Racist (I think) myths about immigrant populations - what happens in your community?

Today, again, I encountered someone who believes that the only reason Arab-Americans do well financially and tend to own food markets and liquor stores is because they get some sort of extra special tax break. WTF is up with that? Is this a universal, racist belief about immigrants? Or is it regional, and various flavors of immigrants are perceived as some sport of protected class, to be resented?

They don’t. It’s a total urban legend. I don’t even know really, how this urban legend got started, but it seems pervasive.

Arab-Americans do tend to become successful in the US (or at least in Michigan) by owning and operating convenience and liquor stores and sometimes restaurants, but it has nothing to do with special tax breaks; it’s because that’s why they came here in the first place to open such businesses, and by being frugal and working hard, they became successful. You know: the American Way.

I have never heard that one and I know some really racist and xenophobic people. The one that I have heard (and I believe it is true) involves some Asian groups and their domination of some types of businesses like convenience stores and nail salons in some areas. That is an organized strategy among some groups although it is more smart than anything nefarious. Immigrant groups like the Vietnamese, Koreans, Thai and some Indians have money sharing clubs that they all pay into to provide money for their members to do things like put a down payment on a new business or even buy a home.

Sometimes they operate like an informal bank where the money is a loan and others operate on the honor system in a pay it forward kind of way. In some, members get the money to start their business and they never have to pay it back directly but they are expected to help someone else when they become successful. I have heard that some groups of Jews have also operated under a similar model in different times and places. It is possible that Arab-Americans have similar customs but I have never heard them mentioned for that specifically.

In any case, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It is a good strategy to build a successful and stable community of people from a similar background.

As the first article below mentions, immigrants have other advantages too at least for small business ownership. Nearly free family labor and reduced lifestyle expectations give them advantage in some types of smaller businesses.


Hawaii’s kind a wierd bird, because there’s so many ethnic groups with so many stereotypes. It’s almost an equal-opportunity phenomenon. Interestingly, I noticed many of the ethnic jokes have parallels among mainland US groups. Racist? You betcha. Fodder of every entertainer? You betcha. Some beloved comedians, like Frank DeLima have made a career out it, as most of it is pretty light-hearted.

Chinese: similar to Jewish jokes, protrayed as greedy and cheap. For instance, “Pake” (Pah-kay) is an interchangable term for cheap and/and or Chinese.

Filipino: similar to Mexican jokes, portrayed with large families, doing menial service jobs (like hotels), odd food (bark bark!), illegal immigration suspicions. Vietnamese and other groups may fall in here, too.

Pacific Islanders, like Samoans and Hawaiians: similar to black jokes, focusing on violent criminality and laziness. These are probably the most offensive and aren’t shared as much.

Other groups have more mild stereotypes, unlike the groups above. Japanese get the nerdy and busybody jokes. White folks (haoles) get the uptight and “fresh off the boat” jokes: “How do you pronounce Likelike Highway?”.

And then there’s perhaps the largest single category. Remember every single Polack joke you’ve heard? Replace with the word “Portagee” for Portuguese. Frank DeLima, mentioned above, is unashamedly Portuguese and is the font from which these jokes flow.

I’m not sure which I’d classify as myths, and some of these stereotypes have kernals of truth. The hotel service industry is dominated by Filipinas. The crime rate of Pacific Islanders are higher than other groups. And most FOB haoles will call it “Like-like” not “Lee-kay-lee-kay” Highway. It’s not like they’re saying “All Koreans are made of green cheese.”

I’m from West Virginia, and growing up, I always heard that “foreigners (didn’t) pay taxes”. I sort of secretly wished that it were true, because my father was an immigrant. But he griped about taxes as much as other kids’ parents, so I was confused.

Back around 1996, before straightdope.com existed, I asked about this (supposed) myth on the newsgroup alt.fan.ceciladams (or whatever it was).

A couple of respondents suggested that the myth grew out of the exchange programs that universities often have, whereby visiting scholars and graduate students receive tuition and tax breaks. (This explanation made sense - my home town is a college town.) If the foreign visitors happen to have nice cars and the like, I can see how the townies hearing snippets of such arrangements could amplify the normal town-and-gown tension.

I work for the DoD, and I know that contractor employees often receive tax exemptions when working overseas. I assume there are similar arrangements for foreign workers in America temporarily.

I could see people mistakenly assuming that such arrangements apply not just to visiting foreign workers, but also to immigrants who are here permanently. The frequent tendency of immigrants to accept lower living standards than most Americans could aid this perception. And I wouldn’t rule out a little American xenophobia.

One other aspect regarding immigrant business owners - it’s often not an option for the immigrant to get a regular job working for a traditional company. However, starting some sort of business is an option.

My own attitude is that the people who choose to immigrate are much more ambitious than the average inhabitants of their home countries, much more willing to take chances and, if they are entrepreneurial, this may take the form of starting small businesses.

The tax argument is absurd. As for tax breaks for Americans working aborad, it is the US taxes, not the foreign. The DoD may have special agreements (status of forces and the like) but normal employers will not.

That’s my point: people who hear second and third hand accounts of U.S. income tax breaks for select visiting foreign scholars and foreign government employees may assume the breaks apply more generally than they actually do.

I have encountered this phenomenon personally: when I worked overseas as a U.S. civil servant, I was subject to all U.S. income taxes. But I met people back here who assumed that I got a tax exemption. They’d heard about the break given to contractors, and assumed it applied to civil servants too.

Also, even if these visiting foreign workers are subject to income tax back in their home countries, that’s invisible to people in the U.S. hearing the rumor. Hence the myth, “foreigners don’t pay taxes”.

I wonder if part of the reason for this myth about Arab immigrants getting “tax breaks” and interest-free loans comes from the practice of Islamic banks not charging interest because Sharia law prohibits usury.

Of course, at least here in SE Michigan, which has the largest Arab-American concentration in the country, only about 50 percent are Muslim. There are many Christian and Chaldean recent immigrants, moving here from Iraq within the last decade.

There are a lot of immigrants from all over the world in Austin, but most of them DON’T congregate in particular neighborhoods.

Do we have Arabs? Sure, lots of them- but there’s no “Arab” neighborhood here that I know of. Arabs seek out houses or apartments in the best neighborhoods they can afford to live in. So do Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Koreans, et al. ANd there’s no single business that’s dominated by any single one of those ethnic groups.

And since immigrants tend to be fairly well dispersed throughout the city, I don’t hear many conspiracy theories.