Thanks to the recent affirmative action Supreme Court case, the phrase "model minority" is popping up again. Many think that members of that group, like me, should love the term because it praises us. Instead, I think the idea is a myth and that, because people buy into it, it actually works counter to the idea of equality.
What is the Idea Behind the Phrase "Model Minority"?
For those unfamiliar with the term, the phrase "model minority" is often used to refer to POC's of Asian descent. The idea behind the phrase is that members of the "model minority" faced racism and the many of the same struggles as other minority groups, but, instead of "playing the victim", they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps to become educated and financially successful. The idea is that if other minority groups acted like the "model minority", then they could become successful too.
The Myth of the Model Minority
First off, the idea of the "model minority" is nothing more than a myth. The proponents of this idea are right in that Asian-Americans, as a whole, tend to be better off financially according to the Census data. The reason for this, however, has far less to do with the whole "bootstrap" idea than it does immigration policy and trends. In the 1960's, immigration trends favored educated East Asian professionals.
These professionals arrived with both financial and educational advantages that were often passed down to their children. Even now, US immigration policy heavily favors those who are educated. Using data from US Census statistics, the paper "Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight" by the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE) noted that:
… since the 1990 Immigration Act, "employment preferences" target preferred immigrants, which include: "aliens with extraordinary ability," "outstanding professors," "researchers," "multinational executives," "professionals with advanced degrees," "skilled and professional," those able to invest $500,000 in certain businesses, and "special immigrants" who have worked with the U.S. government abroad. This preference category accounts for nearly 18 percent of the immigrants from Asia who have arrived in the United States between 1990 and 1999. The Asians and Pacific Islanders who have been granted entry through these U.S. immigration laws are highly educated and trained: indeed, they are the elites of their countries of origin.
Nowadays, if you have a specialty (often requiring a fairly high level of education), you can get a H-1B visa much more quickly than you can get a green card (which is taking 10+ years for some folks). Funny story: when you are highly educated and already financially well-off, you tend to stay financially successful.
Asian-Americans are also an incredibly diverse group. While there are quite a few members of the community are doing well financially and educationally in the US, there are also many who are economically disadvantaged. Citing census data, CARE says, "Immigrants who are not professional elites in their native countries, or who come from impoverished rural areas of Asia and the Pacific, often have little human capital to transfer to the information- and finance-driven economy of the United States."
How the Myth Hurts Equality
Beyond the fact that the "model minority" idea is a lie, my biggest gripe with the idea is that people who buy into it think that it's proof that the system works. The believers of this myth think that it proves that if you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you too can be completely financially successful. They point to it as proof that if only those "other minorities" would stop complaining and work harder, they'd be fine. That's not even close to reality.
When you compare the outcomes of a group of people who immigrated to the United States with existing significant educational advantages to a group of people who were systematically kept from obtaining an education, it's not really a surprise that the more educated group generally had better financial outcomes. The people who buy into this myth completely ignore how these differences have played into the overall outcomes for both groups.
The "model minority" idea also lends itself to us vs. them" mentality between Asians and other minorities that plays right into the hands of those who don't believe in real equality. They use the idea that we're somehow better than those other minorities to try to pit us against them, such as on affirmative action, social welfare programs, etc.
"Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have now been positioned as buffers, middle-men in the cost-benefit analysis of wins and losses in an affirmative action debate. Legal scholars Frank Wu and William Kidder explain that AAPIs have become 'racial mascots' to camouflage an agenda that, if presented by Whites on their own behalf, would look too much like self-interest." -CARE
Sadly, some fellow Asians I know have bought into the "model minority" myth and are against leveling the playing field to help make it more fair to other minorities because "we didn't need any help, so why should they?"
How the Myth Hurts Members of the "Model Minority"
It would seem that this model minority myth seems complimentary to Asians, but look beneath the surface, and it quickly turns into anything but. The stereotypical qualities of Asians (such as: intelligent, hard-working, obedient, non-complaining, etc.) are part of the reason we're considered "models". Those qualities are prized because not because those who believe in the myth think we make good leaders — they're prized because to them, we are easy to mistreat and exploit.
Case in point: Donald Sterling tried to get as many Korean tenants as he could and get rid of as many African-American and Hispanic tenants as he could. He went so far as to rename one of his buildings to "Korean World Towers". This isn't because he respected Korean tenants more highly, however — he liked having them because he could mistreat them and get away with it. Sterling is alleged to have once explained his love of Korean tenants by saying, "[Koreans] will live in whatever conditions [I give] them and still pay the rent without complaint."
I'm no stranger to this myself. My Mom, for instance, is a petite Asian woman. All throughout her professional career, people assumed she'd be a pushover and a yes-person for them because they thought she'd be obedient and subservient based on her race/ethnicity. They were in for quite a shock when she was anything but. It's cost her promotions and jobs because she refused didn't conform to people's expectations of a subservient employee who would do whatever they wanted without question.
The "Model Minority" Myth Hurts Everyone
The myth of the "model minority" plays into the hands of those who would seek to take advantage of the members of the group. They want to use us as proof that America really is a meritocracy to distract from the fact that the system is rigged against minorities. They want to take advantage of our perceived nature to exploit and mistreat us while expecting our loyalty and obedience. The continued existence of this myth does not help members of the "model minority" — it ultimately hurts us and equality as a whole.