If Asian-Americans are so smart, how come they have no power or influence?

Asian-Americans score well on standardized tests. This is both a stereotype and the truth. So schools that admit primarily on standardized tests and grades tend to have a lot of Asians.

In California where a voter initiative outlawed racial preferences in admission, nearly half the undergraduates at the top public universities, UC-Berkeley and UCLA, are now Asians. In the Ivy League which maintains all the traditional preferences for disadvantaged minorities, and athletes, and alumni legacies, undergraduate enrollment is still disproportionately, between 15% and 20%, Asian because of academic performance.

Stuyvesant High School, an elite public high school in New York City which is a feeder school for top colleges and universities, admits exclusively on test performance. So in a city that’s less than 13% Asian, 72% of the students at Stuyvesant are Asian.

Now you might conclude that although Asians made up only 4.8% of the U.S. population in the 2010 Census, they probably have a disproportionate amount of power and influence in the U.S. because of their educational accomplishment. But that seems not to be the case.

According to a much-discussed article in New York magazine by Wesley Yang, statistics tell a different story. The article cites various studies showing that less than 1% of corporate officers and corporate board members in America are Asians, and only 2% of college presidents. Only nine of the Fortune 500 CEO’s are Asian.

Even in specific areas with a lot of Asian-Americans, they are concentrated in the lower ranks. Although a third of software engineers in the Silicon Valley are Asian, they make up only 6% of board members and 10% of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5% of scientists are Asians, only 4.7% of the lab or branch directors are.

The inference of the article is that while educational accomplishment helps Asians land good entry level jobs, they have not had much success in rising to leadership positions in organizations and American society.

So is there some kind of “bamboo ceiling” above which Asians cannot rise? And if so, what does it consist of? Is there either conscious or unconscious prejudice or stereotyping at work? Or are there aspects of Asian culture that block advancement?

Are Asians culturally trained to embrace hard work in the expectation that merit will be recognized and rewarded, without having to engage in normal self-promotion? Are Asians slow to pick up on the importance of being likable and friendly, engaging in small talk with co-workers, and keeping up with sports? Do they lack basic social skills? Do they feel fearful or disloyal about seeking raises and promotions?

The New York magazine article goes on at length about the extent of Asian failure to rise, and various sociological and psychological speculations about what the problems might be. My own explanation of the phenomenon described is based on the reality that Asian-Americans are disproportionately immigrants, or grow up in immigrant families, and so naturally reflect and incorporate immigrant values and culture.

From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, Asians were prohibited from immigrating to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943, and the exclusion of other Asian nationalities was not repealed until years later. The ethnic quota system then allowed only tiny numbers of Asian immigrants proportional to their percentage of the existing U.S. population. The ethnic quota system was not replaced with a less discriminatory immigration limitation until 1965.

If you ask most Asian-Americans when their families came to the U.S., overwhelmingly the answer will be sometime after 1965, and disproportionately in the more recent decades. So I think the seemingly complicated problem of the “bamboo ceiling” can be largely reduced to the predictable problems of immigration and assimilation.

I’m reasonably confident that as Asians become more culturally assimilated they will become as upwardly mobile as any other group of Americans. They will master the art of being friendly and likable, of networking and making small talk, of keeping up with and at least feigning interest in sports, and lobbying and asking for promotions and raises.

They will also adopt the eating habits of other Americans, and will struggle with the same weight and health problems as other Americans. And eventually their performance on standardized tests will move closer to the national average, too.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.