Conversations with Americans About Asian Americans & Chinese Americans
The Marttila Communications Group


1. Executive Summary
This executive summary identifies the key findings from ten focus groups that were conducted for the Committee of 100 during January 2001. Four groups were conducted in New York, four in Los Angeles and two in Chicago

The focus groups were meant to provide insights into the thinking of key target audiences, most particularly upper-educated Americans, Asian Americans and, of course, Chinese Americans. Since Asian Americans comprise 1% of the national sample in the Yankelovich survey, their views could not be broken out for a statistically reliable analysis. Therefore, the focus groups are the primary source of information about the views of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans for this Committee of 100 research project.

2. General Observations
Even though the focus groups were held in three different regions of the country, the findings among non-Asian Americans and Asian Americans were very consistent.

On balance, the non-Asian focus group participants expressed a great deal of admiration for Asian Americans, who they consider to be a real asset to American life. There is a genuine regard for the hard work, family focus, ambition, commitment to education and the intellectual gifts of Asian Americans.

However, many negative and prejudicial judgments about Asian Americans also emerged during the focus groups. And many of these negative views were the flip side of the respect for Asian Americans because they were resentful reactions to their perceived success. Therefore, many focus group participants described Asian Americans as arrogant, aloof, keeping to themselves, disinterested in/and disapproving of the larger American community, not approachable, etc.

3. Key Findings

 

1. In the focus groups, the majority of non-Asian American participants could not make meaningful distinctions between Asian Americans of different national origins.

2. The focus group participants believed that African Americans face the most discrimination in the U.S. and Hispanics face only slightly less. Of the three racial groups tested, the participants believed Asian Americans faced the least discrimination.

3. A consensus existed among all focus group participants, regardless of race, regarding the roots of prejudice: the same words and terms emerged in all of the focus groups. A lack of education and a lack of a "proper upbringing" were the most prevalent explanations for prejudicial views.

4. Among the non-Asian participants, the positive judgments about Asian Americans were very sharply defined. There is a genuine regard for the hard work, family focus, ambition, commitment to education and the intellectual gifts of Asian Americans.

5. The most frequently mentioned criticism if the focus groups was that Asian Americans keep to themselves. "They stick together." "They are cliquish/clannish."

6. Most focus group participants believed that the substantial increase of immigrants to the U.S. during the 1990's had exacerbated interracial tension in the country. All participants, non-Asian and Asian alike, agreed an economic slowdown could create real resentments against Asian Americans among more economically vulnerable Americans.

7. The focus group participants believed the military and/or economic power of China is a looming future threat to U.S security, a view shared by many of the non-Chinese Asian participants. Virtually all the Asian Americans and Chinese American participants indicated that their lives could be adversely affected if there was a serious showdown between the U.S. and China.

8. Non-Asian participants saw Asian Americans as being less likely to be full participants in the entire community as other Americans. They were seen to be more inward looking.

9. A discussion about the educational success of Asian-America teens indicated that this issue has the potential to create some tension among non-Asian middle-class parents with college-bound kids.

10. The Asian American focus group participants believed that too many Americans see them as foreigners, or as "permanent aliens." This perception seemed to have contributed to a lack of interest in politics among the Asian Americans participants: Only a few of the Asian American participants were interested in politics, a surprising result from such a well-educated group.

4. Overview
This report summarizes the key findings from ten focus groups that were conducted for the Committee of 100 during January 2001.

In part, these focus groups were convened to instruct the questionnaire development for the national Yankelovich survey. However, the focus groups were also meant to provide deeper insights into the thinking of key target audiences, most particularly upper-educated Americans, Asian Americans and, of course, Chinese Americans.

Since Asian Americans comprise 1% of the national sample in the Yankelovich survey, their views could not be broken out for a statistically reliable analysis. Therefore, the focus groups are the primary source of information about the views of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans for this Committee of 100 research project.

5. The Focus Groups
Four of the ten focus groups were conducted in New York (January 10 & 11); four in Los Angeles (January 15 & 16); and two in Chicago (January 17).

The demographic composition of the focus groups in New York and Los Angeles were identical:

• one group of upper-educated (no Asian Americans);
• one group of a representative cross-section (no Asian Americans);
• one group of Asian Americans (including Chinese Americans);
• and one group of Chinese Americans.
In Chicago, the focus groups included no Asian Americans:
• one group of upper-educated;
• and one of a representative cross-section.

The upper-educated participants were screened for post-graduate degrees, a record of political activity and an interest in foreign affairs. In our experience, post-graduates are the Americans who pay the greatest attention to foreign policy and who are most likely to follow political/social issues closely.

