Debunking the Model Minority Myth

Using Asian “success” to disprove racism is both deceptive and harmful

Tim Wise
Tim Wise
Sep 28 · 9 min read
Free image from Needpix.com

By the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights movement had secured the passage of legislation outlawing discrimination in employment and public accommodations, as well as the Voting Rights Act.

Additionally, President Johnson had announced several community-based initiatives which, together with traditional social welfare efforts, would constitute a new “war on poverty.”

But despite progress on these fronts, there was growing frustration with the slow pace of change, especially when it came to real economic opportunity.

The Watts community of Los Angeles burned in the summer of 1965, the result of longstanding tensions between police and black residents. A year later, Stokely Carmichael would utter the words “black power” as a rallying cry for African Americans tired of waiting for the promises of democracy to be fulfilled. In Oakland, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense would form under the leadership of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

Into this breach, and only a few miles from where the Panthers would open their headquarters, stepped a Berkeley sociologist named William Peterson.

For Peterson, the paramount racial issue of the moment was not obtaining economic justice for black communities long denied it by housing discrimination and segregation. Nor was his concern police violence the likes of which had sparked the rebellion in Los Angeles, and which would be so central to the Panthers’ formation in the Bay.

No, to Peterson the real question was why blacks continued to constitute a “problem minority,” seemingly unable to match the work ethic and success of Japanese-Americans — a “model minority” by contrast.

Related: “50 Years Later, Challenging the ‘Model Minority Myth’ Through #ReModelMinority

Peterson uttered that term in a January 1966 New York Times Magazine article, contrasting Japanese-American industriousness with its presumptive lack among African Americans, who remained stuck on the bottom of the nation’s class structure.

Coming on the heels of the previous year’s “Moynihan Report” — which blamed black families for maladapting to a history of discrimination — Peterson’s piece spun a narrative that essentially absolved the society (and whites in particular) of any further responsibility for securing real equality of opportunity.

In December of 1966, a similar article contrasting Chinese-American immigrants with blacks would appear in U.S. News and World Report. The combination of the two pieces, both in leading journals, suggested this trope of “bootstrapping” Asians versus complaining and defective blacks was to become a new talking point for whites fed up with demands for change.

After all, if the Asians can make it, why can’t black folks?

Over the years, this narrative would have real staying power. It has been regularly trotted out to oppose affirmative action efforts and to bolster the notion that there is a self-reinforcing “culture of poverty” in which the black poor find themselves trapped. We’ve done all we can for “those people,” according to this thinking. Time for self-help, or so the story goes.

Even some in the Asian American community — like Amy Chua of “Tiger Mom” fame — have embraced elements of the model minority concept. They insist there are Asian cultural traits and habits that explain economic and academic success on the part of Asian Americans, which others should adopt if they wish for similar success.

But just as the model minority concept was rooted in disingenuous motivations from the start, so too has it been bolstered by the deceptive misuse of data today. In truth, Asian Americans are not doing nearly as well as some claim. The model minority concept elides this truth and harms Asian Americans, papering over their experiences with discrimination and setting them up with expectations that, even if fulfilled, can only be met at a high cost to their own well-being.

Notions of superior Asian cultural norms are inherently absurd

Before looking at how the model minority concept rests on the misuse of data, consider how inherently absurd it is to think that Asian Americans possess some intrinsic cultural secret to success.

After all, there are plenty of poor folks throughout the Asian world. These are people who share the same cultural heritages of their American immigrant counterparts. So, obviously, it’s not some inherent “Confucian value system” or Asian cultural study habits that can explain Asian “success” in the U.S.

Hindu Americans (mostly from India), for instance, are the highest income religious sub-group in the United States, with 65 percent of such households earning over $75,000 annually. Likewise, they are the most highly educated religious subgroup as well, with nearly six in ten Hindu Americans having at least some post-graduate education. But there are tens of millions of Hindu folk in India who live in extreme poverty, with little or no formal education, despite having similar cultural backgrounds as their American counterparts.

That some come from Asian nations where millions are poor but manage to “do well” here, says little about Asian cultures, and more about voluntary migration cultures, broadly understood.

Voluntary migrants tend to be exceptionally-motivated strivers, no matter whence they hail. And if they had to cross an ocean (as opposed to a border, which is relatively easier), they tend to be atypical in terms of pre-existing class status, especially relative to a native-born racial caste group (like African Americans) whose members are a cross-section.

This is what we see with Asian Americans. A disproportionate number of Asian immigrants have come to the U.S. with socioeconomic status that is well above that of blacks, and even most whites. They either have degrees in many cases or come here while pursuing them. That is not a cross-section of Asians, like the kind you would find in their countries of origin. It is, by definition, a self-selected group. To compare them to blacks, or even whites, is to compare apples and oranges.

By contrast, Asian Americans who are not coming with pre-existing advantages tend to be the ones who continue to struggle. Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Hmong) who came to the U.S. mostly as war refugees after 1975 (and thus, were less truly voluntary migrants) have very high poverty rates, for instance. By ignoring the disparities within Asian America, those who propagate the model minority concept erase struggling Asians from view altogether.

Lying with data: Why the evidence of Asian “success” is flawed

Those who point to Asian American success as proof that racism is no longer a major problem, typically look to income data showing that Asian households, on average, out-earn even white households in the U.S., often by $10,000 or more annually.

But while true, this data is deceptive. The reason Asian American household and family income is higher than for whites is not because of a better work ethic or cultural values that translate to higher earnings. First and foremost, it’s about family size and the number of earners per family.

