Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Whither the state of Asian America?

Charles Murray has an essay in The New Criterion titled "Belmont and Fishtown: On Diverging Classes in the United States." I believe it is an excerpt from his forthcoming book titled "The State of White America." In it, he posits the rise of an increasingly stratified society that is bifurcated into a  new upper class and a new lower class -- people who reside in the fictional neighborhoods that he calls Belmont and Fishtown, respectively. Arnold Kling has the reasonable response that if this were a problem in the way that Murray claims, one would expect to see a more bimodal distribution of I.Q. scores emerging among the children of these new classes. He doesn't cite any such I.Q. data one way or the other, but I am inclined to suspect that if such data existed confirming Murray's hypothesis, someone would've brought it to his attention.

 I have a different point than Kling to raise, though (and, to be fair, perhaps Murray addresses it in his book or in writings other than this short essay -- I've no way of knowing.) I've spent much of my adult life in and around Murray's Belmont-ish circles, and what's striking to me is how easily Murray glides over how over-represented recent Asian-American immigrants and their children are in these circles. When I took honors math and science classes in high school, my parents and friends used to joke that I brought diversity to the group because I was one of the few white women in the room. Most of my competitors were Asian guys. My dad used to tease me about the strange-sounding names of the guys who would call -- "Hey, Rabindranath wanted to check his answers for physics with you, and Srikanath wanted to know if you'd been able to get number 23" -- looking for help or commiseration with the homework from those classes. More recently,  I see the same dynamic with the students I interview for the selective college that I attended. I've interviewed five women this year and last. Three were born outside the United States.

Some such of my friends and interviewees have come from wealthy families; some have come from poorer ones that were unusually obsessed with education and hard work. But I'd venture to guess that even the wealthiest such immigrant and child-of-immigrant kids are more attuned to the norms of social classes other than their own than is typical for children of native-born wealthy families. They seem to spend more time, on average, going to family, ethnic community or religious functions, where one meets people from a variety of different backgrounds. Their parents were less likely to express exquisite sensitivities along the lines of "I don't watch any TV except for Mad Men and The Wire," or disdain for people who like the Olive Garden. It's also quite common for my immigrant friends to travel back to their home countries and to spend substantial amounts of time visiting relatives who are far worse off than Murray's Fishtown dwellers.

So... while it might well be true that there are not a lot of students at Ivy League schools who are attuned to the feelings of truck drivers from Iowa, it is also true that there are many more students there who are exquisitely attuned to the problems of working-class Pakistani restaurant owners from suburban New Jersey. Indeed, there is abundant evidence that such students are actually discriminated against in the admissions process at such schools. It is not entirely clear to me why having one type of sensitivity is more important than the other. Assuming that there is not some reason for this that I have missed, then there would seem to be a few easy remedies for the situation that Murray describes. One would be to stop discriminating against Asian-Americans in elite admissions, a reform that might also be desirable for many other reasons.

Two, more broadly, Murray's concerns about insularity of elites argues for more liberal immigration policies. Let the most cognitively able students from countries around the world churn up into the Belmont class and shake up complacent attitudes there. As the winds of economic and political opportunity shift around the world, let America see fluxes of talented immigrants from different groups that leave their marks on the new upper class. While I've focused on Asian-Americans in this post, I understand that Eastern European Jews went through a similar process of becoming over-represented in the upper class and leaving a mark on new upper class behavior a generation before.  I've no idea what the next group or groups to do so will be -- that depends in large part on how the winds of political and economic opportunity abroad change -- but I've little doubt that there will be some.


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