Race and Social Problems

, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 38-55

First online:

The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans

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The status attainment model highlights the role of family socioeconomic status (SES) in the intergenerational reproduction of educational attainment; however, the model falls short in predicting the educational outcomes of the children of Asian immigrants, whose attainment exceeds that which would have been predicted based on family SES alone. On the other hand, the cultural capital model gives primacy to the role of middle-class cultural capital in reproducing advantage, but neglects contextual factors outside the family. We fill a theoretical and empirical niche by introducing a model of cultural frames to explain how the children of immigrants whose families exhibit low SES and lack middle-class cultural capital attain exceptional educational outcomes. Based on in-depth interviews with adult children of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants randomly drawn from the survey of Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles, we show that Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant parents and their children use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict “success frame” that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages. However, there are unintended consequences to adopting such a strict success frame: those who do not meet its exacting tenets feel like ethnic outliers, and as a result, they distance themselves from coethnics and from their ethnic identities because they link achievement with ethnicity. We conclude by underscoring the benefits of decoupling race/ethnicity and achievement for all groups.


Second generation Educational attainment Chinese Vietnamese Asian Americans