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the average Asian American family or household is larger than the norm for whites (meaning it has more mouths to feed). These families also typically have an additional income earner, relative to the typical white family.

If Asians out-earn whites, but only because they have an additional family member in the workforce, that isn’t proof that racism is gone. If anything, it shows that Asian American folks still operate at a disadvantage because they gain only a small edge over whites despite more effort.

When we disaggregate the data, we find that per capita income between whites and Asian Americans is roughly the same, even though Asian Americans are 50 percent more likely than whites to have college degrees and nearly twice as likely to possess an advanced degree. If one group’s members are much more qualified than those of another, but make the same amount as the latter group, that proves there is unequal opportunity. It certainly doesn’t debunk it.

When we disaggregate the data further, we get a clear sense of how Asian Americans continue to face obstacles even when they are equally qualified as their white counterparts.

According to Census data, for those with undergraduate degrees, white males between 30–34 earn 22 percent more than comparable Asian Americans. By the time those white men are in their mid-forties they are making 46 percent more than their Asian American counterparts — almost $30,000 more each year on average.

For highly educated professionals, earnings disparities demonstrate significant barriers for Asian Americans. Recent research shows that Chinese American professionals in the medical and legal fields earn only 56 percent as much as their white counterparts, on average, despite similar or higher levels of education and experience.

Even obtaining a professional level job remains more difficult for Asian Americans than it should be, given their qualifications.

So consider: when looking at labor market outcomes for young adults in their mid-twenties, living in the same areas, the likelihood that a Chinese-American will have a college degree is 6.5 times greater than the likelihood for a similar white person. For Indian Americans the likelihood of having a degree is eight times that of whites. For Koreans, the likelihood is three times higher and for Filipinos it is twice the likelihood of whites having a degree.

And yet Indian and Korean American young adults are no more likely to have a professional or managerial job than comparable whites, despite having greater educational qualifications, and Filipinos are less likely to have professional jobs than whites. And despite being over 500 percent more likely than white young adults to possess a college degree, Chinese-Americans in the their mid-20s are only about 50 percent more likely than comparable whites to have a professional or managerial job.

Further research demonstrates the direct discrimination to which Asian Americans are often subjected. One study found that for both blacks and Asians, “whitening” their resumes (by removing any signifiers of racial identity) roughly doubles the number of callbacks they receive.

Claims that Asian Americans are doing better than whites because of higher household incomes are not only flawed because of differences in household size, or the number of earners in Asian families. There is also a geographic explanation for the seeming Asian American edge.

Over half of Asian Americans live in just five states, which are among the nation’s higher income (and cost of living) states; namely, California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, and Washington. As a result, in the aggregate, they will have higher median incomes than members of other groups who are geographically dispersed across the country.

However, if we examine income and poverty data in the places where so many Asian Americans live, thereby comparing like with like, things change dramatically.

Consider New York City. According to Census data, white median family income in Manhattan is $123,000 higher than the median for Asian Americans: that’s 2.5 times the Asian American median. Also, Asian Americans are three times more likely than whites there to live in poverty. Similar numbers obtain in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as in cities on the west coast.

Bottom line: When comparing whites and Asians in similar parts of the country with similar qualifications, whites have massive advantages and Asian Americans continue to lag behind. So much for Asian “success” as proof of racism’s demise.

The model minority myth is damaging for Asian Americans as well

In addition to the way that the model minority myth relies on misinterpreted data, and gets used as a weapon against blacks, it’s important to point out how it harms Asian Americans too.

Imagine being an Asian American who isn’t doing well in school, or who isn’t “making it” in your chosen field. Now imagine hearing people constantly tell you how smart and studious people like you are, and how you are culturally predisposed to success because, after all, Amy Chua says so. How might this make you feel?

And even for Asian Americans who succeed, at what cost do those outcomes obtain? How healthy is it to continually feel an insane pressure to achieve, not just because your immigrant parents are pushing you to do so (as all immigrant parents are wont to do), but because of the expectations this country has for you?

It’s not healthy at all. In fact, that pressure kills. Asian American college and graduate school students have an alarming rate of suicide, for instance. And at several schools where I’ve spoken, I’ve been told by health professionals that their Asian students often have the highest rate of days in the infirmary because of mental and emotional distress.

So sure, perhaps Asian immigrant kids are killing it on the exam for selective high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York. But aside from the absurdity of those tests — even the test makers admit they are entirely unrelated to what students have been taught in school, and thus, should presumably know — at what cost has their success been purchased?

Parents are pushing their kids to succeed using metrics that have nothing to do with actual ability, let alone mastery of prior instruction.

And why?

All for the sake of prestige — a prestige this culture says is important.

All for the sake of upholding a supposedly “positive” stereotype — a stereotype this culture has sought to propagate.

How, one wonders, is that helping Asian Americans?

The answer, of course, is that it’s not.

But as with the model minority myth, it helps white folks bash black people and undermines calls for greater equity.

And it squashes the solidarity that might otherwise develop between blacks and Asians, by pitting each against the other.

Which was pretty much the point all along, and thus explains why both those tests, and the myth, persist.

Our Human Family

Conversations on achieving equality

Tim Wise

Written by

Tim Wise

I’m an antiracism educator/author. I Facebook & tweet @timjacobwise, podcast at Speak Out With Tim Wise & post bonus content at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise

Our Human Family

Conversations on achieving equality

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