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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The article was published in The Wall Street Journal on January 8, 2011 [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html], accessed on June 4, 2011.

  2. 2.

    IIMMLA is a multi-investigator study that examines the patterns of intra- and intergenerational mobility among the adult children of immigrants in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. It includes a telephone survey of 4,800 randomly selected respondents in five counties of Los Angeles metropolitan region (Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Ventura). It targets 1.5- and second-generation Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos, Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans between the ages of 20 and 39 from geographically, socioeconomically, and racially/ethnically diverse neighborhoods. It also contains samples of third-plus-generation (native-born of native-born parentage) Mexican Americans, non-Hispanic blacks, and non-Hispanic whites for comparison.

  3. 3.

    We examined these measures based on the 2000 US Census data for the Los Angeles region and found similar trends regarding intergroup differences.

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Lee, J., Zhou, M. The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans. Race Soc Probl 6, 38–55 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-014-9112-7

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Keywords

  • Second generation
  • Educational attainment
  • Chinese
  • Vietnamese
  • Asian Americans