How Anti-Racists Should Engage with the Model Minority Myth

Anti-racists make the argument that when we see disparities by race, this is evidence of racism. This is true in the broadest of terms, but I am not a big fan of this blanket statement. When we ask questions about different groups, we realize that the issue is more complex. Some groups have experienced racism, and some have not. Moreover, the disparities may have a historical root cause in racism for some groups, but there may not currently be the same impact in the present. Questions that get us to understand the root causes of racial disparities are necessary and important.

However, people not interested in combating the impact of racism, will often ask this question: “If racism is a problem, then why are Asians doing so well?”

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Photo by Akson on Unsplash

The question is a rhetorical one, meant to throw a wrench into the anti-racists’ push to talk about racism and support policies that address racism. It reveals a sense that racism is not really impactful in American life, and the success of Asians demonstrates that.

It is important to point out that the various populations clustered under the category “Asian” are indeed doing very well in the United States.

Consider median household income, usually the statistic used to show inequality. Asian Americans, as a group, have the highest median household income. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Asian Americans have a median household income of almost $100,000, well above that of Whites ($76,000), Hispanics ($56,000), and Blacks ($46,000).

If median household income is considered a sign of success, then arrest rates — entering the criminal justice system — are signs of failure. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the arrest rate for Asian-Americans is 115 (for every 100,000 Asian persons in the US, 115 are arrested). This rate is well below White (450), Hispanic (831), and Black (2306) arrest rates.

I have noticed Asian success anecdotally. I see a disproportionate number of Asian applicants for STEM field professorships at my university — I am affiliated with our school of cybersecurity. In my day to day travels in my town, I see many small business owners who I would categorize as Asian.

So again, “If racism is a problem, then why are Asians doing so well?”

The purpose of this essay is to provide some thoughts for the anti-racist confronted with this question. I argue that the question is ultimately built upon two faulty assumptions, making the query difficult, if not impossible, to address. The appropriate response would be to point out the question’s impracticality and reframe the issue more scientifically and with more empathy.

All Asians are Not the Same

The question: “If racism is a problem, then why are Asians doing so well?” assumes a degree of homogeneity in the Asian population that may not hold for many social outcomes.

According to AAPI Data, disaggregating the category “Asian” into populations by national origin produces notable differences in poverty rates. Numerous populations within the category Asian are not doing well. Most are “models” only if you compare them to the 20% poverty rate for Black Americans, but not the 10% poverty rate for White Americans.

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AAPI Data on Poverty Rates (Families) in 2017

These are variations worthy of sociological analysis.

The Chinese, Korean, and Asian-Indian populations have a higher proportion of people who purposefully immigrated to the United States, targeting specific economic niches or for educational opportunities. They come with the support of their families, having planned for the move and took the appropriate steps to ensure success. Their poverty rates, then, are at or below those of Whites. This is a common rebuttal to the model minority myth, arguing that a primary reason for the success of Asian immigrants is that they are self-selected.

But we also must explore the conditions of groups not self-selected. For example, the Burmese population has a higher proportion of refugees, who are likely entering the country under adverse circumstances with little resources, skills, education, or economic support. Their poverty rate is at 28%. As a sociologist, I would like to see more research done on this community, as well as others that do not fit in the model minority myth like the Hmong.

I suspect this line of reasoning can be applied to Hispanic populations. They are also relatively recent immigrants to the United States. They also (albeit to a lesser extent) come from very different nations, with varying resources and skills. This argument works less well for black folks in the United States — except in cases where research needs to separate foreign-born blacks from native blacks.

Making claims about Asian success in the United States may be an acceptable shorthand for newspaper articles or talking head roundtables, but those groups placed into the category Asian have unmistakable differences in social outcomes.

Some people will argue that this means we should also disaggregate the white population similarly. This is not a suggestion oriented towards understanding our social world. Instead, it is a question meant to show hypocrisy — “you want to disaggregate Asians when it is convenient for you, but you continue to use the category white people when you want to talk about white supremacy or white privilege.”

There is a straightforward response to this often-disingenuous question.

The decision to disaggregate depends upon the questions you want to answer. Looking specifically at Hmong immigrants versus Korean immigrants, for example, will allow us to see how differences in culture, wealth, skills, and immigration processes impact these two populations’ outcomes.

In trying to answer the question about what makes a model minority, we must disaggregate.

Disaggregation is done on research with Whites as well, and increasingly so since the upheaval of the 2016 Donald Trump victory. Examples include Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Both authors are trying to answer questions about the meanings working class and poor white Americans associate with conservative politics.

On the other hand, a question may not require breaking the category White into smaller categories. Suppose we are interested in exploring the statistical dominance of people categorized as White in American institutions (white supremacy) or the lack of impact their racial categorization has on their life chances (white privilege). In that case, we need to explore the broad category White.

So, when the supposed hypocrisy is exposed, I am inclined to support it. Answering questions about different white populations by religion, region, or class — when the question warrants it — will contribute to our overall sociological knowledge.

All Racism Is Not the Same

There is a second presumption that I find more problematic than lumping all Asians into one category. The question “If racism is a problem, then why are Asians doing so well?” presumes that racism impacts all non-white populations the same. This is a limited view of how scholars understand racism.

