Parallels and Divergences in Jewish and Asian American HistoryRoundup
tags: Jewish history, Asian American History
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.
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.