New York and Los Angeles were selected because of their sizable Asian American populations; Chicago was selected because of its comparatively small Asian American population and its heartland location.
The educational levels of both the Asian American and Chinese American groups were above the norm. After consultation with Committee of 100 leaders, we decided that more educated Asian Americans -- which also meant younger participants -- would be more likely to be open and forthright during our conversations. Also, the higher education levels were meant to more accurately reflect the Asian American population under forty years of age.

6. General Observations
The focus groups were held in three different cities but the findings among non-Asian Americans and Asian Americans were very consistent.

On balance, the non-Asian focus group participants expressed a great deal of admiration for Asian Americans, who they consider to be a real asset to American life. There is a genuine regard for the hard work, family focus, ambition, commitment to education and the intellectual gifts of Asian Americans.
However, many negative and prejudicial judgments about Asian Americans also emerged during the focus groups. And many of these negative views were the flip side of the respect for Asian Americans because they were resentful reactions to their perceived success. Therefore, many focus group participants described Asian Americans as arrogant, aloof, keeping to themselves, disinterested in/and disapproving of the larger American community, not approachable, etc.

In this regard, some of the prejudicial views about Asian Americans are similar to those about Jews, because they are reactions to perceptions of success. For example, during the past decade, prejudicial attitudes toward Jews have increasingly focused on the issue of too much Jewish power in the U.S., which is obviously an expression of resentment about Jewish success in America.

The negative perceptions about Asian Americans that were revealed in the focus groups are real concerns and they undermined the generally positive perceptions. Nevertheless, we do not believe that these negative views outweigh the very strong positive impressions about Asian Americans that were revealed in the focus groups.

On the following pages, we have identified what we believe to be the key findings from the focus groups.

 

1. In the focus groups, the majority of non-Asian American participants could not make meaningful distinctions between Asian Americans of different national origins. Therefore, the focus group participants had very few distinct impressions of Chinese Americans in contrast to Asian Americans of other national origins. The Yankelovich survey confirmed Americans' inability to distinguish between Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans.

Only a handful of non-Asian focus group participants, 50% of who were post-graduates, could make meaningful distinctions between Asian Americans of different national origins and they believed few other non-Asians could do so. To the extent they could offer impressions, the non-Asians believed the Japanese Americans were the likeliest to be successful at business, and there was some limited awareness of tension between Korean Americans and African Americans.

Virtually all of the Asian American focus group participants believed that very few non-Asian Americans could make meaningful distinctions between Asian Americans of different national origins.

The focus groups clearly indicated that most non-Asian Americans are unable to distinguish between Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans. Consequently, most of our analysis deals with non-Asian reaction to Asian Americans generally, rather than reaction to Chinese Americans, specifically.

The Yankelovich survey also looked at this issue, and confirmed that Americans could not distinguish between Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans: "The main focus of this study was Americans' prejudice toward Chinese Americans. Additionally, however, the research sought to determine whether attitudes toward "Chinese Americans" were largely the same or different than those toward "Asian Americans" generally. For this purpose, 1,002 Americans were asked their opinions about stereotypes of "Chinese Americans" and 214 Americans were asked their opinion about identically worded stereotypes of "Asian Americans." The results were nearly identical - suggesting that anti- Chinese American prejudice is a subset of broader, anti-Asian American prejudice. Whether this is also true of other Asian groups (Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, etc.) needs to be investigated separately."

2. Racial discrimination in America: The focus group participants believed that African Americans face the most discrimination in the U.S. and Hispanics face only slightly less. Of the three racial groups tested, the participants believed Asian Americans faced the least discrimination. The Yankelovich national survey confirmed this rank order. However, the same poll found striking levels of anti-Asian American views.
All of the focus group participants, including Asian Americans, agreed that African Americans face the most discrimination, and that Hispanics still face considerable discrimination but less than African Americans.

A majority of the participants believed Asian Americans still face discrimination in the U.S., but virtually all participants believed that African Americans and Hispanics face much more racial discrimination.
This was one of the clearest findings of the focus group research, and the Asian American focus group participants supported it.

Many white participants believed that Asian Americans do not face a great deal of discrimination. A few younger, more well educated Asian Americans and Chinese Americans (more so in NYC) believed Asian Americans faced minimal discrimination.

The Yankelovich survey confirmed the rank order that emerged in the focus groups - but it also found significant levels of anti-Asian American prejudice:

• How much racial discrimination do you think each of the following groups face today? Do you think they face a lot, some, a little, or none at all?