Many people have winnowed racism down to “acts of bias.” This is a holdover from the Civil Rights era focus on weeding out individual bigots and people with hate in their hearts. There is still a place for this type of analysis in modern society. But to the credit of scholars exploring racial dynamics, more mechanisms have been empirically linked to racial inequities since the 1970s.

A standard college course on racial inequality may devote an opening lecture to explaining in general terms what racism is. I can imagine the professor explaining that it is an “ism” composed of many separate phenomena. The professor may then describe some of these phenomena:

  • Employment or Housing Discrimination
  • Bias in the Form of Prejudice
  • White Flight
  • Government Policies with Disproportionate Racial Impact
  • Institutional Discrimination
  • In-Group Favoritism
  • Past Forms of Exploitation or Exclusion Leading to Current Disparities

They may even discuss one or two seminal studies that show how these components are measured and linked to real-world phenomena. The key takeaway is that racism cannot be reduced to willful acts of individual people any more than capitalism can be reduced to individuals shopping in malls. A collection of capitalists does not make capitalism, and a collection of racists does not make racism.

When we understand racism in this more complex way, we can conclude that (1) groups will experience different forms of racism, and (2) the impact of these forms of racism will vary in how detrimental they are.

For example, it has been argued that Asians may have had a “bamboo ceiling” blocking them from assuming the top roles in major corporations. This can be retranslated into stereotypes about Asians, especially men, not being able to “take charge” in American businesses. But this manifestation of racism is not as applicable to Hispanics. Instead, Hispanics may face state-specific policies, passed by white voters, that target them as suspicious immigrants.

When someone tries to compare racism equally across groups, it is a comparison based on ignorance. This ignorance is sometimes willful, sometimes not. But there is no reason to believe that Asians experience the same forms of racism, to the same degree, as other groups.

Even within the Asian population, we cannot expect racism to operate the same. Chinese-Americans in modern times have well-established immigrant networks and move into ethnic enclaves providing social support, and come disproportionately for education or work. They may have minimal experiences with racism. Meanwhile, the Native Hawaiian and his ancestors will have had a version of land appropriation, exploitation, and exclusion similar to what Native Americans experienced on the mainland. This may explain why Native Hawaiians have a poverty rate of 16% in that state, while whites and Chinese rates are 11% and 10%, respectively.

The point of these explanations is not to say they are definitive, but instead to argue for a type of complexity that is lost in conversations about the Model Minority.

Responding to the Model Minority Myth

So how should anti-racists engage with the question: “If racism is a problem, then why are Asians doing so well?” This question is asked rhetorically as a way of suggesting it is not racism that is producing racial disparities for black and Hispanics in the United States because Asian-Americans are doing so well.

My approach is to argue that there is no reason to suggest, without a series intellectual engagement with the issue, that Asian populations experience racism in the same manner as other groups. This is the start of bending the conversation towards a call for understanding the lived experiences of Asians in their own voice. It is also a call for doing more systematic social research on the issue, and not limiting the explanation to simplistic reasons such as “Asians spend more time studying”.

The Asian experience in the United States, far from showing the import of individual cultural decisions, makes the strongest argument we have for the impact of external forces on group outcomes. The cultures from which the most successful Asians populations are drawn (Korean Chinese, Indian, Filipino) are very different — but they do share similar structural conditions. The same argument can be made in reverse, as the populations that are least successful (Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh) do not share a culture either.

It is external factors that determine success at the population level.

These external factors may or may not be racism. They could be being born into a set of beliefs about the importance of religion, familial expectations, or gender roles. It could be the particular social networks in place at the time of immigration. It could be the quality of the educational institutions of the host country. It could be factors at a national level — one country is war-torn, and their citizens flee haphazardly, another actively supports their most eager and talented citizens to study abroad. So on, and so forth. None of these external factors can be reduced to someone making the decision to work hard.

I would then ask, “what population of Asians are you referring to, and what form of racism do you believe they have experienced”? Most people are unaware of the differences within Asian populations, and even fewer people are aware of how racism is understood. If an answer is given, it will likely point to bias-related phenomena such as prejudice or employment discrimination. The groups mentioned will likely be one of the more visible Asian groups — Chinese, Indian, or Korean.

This then allows you to suggest that numerous groups fall under the umbrella of Asian, all with different immigration histories and experiences here in the United States. You can also point out that racism is more than just bias, and depending upon the group, experiences of racism will differ.

The last response to those who use the model minority myth is to create a more empathetic climate towards Asians in the United States. I posted snippets of this essay on Twitter, and the responses I received were troubling. A large proportion of the responses were about white people. They saw this attempt to disaggregate Asians as a way to talk about themselves. None of the responses were about the poverty in Burmese, Micronesian, or Nepalese populations. None.

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I found this distasteful and it speaks to how the Model Minority Myth hurts Asians. It flattens their multidimensional experiences down to headlines about how many of them are going to Ivy League schools. Even though this laudable, this is not all what the Asian experience has been in the United Sates. Moreover, it allows us to neglect those Asian population that are not doing so well, struggling with poverty and dislocation. This is ultimately the most damaging aspect of the Model Minority Myth.

Rod is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University.

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