The Asian American model minority myth has been getting a lot of attention lately. Articles like this one, in Colorlines, and posts here on Race Files like this one and this one are just a few among a growing number of attempts to speak to the origins and meaning of the Asian American model minority. To me, that’s great news. Anti-black racism may be the fulcrum, or pivot point, of white supremacy, but the model minority myth is one of white supremacy’s many levers.
The articles referenced here all make the important point that the model minority is a deceit, conjured up by Asian American civil rights leaders in the middle of the last century in order to secure the citizenship of Asians in the U.S. at a time when we were considered so indelibly foreign and dangerous that the Japanese were subjected to mass incarceration, while the Chinese were targeted by McCarthy-style anti-communist witch hunts.
To promote the myth, many unflattering facts of life in the Asian ghettos of the period were suppressed. Meanwhile, Asian American accomplishments in the arts, business, and, most of all, World War II were touted as indicators of Asians’ suitability for citizenship and ability to vertically integrate themselves into the white middle class.
In other words, the Asian American model minority myth was a shield against the persecution of the Chinese and Japanese in the U.S. Sadly, that shield was quickly picked up by opponents of the Black Civil Rights and Black Power movements and used as a weapon against Black Americans who were stereotyped as a “problem minority,” mired in crime, unemployment and inter-generational poverty because of cultural deficits they would do well to overcome by making like Asians and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
But that was 60 years ago. Since then, the myth making has been taken to its bizarre yet predictable conclusion, making the claim that Asian Americans as a whole are not just rising, but have already risen, to the status of the most successful racial group in the U.S. And all those conjured up model characteristics of the Chinese and Japanese have now enveloped the much more vastly diverse Asian community of today – more than 45 distinct ethnic groups speaking over 100 language dialects who have immigrated to the U.S. for wildly diverse reasons ranging from political persecution, to famine, to economic opportunity over a period of more than 260 years.
One is left to wonder why the model minority myth has been so durable, especially when it’s tenets are so extreme and contradictory evidence is so readily available. How, for instance, can anyone who has ever ventured into the tourist magnet Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco fail to notice the poverty that runs rampant in them? And once noticed, why do they continue to defer to the idea that Asians in America are more successful than others? Certainly, the notion at least merits a “wait a minute,” to address the obvious reality that Asian Americans’ so-called success is by no means evenly distributed.
No group in the U.S. absent the English has ever been treated to such bullheaded exceptionalizing. Asians aren’t just considered more studious than others. That would suggest we just try harder. No, we also supposedly achieve more, which implies we’re smarter, at least when it comes to science and math.
And it doesn’t stop there. According to the myth we’re also less prone to criminality, more family-oriented, harder working, less egocentric, more cooperative, and less mouthy, making us ideal employees. That is, of course, as long as we don’t aspire to management. Lei Lai, an assistant professor at Tulane University, found that Asian Americans have the lowest probability of promotion to managerial positions among all non-whites, and in part for being stereotyped as having some of the same characteristics – being quiet and unassertive, among others – that lead many to call us model minorities, begging the question, is the model for the racial minorities America wants just submissive, put up or shut up robots?
Yet, in spite of the vast diversity of our experiences and the specious evidence that’s been used to describe our rise above racism, we’re regarded as a model American success story. It’s as if we’re magical.
So let’s cut through some of the fairy dust here. Asian Americans do have higher median family incomes than all others by race. However, that’s because Asian American families tend to include more incomes. Our per capita incomes still lag behind that of whites. Asian Americans also tend to be clustered in coastal cities where median incomes are higher, skewing that statistic even further. Even the supposed higher than average educational attainment level of Asians doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. When it comes to the percentage of adults without high school diplomas, the Hmong, Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians in the U.S. all exceed the national average of 19.6%, with the Hmong on the extreme end of disadvantage at 59.6%.
But oddest of all about the durability of the myth is that the category Asian American is so obviously arbitrary. Most Asians in the U.S. identify according to ethnicity and nation of origin, something anyone who knows Asian Americans cannot help but be aware of. The reality is that very little unites Asians other than the fact that non-Asians have decided we are a race, and an often hated one, and have treated us as such, whether we like it or not.
But even magical creatures like Santa Claus and monsters in children’s closets exist for a reason. So, what’s the reason Americans insist on all of this magical thinking about Asians?
Because Asian Americans, or at least the myths being made about us, are the Ragged Dicks of American race politics. Ragged Dick (eventually Richard Hunter, Esq.) is one of the more popular characters in the fables of Horatio Alger, a 19th century writer of short novels promoting hard work, thrift, and cheerfulness in the face of hardship as keys to the American dream. Written just after the Civil War, at a time when the U.S. was rapidly industrializing and many were displaced by the resulting changes in the American economy, Horatio Alger’s story of Ragged Dick, a street urchin who rises to the middle class, served as a lever to get poor whites from field (or tenement) to factory.
The Asian American model minority myth’s durability is testament to its utility in making the case that racism cannot stand in the way of those with the right work ethic and a cheerful or at least stoical attitude toward the suffering and disadvantage racism imposes on its victims. The myth provides a smokescreen for one of the most fundamental contradictions of U.S. democracy – our ideal of liberty and equal rights, and our history of slavery and enduring legacy of white supremacy – and allows our policy makers to avoid the systemic reforms that are necessary to address that contradiction.