 
Alot
Some
A little
None
Not Sure (vol.)
Asian Americans
15%
48%
26%
8%
3%
African Americans
34%
40%
19%
5%
2%
Jewish Americans
10%
37%
31%
15%
7%
Hispanics
28%
44%
19%
4%
5%

In contrast, the Yankelovich survey ALSO found:

• 23% of Americans would be uncomfortable voting for an Asian American candidate for president.
• 24% of Americans would disapprove of someone in their family marrying an Asian American.
• 17% of Americans would be upset if Asian Americans moved into their neighborhood.
Most of the focus group participants were critical of the lack of progress on the issue of racial discrimination in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the sharpest criticism came from African-American and Hispanic-American participants. However, most white participants were also critical about America's lack of progress on the issue.

The focus groups were conducted in three racially diverse urban areas (NYC, LA, Chicago). Also, many groups consisted of very well-educated participants. These two factors probably produced a more progressive orientation among the participants on social issues. Therefore, it may not be all that surprising that a majority of these focus group participants believed that while the U.S. had made progress on the issue of racial discrimination, there was much work to be done.

Most Asian American participants were also critical of America's lack of progress on the issue of racial discrimination, but several, in contrast to the black and Hispanic participants, were more optimistic about our progress as a nation.

When we began this work, we assumed that many focus group participants would indicate that the U.S. has made significant progress on the issue of racial discrimination. However, the critical judgments of the focus group participants were so consistent that the larger social context on this issue may be less optimistic than we would have thought. A clear majority of the focus group participants -- of all races -- believed the issue still deserves major attention.

Finally, when asked to consider future remedies to deal with the issue of racial discrimination, a clear majority of the focus group participants believed the outstanding issues were largely personal and emotional, particularly the basic acceptance of all people regardless of color. In their view, the outstanding issues are "matters of the heart," not matters of law.

3. A consensus existed among all focus group participants, regardless of race, regarding the roots of prejudice: the same words and terms emerged in all of the focus groups. A lack of education and a lack of a "proper upbringing" were the most prevalent explanations for prejudicial views. The Yankelovich survey confirmed the impact of a lack of education in shaping prejudicial views.
Most of the focus group participants mentioned a lack of education, which produced a minimal understanding of, and respect for, cultural differences, as probably the most prevalent explanation for prejudicial views.

The lack of education emerged as a key underlying factor for prejudicial views in the Yankelovich poll:
"This study, like other studies on prejudice, shows that the main source of prejudice is a lack of education and a lower level of cognitive sophistication associated with a lower education."

• A lack of "proper upbringing" was mentioned as frequently by the focus group participants. While some thought that an individual could change his/her prejudicial views over time, most thought it was very difficult to overcome a lack of proper family values. Many participants used the phrase, "prejudice is taught."

• Economic insecurity was also seen to be a major factor in the formation and/or the reinforcement of discriminatory views. Many participants mentioned the fear of job loss as a specific factor.
• Ignorance: the word ignorance emerged in virtually all of the groups, and by it, participants meant a willingness to accept racial stereotypes without considering alternative views.
• Fear: the word fear emerged in all of the groups. To the participants, this meant fear of the unknown, an emotional fear -- not physical fear.
• Personal insecurity, and a lack of self-esteem were thought to be key personal factors that breed resentment and a jealousy of others.
• Finally, the focus group participants thought the lack of exposure or interaction with other groups was a major contributor to racial prejudice because it preserved prejudicial views.

4. Among the non-Asian focus group participants, the positive judgments about Asian Americans were very sharply defined and emerged without any prompting. When considered together, these positive perceptions reveal a very clear, and ultimately, very flattering portrait of Asian Americans.
The non-Asian focus group participants had no difficulty in listing the many virtues of Asian Americans. These positive views are very sharply defined, and taken together, they paint a very clear, and ultimately, very flattering portrait. • Asian Americans are seen to be exceptionally hard working.

• They are seen to have strong family values. They respect their elders.
• The Asian American family/community places a great emphasis on education. They are seen to be people who truly believe education is the path to future success.
• Asian Americans are thought to be very smart. The community produces a disproportionate share of academic superstars.
• They are very ambitious and industrious. They are interested in owning their own businesses.
• Asian Americans have great respect for their history and culture.
• Asian Americans are talented and creative.
• Finally, Asian Americans are well mannered. They are quiet. They don't cause problems and don't complain. They are not troublemakers.

