Behind the ‘model minority’ myth: the Asian disadvantage

WITH stereotypes like “The Model Minority” and the “most successful race,” Asian Americans are facing increasing pressure in society.

Studies show Asian Americans are the most educated race, with over half (51.5 percent) possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to just 30 percent of the overall US population, CNN Money reported.

Asian Americans also earn much more than the general populace: $74,105 in median income versus $53,657, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey.

However, numbers only tell half of the story.

“When you dig a little bit, it shows that we are not all doing well as society, the government and other institutions would lead you to believe,” said Christopher Kang, National Director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). “We do have a very diverse population and very diverse needs.”

Last month, columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “The Asian Advantage,” where he talks about the general success of the Asian American community.

“It’s no secret that Asian Americans are disproportionately stars in American schools, and even in American society as a whole,” Kristof wrote. “Census data show that Americans of Asian heritage earn more than other groups, including whites. Asian Americans also have higher educational attainment than any other group.”

Kristof argued the “Asian advantage” as how their intellectual stardom is “harnessed,” citing a study by University of Michigan professor and psychologist Richard E. Nisbett. “I’m pretty sure that one factor is East Asia’s long Confucian emphasis on education,” he said.

He also cited familial ties as important to Asian Americans’ success, saying that strong, two-parent families contribute to economic and educational status. The interaction of social stereotypes and personal self-confidence also play a role in “Asian scholastic success.”

“Why should the success of the children of Asian doctors, nurtured by teachers, be reassuring to a black boy in Baltimore who is raised by a struggling single mom, whom society regards as a potential menace?” Kristof asked. “Disadvantage and marginalization are complex, often deeply rooted in social structures and unconscious biases, sometimes compounded by hopelessness and self-destructive behaviors, and because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can.”

Speaking for the NCAPA, Kang penned a response on, saying the “Asian Advantage is a myth, plain and simple.”

Asking why Asian Americans are so successful in America is not just an awkward question, it is “uninformed,” “perpetuates stereotypes,” and “divides Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) from the broader racial justice movement,” Kang wrote.

He also referenced low levels of educational attainment among groups like the Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Hmong communities. US Census data shows that just 15.3 percent of Hmong Americans, 18 percent of Cambodian Americans, and 28.4 percent of Vietnamese Americans have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Groups with higher levels of education include Indian Americans (72.5 percent), over half of Chinese Americans, and Korean Americans. A little less than half of Filipinos (48.1 percent) were also counted for, according to a Census study from 2012.

Another often-ignored issue Kang points out is national poverty.

“AAPIs are one of the fastest-growing populations in poverty since the Great Recession. According to [a July 2014 report from] the Center for American Progress, from 2007 to 2011, the number of Asian Americans in poverty increased by 37 percent and Pacific Islanders by 60 percent— compared to the national increase of only 27 percent. And while Asian Americans’ median household income may be higher than whites, the rate of senior poverty is 13.5 percent for Asian Americans and 12.1 percent for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, compared to only 7.8 percent for whites,” he continued.

Overall, the poverty rate for Asian Americans now is at 12.5 percent, well below the national rate of 15.5 percent.

Among the different ethnicities, the rates vary significantly. Chinese Americans are at a 15.8 percent poverty level, while the Indians’ rate is 7.3 percent. The poverty rate for Filipino Americans is at roughly 5 percent, according to the Census Bureau, although that number is expectedly higher.

“There are still garment workers, and the people who give you your foot massage in Chinatown, there are still low-wage workers, said Sylvia Chong, director of the Asian Pacific American Studies minor program at the University of Virginia. “People don’t see that. That’s an economic underclass.”

High household incomes among Asian Americans can also be explained by “the fact that some live in multi-generational homes with more than one person earning an income,” said Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine, and co-author of the book “The Asian-American Achievement Paradox.” “You have parents, grandparents, an aunt, some children.”

“Kristof’s focus on the ‘Confucian emphasis on education’ is concerning,” she continued. “The underlying tenet is that if groups adopt ‘the right’ cultural values and behaviors, they too can succeed. This argument ignores a host of legal and institutional factors that help some groups get ahead more easily than others.”

“These assumptions often fuel stereotypes of Asian Americans like the ‘model minority’ concept, which assumes that there must be something intrinsic about Chinese culture or Asian culture that are producing these outcomes. They don’t understand how status and educational attainment is reproduced from one generation to the next.”

Asian Americans who don’t fit the mold of the “model minority”, according to US standards–perfect, high-achieving, hard-working, and brilliant at the maths and sciences–can “face devastating consequences,” Lee added. “They feel like ethnic outliers and they feel like failures if they don’t live up to the standards.”

Many groups within the larger Asian community often go unnoticed or harshly ignored, such as undocumented immigrants living in US borders.

“I feel like there is a lot of stigma, especially in or own Filipino community, that we don’t seek out the help from others that we should. There aren’t many [Asian Americans] that apply [for deferred action], many who are still living in fear,” said Madeleine Villanueva, 22, an openly undocumented Filipina student at the University of California, Berkeley. “Overall, the Asian experience of being undocumented is different; you don’t think ‘undocumented’ when you see an Asian American person. You think ‘model minority’.”

“Although there has been progress in the last couple of years, there is still a lot of moving forward that needs to be done,” Villaneuva continued.

As for representation, Kang reminded readers of the very real problems faced by the broader Asian American community, citing an infographic by the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP).

Although 18.5 million AAPIs live in the US (about 6 percent of the total population), AAPIs represent just 2.6 percent of corporate board leaders, 2 percent of executive officers in Fortune 500 companies, and zero percent of executive directorships and CEOs at the top 100 nonprofits and foundations. At least 77.2 percent of Fortune 500 companies have zero AAPI representation on their boards, according to LEAP.

“By promoting the model minority myth and the positive stereotype that AAPIs have been ‘so successful’ and ‘disproportionately stars,’ [Kristof] creates burdens on our entire community,” Kang said, “masking the real needs within our community and brushing away the discrimination and bamboo ceiling that we continue to confront.”

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