The Economics of Asian American Privilege

Students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino
Age group competitive soccer in the San Francisco bay area is essentially comprised of two social classes: the affluent, predominantly white families that at away tournaments eat at nice restaurants and stay at expensive hotels and the non-white predominantly Latino immigrant families that bring their own food and extended family to games. At a recent tournament, I made small talk with one of the dads as we attempted to fit into the first group. He's a middle-aged Russian immigrant and I asked him what he did for work. It turned out he's a data scientist who works for a large insurance company. He creates data models that predict things like bay area housing price trends.

He in turn asked if I was a programmer. I told him I was a pastor but it was a good guess. He agreed. After all his algorithm had calculated the probability was high. I love immigrant candor.

This question encapsulates why I live in the bay area. Where else do I get mistaken for a software engineer? In the bay area, I can walk into a nice restaurant wearing outdoor performance gear and because the wait staff will presume I'm a stock option baller who works at Facebook or Google or some start-up company with a clever-sounding name that has a tenuous relationship with the product made, I will be seated pronto. They treat me well because I'm a nerd and in the bay area, nerds rule the world. If I lived in some rural town in the Midwest, people would see me and think "Who are you? Why are you here? Are you bringing me Chinese take-out?"

Asian American privilege, in its highest form, exists in major metro areas with a high rate of professional employment, a prestigious university, and a large immigrant population. In my new church, we have white people moving out of the area to quaint places like Shingle Springs, CA and Bend, OR. Educated Asian Americans don't move to those areas. We have no privilege there. What kind of work would we do? More importantly, how would we eat? Who is going to seat us immediately when we walk in wearing a Patagonia 100% recycled fleece pullover? Who is going to serve Japanese noodle soup that we wait two hours for and then post pics of on Instagram? Where are Asian women going to dine with their white boyfriends? Where are Asian guys going to congregate? That stuff is important to Asian Americans like me.

My wife's cousin from Taiwan can tell if someone at first glance is an American, including Asian Americans, not based on their attire but by their body language. There's a difference in posture. We stand up straighter and we strut. We tend to look down on people rather than look up in submissiveness. We take up more space. If you're a male, it's called man-spreading. Our facial expressions are more expressive and we use expansive hand gestures. We are louder in public - not just louder in groups but louder in public as individuals. An American is the only person in the world that can be as loud solo as in a group.

I have British-born Chinese friends in Scotland. Their parents were Chinese immigrants (mainly from the Guangdong area) and came over to open restaurants. I observed their body language. When we were in public, it felt like they crept around the margins - not quite fitting in and feeling sort of invisible. That doesn't happen very often to me in the bay area. When it does, it's when the white to non-white ratio is worse than 10:1 like at an Irish pub in Los Gatos. And then I'm only invisible because everyone is taller than me. You'll never see anything approaching a white:non-white ratio of 10:1 in any high-tech company except perhaps in the sales or HR department.

Therefore, body language is a proxy for the degree of privilege you enjoy. The greater the privilege, the more expansive the body language. That's another metric for Asian American privilege. You'll see it in the way bay area Asian Americans move. We strut around like we own the place. Because we often do.

Claire Jean Kim, a political science and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine, writes:
Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a “model minority” whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites.
She doesn't provide support for the first claim. And her second statement contradicts the claim of the first. I agree with her second statement but the adjective I want to challenge is Kim's contention that Asian American privilege is "priceless". That's inexcusable hyperbole coming from a professor because it is simply not true. Privilege is quantifiable and it is bounded. The price of Asian American privilege in the bay area is between $1.5 - $2M. You can come straight from China with a boatload of cash and your suitcases of money will buy you an older three bedroom, two bathroom house in a predominantly Asian (or significantly affluent immigrant) city like Cupertino or San Jose neighborhood like Almaden. For the money, you will receive social cachet and the privilege for your children to go to school with their Tiger Mom-raised peers. This is where the future software engineers of America will grow up. For the same price, you can buy 5-8 decent homes in rural Missouri but you will be utterly priced out of the social cachet market. That's why affluent Asian Americans live here. The housing may be ridiculously expensive but at least there's access to social capital. Asian American privilege absolutely has a price tag. Your dollar can buy you privilege here whereas in other places it gets you pennies on the dollar.

Let's take the economic perspective even further. Consumer demand theory dictates people consume goods and services in order to to maximize utility. Utility is the abstract amount of satisfaction derived from the consumption of a good or service. Given a scarcity of goods and services, a consumer will spend his money in a way that maximizes utility. Now replace "utility" with "privilege". Privilege is the social status conferred from the purchase of goods and services - specifically, the house you live in (and its surrounding neighborhood) or your occupation. I'm absolutely arguing that privilege can be bought. So with that in mind, here's my hypothesis:

A consumer will spend his money to live in an area or pursue an occupation that maximizes the amount of privilege he will receive in return.

This explains why ethnic enclaves (or "ethnoburbs") exist. Immigrants move to an area/neighborhood, bid up home prices, make the schools more competitive, and once a critical mass is attained, the momentum of privilege will shift in their favor. That is what has happened in cities like Cupertino and neighborhoods like Almaden. The homes are ridiculous expensive but Asian consumers understand the privilege their money is buying. It's privilege that can't be bought in Shingle Springs or Bend. It's the privilege of having your kids grow up in an atmosphere of software engineer aspirations and the accompanying pressure to excel in math and science.

It also explains white flight. The author of this article about white flight from "ethnoburbs" like Cupertino and Johns Creek, a suburb of Atlanta, thinks it's all about racism. She writes:
Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism. They’ve defined the term so narrowly, their own individual acts of prejudice don’t meet it. I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that Asians possess a sort of primal urge to self-segregate, that they choose to live in clusters, that these clusters of predominantly Asian neighborhoods make whites feel uncomfortable, so they leave. The so-called “choice” to live together ignores the very real social and economic realities of Asians who immigrate to the U.S.
The half-Indian author presumes racism is the motivation behind white flight and yet somehow when we Asian Americans segregate in ethnic clusters, we aren't guilty of the same thing because racism. And yet if you view privilege in terms of utility and we're all consumers making rational choices about maximizing privilege, then it all makes sense. It's not so much about overcoming or expressing racism but consumers acting in their own self-interest. When white people complain about their kids growing up in an over-competitive (code for Asian) environment, what they're really saying is "The privilege my money buys in this neighborhood has declined because of the influx of Asians". Of course they're going to seek more affordable white privilege. They're behaving as rational consumers.

Racism means privilege costs more when you're not white but it doesn't change the underlying economics. On the price spectrum of minorities, it's cheapest when you're Asian and most expensive when you're black. But when you view the world solely through the lens of race, you're holding a hammer and everything looks like a nail. There are other possible ways to view segregation. So before we start whacking on all the racist nails sticking out, it might help to put on a more pragmatic lens. It will lead us to an important possibility: it may be more helpful to understand segregation in economic terms rather than solely racial ones. At least that's what my predictive data model says. You can trust me because even though I'm not a software engineer, at least I look like one.

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