While clearly troublesome, the negative judgments about Asian Americans that emerged in the focus groups were less clearly defined, less top-of-the-mind than the positive views. Nevertheless, an understandable "negative portrait" emerged. Many of these negative perceptions were confirmed in the Yankelovich survey.

5.Although the negative judgments about Asian Americans were less top-of-the-mind, the same criticisms were mentioned in most of the groups and when they are considered together, they create a coherent statement:

First, unlike the prejudicial attitudes towards blacks and Hispanics that stem from many negative judgments about the respective communities, the prejudicial views against Asian Americans are frequently resentful reactions to perceived Asian American success.

Second, the non-Asian focus group participants appeared to have a distant, and emotionally cool relationship with the Asian American community. This "emotional distance" seemed to be at the heart of many of the other criticisms. The white participants indicated that they had much less interaction with Asian Americans than they did with blacks and Hispanics. • The most frequently mentioned criticism if the focus groups was that Asian Americans keep to themselves. "They stick together." "They are cliquish/clannish."
• "Asian Americans have a tendency to be arrogant." "They look down on others."
• "They are not approachable." "They are not friendly."
• "Asian Americans cannot be fully trusted." "They are two-faced."
• "Asian Americans are secretive and insular." "They have a hidden agenda." "They won't reveal what they are really thinking."
• "They do not speak English and don't want to."
• "They are only interested in doing business with other Asian Americans, making it very difficult for non-Asians to conduct business with them."
• "In business, they are only interested in money -- and don't care about establishing enduring business relationships."
• Some participants from every focus group said they were bad drivers. Asian Americans humorously agreed.

The Yankelovich survey confirmed many of the negative views that emerged in the focus groups:
"At the same time, a sizeable minority of Americans holds negative stereotypes of Chinese Americans.
• most prevalent involve perceptions that Chinese Americans have too much power and influence …"
• her anti-Chinese American stereotypes, held by fewer Americans, include being clannish, conceited, unfair in business, and two-faced."

6. Most focus group participants believed that the substantial increase of immigrants to the U.S. during the 1990's had exacerbated interracial tension in the country. All focus group participants, non-Asian and Asian alike, agreed that an economic slowdown could create real resentments against Asian Americans among more economically vulnerable Americans. The Yankelovich survey clearly revealed some of these anti-immigrant feelings.

A majority of all focus group participants, non-Asian and Asian alike, believed that the explosion of immigration during the 1990's has heightened interracial tensions in the country.
The participants agreed that the economic boom of the 1990's had minimized popular resentment about the growth of the immigrant population but they believed that these resentments, coupled with an economic slowdown, could create serious problems for the Asian American community. The Asian American focus group participants certainly felt it could.

First, all participants agreed that an economic downturn could exacerbate concerns about all newly arrived immigrants competing for and taking away "American" jobs.

Second, a slowdown coupled with the perceptions about the industriousness and hard work of Asian Americans -- could contribute to a specific backlash against Asian Americans.
The Asian American focus group participants in Los Angeles believed the rapidly growing number of Asian Americans in their area has focused more attention on them and has sparked concerns about their potential to compete for jobs.

We know from our previous work that xenophobic attitudes are powerful forces in prejudicial views. These anti-immigrant Americans believe that "Americans" should be taken care of before newly arrived immigrants receive any special consideration.

The Yankelovich survey found:
• 28% of Americans believe that influx of Asian Americans during the past decade has been BAD for America.
• 35% of Americans agree that, "It bothers me to see immigrants succeeding more than Americans who were born here."
• 24% agree that Chinese Americans are taking away too many jobs from Americans."

7. The focus group participants believed the military and/or economic power of China is a looming future threat to U.S security, a view shared by many of the non-Chinese Asian participants. Virtually all the Asian Americans and Chinese American participants indicated that their lives could be adversely affected if there was a serious showdown between the U.S. and China. The Yankelovich survey found that two-thirds of Americans see China as a future threat to U.S. security and one-third questioned Chinese-American loyalty to the U.S.

We asked all the focus group participants which of the following presented the greatest future threat to U.S. national security?

• The economic power of Japan.
• The nuclear arsenal of Russia.
• The military and /or economic power of China.
• International terrorism.

Not surprisingly, international terrorism was seen to be the greatest future threat to U.S. national security by the focus group participants. However, a majority of the focus group participants saw the military and economic power of China as the next most serious future threat to the U.S. The non-Chinese Asian participants were almost as likely as the non-Asians to indicate that China was a serious future threat.
In this regard the focus group participants saw the Chinese leaders as willful adversaries; any future tension will not be accidental. Several expressed the belief that a serious showdown between the U.S. and China was inevitable.

