Recently I was listening to a radio interview with an Asian American professor. At one point she had to expound about the “model minority myth,” which refers to the fact that the public has a misimpression about the state of Asian Americans (after prompting from the white host).
The idea is that while the public believes that Asian Americans are successful, often well-off, and disproportionately professionals, this is actually misleading and perpetuates the myth that they are a model minority.
The problem is that it is not a myth. The public’s eyes are not lying. The term “model minority” is loaded, and comes out of a specific time, the 1960s, and was used in contrast with black Americans. But, descriptively it points to the fact that Asian Americans on average are more educated, more well-off, and live longer, than the average American, including the average white American.
I’ve heard the well-actually-the-model-minority-is-a-myth responses in various forms since the 1990s. It has been perfected by Asian American activists, who use as a template the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and so must flatten and negate the unique characteristics of Asian Americans which make the template ill-fitting for their purposes.
First, “remember the Hmong. Not all Asian Americans are Indian, Chinese, or Japanese….” Aside from the fact that the Hmong have made massive strides in the last 30 years, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Asian Americans are Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean. The “traditional” Asian American groups. This is not to negate Bhutanese refugees, but they are a very small community, and their experience is not typical. Sometimes the average does tell you a lot.
Second, there is the idea that Asian American success is predicated on selective migration. Yes, but so what? That doesn’t negate the descriptive reality that Indian American doctors are quite well-off, and their children do quite well. And importantly, the idea of Asian Americans as a “model minority” came to the fore in the 1960s, when most Asian Americans were native-born Chinese and Japanese. And, these groups were not selected for professionals and those with social and financial capital. The Japanese who arrived tended to be the poorer families from the southern part of Japan, often the landless, while the Chinese were Taishenese and Cantonese laborers.
The ultimate aim is to emphasize the determinative impact of white racism and supremacy in American life. The existence of Asian American success, including dark-skinned South Indian doctors who did not arrive in the United States until they were 30, is threatening to that model.
A few minutes of Google and surveying public data could illustrate the fact that the empirical examples refuting the myth are implausible. There are not many Hmong or Bangladeshis (poorer Asian communities). Those communities are actually advancing too. The model minority idea emerged at a time when very few Asian Americans were products of the post-1965 selective immigration system. The vast majority of Asian Americans are actually “successful” groups.
Of course, it is a fact that there are plenty of ways you can suggest that Asian Americans do suffer the impacts of bias and racism. But the details matter. For example, in PNAS this winter: Why East Asians but not South Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in the United States.
But that’s not the discussion we’re having. Academics and “thought leaders” are lying to the public. Some of the academics and most of the “thought leaders” probably actually believe that the model minority is a myth because they can’t be bothered to take a few minutes and avail themselves of free Census data. But, many Asian American scholars surely understand that the myth is a lie they are promoting for ideological reasons on some level (I have no doubt they have sophisticated rationales for why the myth isn’t a myth, but the data and your eyes tell you the truth).
Where does this leave us? I’m not super interested in the obfuscation of Asian American scholars, and the perpetuation of a lie by our intellectual overclass. Rather, I wonder, how many lies are presented to us as the truth by our intellectual overclass? I suspect more than we like to believe. If you have domain expertise in an area there might be lies and falsehoods and obfuscations that your field promotes to the public because they’re convenient lies. And you think to yourself, “well, my field is special, my colleagues are particularly craven and we study a very sensitive topic.”
But perhaps you’re not special. Perhaps being craven is typical, and sensitivity is the order of the day.
Pyrrho is not looking so bad.