NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Upward Mobility and Discrimination: The Case of Asian Americans

Nathaniel Hilger

NBER Working Paper No. 22748
Issued in October 2016, Revised in September 2017
NBER Program(s):Labor Studies

Asian Americans are the only non-white US racial group to experience long-term, institutional discrimination and subsequently exhibit high income. I re-examine this puzzle in California, where most Asians settled historically. Asians achieved extraordinary upward mobility relative to blacks and whites for every cohort born in California since 1920. This mobility stemmed primarily from gains in earnings conditional on education, rather than unusual educational mobility. Historical test score and prejudice data suggest low initial earnings for Asians, unlike blacks, reflected prejudice rather than skills. Post-war declines in discrimination interacting with previously uncompensated skills can account for Asians’ extraordinary upward mobility.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22748

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