Virtually all the Asian Americans and Chinese American participants indicated that their lives would be adversely affected if there was a serious showdown between U.S. and China because other Americans would call their basic loyalty to the U.S. into question. There was a strong consensus on this matter.

The Yankelovich survey found widespread concern about China. The survey also found major reservations about Chinese-American loyalty to the U.S.: • Two-thirds (68%) see China as a future threat to the U.S.
• 61% have an unfavorable impression of the government of China.
• 32% of Americans agree that Chinese-Americans are more loyal to China than the U.S.

8. In the focus groups, Asian Americans were seen to be less likely to be full participants in the entire community as other Americans. They were seen to be more inward looking. The Yankelovich survey captured some of these feelings.

Among the non-Asian American participants, there was a strong sense that Asian Americans are more inward-looking the other Americans; that they are fundamentally less interested in the affairs of their local community than their fellow citizens.

Some non-Asians argued that this was nothing more than the classic journey of assimilation that virtually all immigrants to America have experienced. Other non-Asians, however, felt that the Asian American community had willfully turned its back on the rest of the American community. They argued Asian Americans chose to live separately because they felt superior to other Americans, and had no real interest in the rest of the community because they were only interested in making money.
Several non-Asians said that Asian Americans only came to the U.S. to make money before they return to their native land.

Several Asian American participants acknowledged that Asian Americans were more inward looking. However, younger Asian American participants, in particular, believed that this was a natural occurrence in the assimilation of Asian -Americans into U.S. life, no different than the experience of other immigrants in the past.

The Yankelovich survey found:
• 28% agree that Chinese-Americans are hard to get close to, make friends with.
• 21% agree that Chinese-Americans don't care what happens to any but their own kind.

9. A discussion about the educational success of Asian-America teens indicated that this issue has the potential to create some tension among non-Asian middle-class parents with college-bound kids.
The educational success of Asian American teens was well understood in the focus groups. The participants were very much aware that Asian American teens have won a disproportionate share of college admissions at the best schools in the country.

It is also clear this is a potentially divisive issue that is slowly moving to the surface and may have already begun to create some tensions among middle-class parents with college-bound kids. Several parents of college students spoke ruefully about the experience of their own kids struggling to compete against these Asian American academic superstars; a few expressed their strong disapproval of admission policies that so strongly favored one ethnic group.

In every focus group, there was a sizeable group of participants that adamantly favored merit-based admissions exclusively. "Wouldn't you want the very best brain surgeon operating on you?" was a question raised in more than one focus group.

The underlying issues about college admissions were not top-of- the- mind for the focus group participants and after a brief explanation, we began several extended debates on the issue.

On first consideration, a majority of the focus group participants were strong supporters of merit-based college admissions. However, when confronted with the reality of Asian American acceptance rates at the best schools, some of the non-Asian focus group participants became increasingly troubled about this imbalance and began to more carefully consider the merits of admission policies that also attempted to recruit racially representative classes.

Nevertheless at the end of lengthy discussions about merit-based acceptance policies verses admission policies that also strive to reflect the general population, a narrow majority of the participants continued to believe that college-based admissions should be based exclusively on merit.
However, most African Americans and Hispanics believed that colleges and universities have an obligation to make sure their student bodies reflect the general population.

10. The Asian American focus group participants believed that too many Americans see them as foreigners, or as "permanent aliens." This perception seemed to have contributed to a lack of interest in politics among the Asian Americans participants: Only a few of the Asian American participants were interested in politics, a surprising result from such a well-educated group.

A clear majority (not all) of the Asian Americans and Chinese-American participants believed that they are seen as foreigners or "permanent aliens" by too many non-Asian Americans.

Almost all the participants could describe disturbing or humorous incidents in which this prejudicial attitude was revealed by non-Asian Americans, most frequently through comments such as, " Where are you from?" "You speak very good English." etc.

This perception about how other non-Asian Americans see them emerged as one of the prevalent concerns of the Asian American participants, and it seems to have contributed to lack of interest in U.S. politics.

Most of the Asian American participants, including the younger participants, did not feel that that they had much stake in the American political system and most were not all that interested in politics. For example, in the Los Angeles groups, none of the Asian American and Chinese-American participants could recall the name of Matt Fong, the 1998 Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.

Once again, the Asian American focus group participants were very well educated, and in this regard, their disinterest in politics was striking.

Finally, when compared to the very well developed channels of political communication in both the Jewish and African American community, the channels of political communication within the Asian American community seem very undeveloped.