The model minority myth is foundational to the way many Americans see race in this country. The model minority myth postulates that Asians (broadly defined) are all doing wonderfully here in the US. Many people believe that Asians are more intelligent and have a better work ethic. People who believe in this myth cite stats showing a high level of education, high median family incomes, and a large number of Asian Americans in the most prestigious schools. In this post, I want to talk about just a few reasons why the model minority myth misrepresents the experiences of Asian Americans.
Not all of the statistics of Asian Americans paint a rosy picture. This is not to diminish the accomplishments of Asian Americans, but it is important to understand that statistics can be used selectively. By only citing the statistics where Asians do well, we miss the bigger picture. One of the biggest problems with how Asians are viewed is the tendency to lump all Asian ethnic groups together. When groups are subdivided a more complex portrait of Asian Americans emerges.
Asian Americans and Poverty
It may surprise many model minority proponents to know that Asian Americans have higher poverty rates than whites. Census poverty statistics for 2000 indicate that 9% of whites live in poverty, 24% of blacks live in poverty, 11% of native born (NB) Asian Americans live in poverty, and 13% of foreign born (FB) Asians live in poverty1. The poverty rate for various sub-groups within the category Asian also varies. For example, Filipinos have lower poverty rates among both the native born (7%) and the foreign born (6%). Japanese Americans (NB=5%, FB=16%) have lower poverty rates than whites if the are native born and higher if they are foreign born. How do other groups fair:
- Chinese (NB=11, FB=14%)
- Koreans (NB=12%, FB=15%)
- Asian Indians (NB=10%, FB=10%)
- Vietnamese (NB=18%, FB=15%)
In their analysis Sakamoto and Xie (2006) create a category “Other Asians” which includes all groups not mentioned above such as Hmong, Laotian, Cambodians, Indonesians, and some others. Collectively, these groups have very high poverty rates NB=26% and FB=22%, which puts their poverty rates at the same level as African Americans. So the overall lesson here is that poverty is slightly higher for Asians than it is for whites, and poverty levels vary dramatically among Asian subgroups.
Asian Americans and High School Completion
While Asian Americans as a collective are overrepresented among the highly educated, many are also overrepresented in among those who do not complete high school. In 2000 87% of whites and 77% of blacks in the 25-64 year old range had completed high school. For Asians, however, the numbers are complex. Among the native born the overall number is 93% and among the foreign born it is 82% (Sakamoto and Xie 2006). Native born Asians tend to do better than whites and foreign born Asians tend to do worse. Once again there is great variation among the various Asian subgroups that follows a somewhat similar pattern to the one above–Japanese, Filipinos, Indians, and Koreans do relatively well (They are all 89% or higher for both foreign and native born.). Chinese (NB=96%, FB=80%) are in the middle, and Vietnamese (NB=74% and FB=65%) and “other” Asians (NB=81, FB=67%) do poorly.
I have not taken the time to examine labor force statistics or higher education statistics in this particular post, but they do have some some similar patterns. I think it is important to understand the complexities of the experiences of Asian Americans outside the model minority stereotype, while many Asians are doing fairly well economically, thanks to immigration policies that recruited highly skilled workers from the east. Others are not doing so well. Several Asian subgroups like Hmong, Laotians, or Vietnamese consistently have poverty and drop out rates that are on par with or higher than African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. These groups often came as refugees rather than skilled workers. Moreover, the poverty rates tend to be higher than whites for most Asian subgroups. There are no doubt an Asian American working class and an underclass, which we very rarely hear about. (This post will also connect with the second immigration series post.)
This is part of the reason I argued for affirmative action in higher education for Asian Americans. Beyond the fact that I think schools should promote diversity, I also think a good case can be made that many Asian American subgroups are underrepresented in higher education.
- Sakamoto, Arthur and Yu Xie. 2006. “The Socioeconomic Attainments of Asian Americans.” PP 54-67 in Pyong Min Gap (ed.) Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. [↩]
- The Sky is Falling on Black Men?? Pt.1 Drop Out Rates and Graduation Rates
- Affirmative Action Doesn't Increase Minority Drop-Out Rates. (Also, a Cato Institute report is less than honest – there's a shocker.)
- A Few Notes on The Language of Race and Stereotyping
- Disagreeing With Dignan: The Politics Of Poverty And Welfare
- The Meritocracy Myth: An Interview with Lani Guinier