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Are Asians the New Jews?

Despite similar backgrounds, the fates of Asian and Jewish Americans are now diverging

Joel Kotkin
February 27, 2023
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Library of Congress; New York Public Library
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Library of Congress; New York Public Library
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Library of Congress; New York Public Library
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Library of Congress; New York Public Library
This article is part of Asians and Jews in America.
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In countries where Asians and Jews immigrated in large numbers, they have long followed a common path. Both groups occupy a dual position: discriminated against for standing out, while at the same time held up as models of success.

But increasingly, that success has itself become a liability. Jews and Asians outperform the overall population in such critical areas as education and income, not only in the U.S., but in Canada, Australia, and the U.K., and as a result are collectively held a party to supposedly oppressive power structures in those countries. According to progressive ideas being taught by public schools and diversity departments, Jews are bearers of “white privilege,” no better and sometimes worse than the white Protestant descendants of slaveholders. Similarly, Asians are said to be “white adjacent,” a clever way of making them complicit with white racism despite their visible nonwhiteness.

In one essential respect, however, the two groups are heading in opposite directions. While the Jewish population in the U.S. is at best stagnant, Asians are now the fastest growing minority group in the country, with their numbers projected to increase from almost 12 million in 2000 to more than three times that by midcentury. This raises two critical questions: Is a new group of Americans, whose families have come to the U.S. from countries like China and India decades after the waves of mass Jewish immigration, taking the place of American Jews whose greatest successes are now in the past? Furthermore, is such a thing even possible in a culture that now fetishizes failure and victimhood? Jews sometimes had to force the country to be fairer and more meritocratic but were able to make the most of America’s openness. Today, that door may be slamming shut on the next generation of Asian American aspirants as values like hard work, thrift, and sacrifice are deemed inherently “reflective of white racism.”

Asian Americans, notes author Kenny Xu, have the highest per capita income, lowest per capita crime rates and highest rates of college education in the U.S. Asians are now easily the best educated racial group in the country. Although there is poverty and increasing inequality, particularly among elderly and recent immigrants, median household income among Asians stands at over $100,000, compared to $71,000 for whites and $45,000 for African Americans. This follows the Jewish script. Jews are already the highest earning religious group, followed by Hindus. In terms of education levels, they rank third, behind Hindus and Unitarians.

But a record of achievement does not seem to be making these groups more secure. The assault from the nativist right—one just has to listen to Trump’s openly racist attacks on prominent Asians—has grown while antisemitic memes remain de rigeur in white and Christian nationalist circles. The other, potentially more damaging assault, comes from the progressive left, which views ethnic success as socially regressive rather than a validation of societal openness.

In this new world view, Asians use “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead,’” as former San Francisco school board member Alison Collins tweeted, before comparing Asian Americans to a “house n****r.” Similarly, despite millennia of persecution, progressives increasingly claim the children of Abraham are just another group enjoying “white privilege.”

The rising social status of Jews paralleled the rise of capitalism. Jews took advantage of their higher rates of literacy, global ties, and knowledge of the cash economy. Long suppressed under medieval feudalism, Jews developed habits which turned out to be highly advantageous. Most individual Jews remained poor, but as a group Jews made up the vast majority of Eastern Europe’s factory owners, bankers, lawyers, and physicians. They also dominated the professions and the stock exchanges. A handful rose to global banking families, most obviously the Rothschilds, who played a preeminent role in the rise of the modern European, and later North American, economies.

A similar process took place in the Chinese diaspora. Poor Chinese immigrants, largely from the southern provinces of the country, started migrating to Southeast Asia during the Ming Dynasty. Like the Jews, they found their niche in an environment rich in natural resources but poor in educated human capital. As early as the 17th century European observers described the local Chinese as “Jew-like,” “gleaning here and there” to make a living.

As waves of Chinese people emigrated outside of the country, they became economically dominant forces in the economies of other Asian nations where they arrived: Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and most powerfully in Singapore. More recently, immigrants from mainland China have transformed the once Japanese farming colony of Formosa into a global hub of chip manufacturing.

As early as the 17th century European observers described the local Chinese as ‘Jew-like,’ ‘gleaning here and there’ to make a living.

Both Jews and Asians have historically been the victims of discrimination. Jewish success was one motivation for pogroms in Russia and Poland, but even in the U.S., Jewish success engendered quotas for Jewish students, particularly at elite colleges. Asians, at least in the United States, faced more overt discrimination. In California, anti-Chinese, anti-Japanese and anti-Indian hysteria led to legislation that restricted the ability of Asians to own land and serve on juries. Vigilante action, remarkably similar to the Eastern European pogroms, occurred on occasion, with a particularly horrendous occurrence in Los Angeles in 1871, where over 1,000 Anglos attacked Chinatown, leaving 19 Chinese dead.

For much of American history, Jewish and Asian immigrants were poor, and few held advanced degrees. They made their way, for the most part, through work, thrift, investment, and reliance on familial ties. In the early days of mass Asian migration many people came without English-language fluency, which meant they were forced to work in fields where credentials did not matter but a willingness to work hard and suffer brutal conditions did. Like the Jews, many started with small businesses—corner stores or dry goods stores in underserved neighborhoods from Harlem to South Los Angeles, for instance—causing the the Asian share of all U.S. businesses to more than double since 2000.

Successive generations of Asians have moved up the ladder, however, to ever more sophisticated industries. This has become increasingly evident in the world of tech. A Google search suggests that one-third of leading tech CEOs are Asians. Similarly, foreign-born workers, overwhelmingly from Asia, make up a remarkable three-quarters of all of Silicon Valley’s tech workforce.

