Asian American model minority myth remains mythical

American Math Olympiad Team, 2015

For various ideological reasons there is an idea in some parts of the academy that Asian Americans are not a “model minority.” That that “model minority” designation is a myth. The mainstream media often repeats the idea that this is a myth which has been “debunked.”

Actually, it hasn’t been debunked. Rather, through a set of common talking points and empirical shell games Asian American achievement is masked, obfuscated, and explained away. This is not to say that Asian Americans have not, and do not, experience racism. But, it is to assert that the perceptions of Asian American success in particular domains is not an illusion. Your eyes and mind are perceiving real patterns (see here for a typical example of the “Asian American model minority myth”).

From PBS, These groups of Asian-Americans rarely attend college, but California is trying to change that:

Chang, a 22-year-old psychology student at California State University Fresno who grew up in this Central Valley city, chose to study close to home, and she’ll probably remain on campus for her master’s degree. But for someone from an ethnic group that contradicts the Asian-American “model minority” myth, even this is a rare achievement.

As one group of Asians who don’t go to college in large numbers, the Hmong help illustrate the complex changing demographics of students arriving at American universities and colleges: increasingly nonwhite, low-income, and first-generation.

Among the 281,000 Hmong in the United States, 38 percent have less than a high school degree, about 25 percentage points lower than both the Asian-American and U.S. averages, according to the Center for American Progress. Just 14 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, less than half the national average.

Upending the stereotype that most Asian-American children go to college, the Hmong and other Southeast Asian immigrants including Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese have markedly low college-going rates — especially compared with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans, who are actually more likely than other Americans to earn bachelor’s degrees.

This is the “Hmong gambit.” I’ve been hearing about this for 20 years from Asian American activist friends. The Hmong are genuinely marginalized. They were marginalized in Laos as well, where they were a hill tribe outside of the pale of Theravada Buddhist civilization. The fact that they have particular trouble integrating into the United States in comparison to other Asian Americans is not surprising. But the Hmong are not very representative of California Asian Americans. 

UC Berkeley provides undergraduate (non-international) student data. And you can find various Asian American ethnic numbers from the Census and other sites.

Berkeley 2015 %California 2010 %Ratio
South Asian8.2%1.8%4.55

One thing you can see immediately is that the reporting is sloppy and uninformed. Vietnamese shouldn’t be bracketed with other Southeast Asians. They are somewhat overrepresented at Berkeley. This is not surprising. Many of the Vietnamese are themselves Hoa, or from the Catholic middle class. The Filipinos are represented at about their proportion in the population. The Chinese, South Asians (mostly Indian), Koreans, and Japanese are all overrepresented.

At this point you might wonder about all the other groups such as Pacific Islanders, Cambodians, and Mongolians (?). But look up the numbers and you’ll see that the six groups above represent 80-90% of Asian Americans in California. These are representative communities, not the Hmong.

Note: One aspect of the “model minority myth” myth is that the 1965 immigration system, which was highly selective for the first post-65 wave of Asians, shaped modern conceptions. More or less this is a lie, as the “model minority” thesis was formulated in the 1960s against the backdrop of black urban unrest, and when “Asian American” mean Chinese and Japanese, who were by and large descendants of very modest people. In the case of the Japanese in particular it is well known that those who left the home islands were often the most socially and economically marginalized.

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