American standards, friendly. But because I wanted to get to know them a little, I gradually and gently pushed against their modest formality.

The parents were immigrants. They spoke just enough English to communicate with their customers. The children had been born in the US. They were intelligent, hardworking, and extraordinarily respectful of their parents. All three of them were accepted – on scholarship – into good local colleges. The family was, in other words, an Asian-American cliché.

What struck me at the time was how the family managed the girls’ education. While the eldest was in college, the other two continued working at the family business. When the eldest graduated, she went back to work and the second daughter went to college. When the second daughter graduated, she went back to work and the third daughter went to college.

I asked the girls if they thought it was fair – if they thought they should have been able to go off and start their own careers (and lives) once they had a diploma. They had no idea what I was talking about. My question made no sense to them.


Asians in America, Part II:

Why Are They So Successful? 

“Immigrants have been coming to our shores for generations to live the dream that is America. [We] have seen time and again that that dream is achievable.” – Nikki Haley

On Monday, I talked about the amazing success Asian immigrants have had in America. In terms of wealth, health, education, and optimism, they outrank every other racial group, including White Americans.

Why is that? Why is it that Asian-Americans, themselves victims of bias and discrimination, have achieved so much?

One factor may be that so many of them are first- and second-generation immigrants. There is a theory that immigrants are by nature an above-average group – more ambitious and enterprising than their countrymen that choose to stay home. So this could well be a key reason why Asians have done so well in the US.

But there are other reasons, too. If you spend even a single day researching Asians in America, you will discover that, despite the differences among them, they share some cultural characteristics. Specifically, they have a belief in and a commitment to:

  1. Hard work – and not just hard work but working harder than their peers.
  2. Education – and not just getting good grades but being better educated than their peers.
  3. Family values – a respect for the nuclear family and parental authority.


Hard Work 

Asian-Americans have a pervasive belief in the rewards of hard work. In a recent poll, 69% said they believed that “anyone can get ahead if he or she is willing to work hard.” More importantly, 93% described themselves and members of their country of origin as “very hard working.”

But do Asian-Americans actually outwork other races?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Asian-Americans work about the same number of hours as every other racial group. Here is the data:

* White Americans – 38.9 hours per week (on average)

* African-Americans – 38.7 hours per week

* Asian-Americans – 38.9 hours per week

* Hispanic-Americans – 38.2 hours per week

As you can see, the differences in terms of hours worked are very small.

But as I said on Monday, there are some stark differences when you look at unemployment figures. Asian-Americans – at an astonishing  3% – have the lowest unemployment rate of any racial group.

That could indicate not just a commitment to work but also a shame in not working – two very different values.



Asian-Americans place a high value on education. And they work as hard as, or harder than, any other racial or ethnic group in America at educating themselves and their children.

As I pointed out on Monday:

* 87% of Asians aged 25 and older are high school graduates.

* 53% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

* 23.6% have a graduate or professional degree.

And they’re great students.

There have been many studies done on why Asian-Americans do so well in school.

In one, a meta study of two national surveys that followed about 5000 students from kindergarten through high school, researchers were looking for evidence to explain the superior academic performance of the Asian-Americans. They had theorized that it had something to do with their innate cognitive ability – but that’s not what they found. Instead, it seemed to be due to a high-effort mentality instilled in the children by their parents. Asian-Americans, the researchers said, view education as a primary means for upward mobility – and they exert considerable pressure on their children to succeed.


Family Values

Compared to other racial groups, Asian-Americans place a higher value on family, marriage, and parental fealty.

Consider this:

* According to a Pew Research Center study, the majority of Asian-American adults list having a successful marriage and being a good parent as two of the most important things in life.

* Asian-Americans are more likely than other racial groups to live in a multi-generational household. Some 28% live with at least two adult generations under the same roof.

* 84% of Asian-American children (17 or younger) belong to a household with two parents. This compares to 68% of all American children. And only 16% of Asian-American newborns have an unmarried mother, compared to the national average of 40%.

* Asian-Americans have a strong sense of respect for their parents. About two-thirds say that parents should have a lot of or some influence in choosing their children’s profession (66%) and spouse (61%).

This is at least partly influenced by philosophical and religious teachings. Filial piety is an important element in Buddhism, Korean Confucianism, Taoism, and in Japanese and Vietnamese cultures.

* And here’s something I found noteworthy: In a recent study, 62% of Asians said that they believe American parents do not pressure their children enough.


Hard to Argue

Those are the facts.

What’s interesting is that this amazing story of Asian-American success in the US is not being told and celebrated. It is being ignored and even disputed because it suggests that a major thesis of identity theorists – that systemic racism is the cause of income, wealth, and education inequality in America – may be wrong. It also suggest that the solution to financial, social, and educational inequalities may not be as easy as making political, regulatory, or economic changes.

I’ll come back to this and related “identity” questions in future essays.



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