The current prime minister of the U.K. is a Hindu, while another Indian, Nikki Haley, is running for U.S. president. The number of Asians in Congress has more than doubled since 2001 and, unlike other racial minorities, Asians have strong representation in both parties.

Yet in the bizarre world of modern progressivism, success constitutes something of an embarrassment. Asian progressives—the kinds quoted by places like NPR—suggest that being a “model minority” is less a credit than a cruel stereotype, claiming (correctly) that not all members of the race are successful or well educated. Others make a big deal about such things as being asked where they are from, which, it seems, is a question one can innocently ask of anyone in a country of immigrants.

As is the case for American Jews, hate crimes are on the rise for Asian Americans. Much of this takes place in urban environments where many Asians own or run businesses that serve poor communities. But this is more something of the past; Asian businesspeople, like many of their Jewish counterparts, want to see their kids do more than manage a small grocery store or a 7-Eleven. Most Asians, like most Jews, see their own upward mobility, and even more so for their children, as dependent on the concept of merit, something increasingly abandoned by progressives.

Today Asian students make up large shares of the student body both at leading universities—almost 20% of Ivies and 40% of the University of California system, outdistancing whites. They also dominate the elite, competitive academic public high schools from San Francisco’s Lowell High School to Thomas Jefferson in Virginia to New York City’s Bronx Science and Stuyvesant.

In all these cases, progressives are working to replace merit and test-based systems with racial preferences by changing admissions standards, and even advocate weakening educational content. Some progressive academics even consider science and mathematics as structurally racist, even though Indian, Arab, East Asian, and Jewish practitioners have greatly influenced these fields. Some elite colleges, along with law and medical schools, have made the embrace of diversity and “right thinking” more important than grades or test scores.

There’s clearly an “Asian penalty” in applying for college: According to research from Princeton University, students who identify as Asian must score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites and 450 points higher than Black Americans to have the same chance of admission to private colleges.

Sadly such approaches are deeply embedded in the Biden administration Education Department where one official has even denounced democracy itself as “built on white supremacy.” Biden’s choice of deputy director for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Alondra Nelson, has a similar perspective and focus. This approach promises to enrich the growing “diversity-industrial complex” which seeks ways to expel merit as a primary factor in admissions or hiring over academic achievement.

These developments could have long-term political consequences. The drive for reparations for descendants of slaves—over 150 years since emancipation—seems certain to exacerbate the divisions between minorities. California, the mecca of racial virtue signaling, has even decided to award six-figure “reparations,” even though the state never had any large, Southern-style slave economy, and entered the union as a free state. California also saw greater discirmination against Asians as well as Native populations and descendants of early Spanish settlers.

The drive for reparations, which could cost $100 billion for San Francisco alone, seems likely to enhance the emerging racial spoils system, taking money from taxpayers in order to award gifts based on race and past discrimination, a practice that could extend well beyond descendants of slaves.

For both Jews and Asians, this poses a potentially difficult political equation. Historically Jews have tilted strongly toward the Democratic Party, while Asians, who once tended Republican, shifted in the last decade as well to the Democrats. Certainly, the presence of nativists and “Christian nationalists” in the Republican Party naturally turns them off from the GOP. But the notion that such things as thrift, rationalism or excelling at school are “white” values makes little sense to groups who displayed these characteristics well before they immigrated to the U.S., Canada, Australia, or the EU. Not surprisingly, Asians—Hindus and Sikhs in Britain, and Asians in the United States and Australia—are clearly now moving away from the parties of the left. Indians in Britain, tend to be well-educated and often entrepreneurial which, as The Guardian admits, makes them less sympathetic to their traditional home with Labour.

Some signs of political pushback are already evident in the United States as well. Asian voters in San Francisco led the drive to replace both ultra-left school board members and the famously lax DA Chesa Boudin. In the last presidential election, even with Trump at the top of the ticket, support for the GOP grew among Asians, while the number of Asian American Republicans elected to Congress increased. Although embraced by politically correct academics, nonprofits, and media, most Asians have voted against race-based admissions. One recent national poll found 4 in 10 Asians saw affirmative action as “racist” and more than half welcomed a Supreme Court ruling outlawing it.

Jews are also moving toward America’s political center, further tilting their vote toward the GOP in 2020. In this year’s L.A. mayoral election, heavily Jewish communities favored former Republican Rick Caruso, who wound up losing to progressive Karen Bass. In New York’s recent gubernatorial race, meanwhile, Jewish voters—especially the Orthodox community—helped make it the closest in decades.

This shift is taking place at a time of rising hostility to Jews—now the largest targets per capita of hate crimes—while hate crimes against Asians have skyrocketed. Hate crimes against Asians and Jews are disproportionately committed by African Americans and other people of color; this is particularly true in places like New York where white nationalists are not exactly thick on the ground, though The New York Times would rather focus on the “Asian fetish” of the alt-right.

The fate of Asians and Jews in America is about more than two minority groups. It is about the efficacy of equal and fair treatment under the law, and a democratic system based on merit rather than ethnicity. Neither Jews nor Asians—nor our increasingly diverse society—benefit from the replacement of the “post-racial” ideal for what writer Wesley Yang describes as a racialist “successor ideology” that instead celebrates victimization as the prime value.

It would be far better to make use of the Jewish and Asian experience to prove how any ethnic group in America can overcome discrimination and prejudice by focusing on thrift, hard work, and education. The success of dark-skinned immigrants, whether Indian or from the West Indies or Africa, suggests that not being white is not quite the determinant imagined in the academic and media hothouses. Rather than outliers, or even oppressors, both Jews and Asians represent models for how Western societies can evolve and thrive without regressing back to racialist modes better buried in the past.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.