It happens almost every semester. A student will announce to my class that America is an irreducibly racist country, which benefits white people over everybody else. But if that’s the case, I reply, why would Asian-Americans be outpacing whites in education and earnings?
Everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats. Then someone says, “That’s not true. It’s the model-minority myth.”
Actually, it is true. But my fellow liberals don’t like to talk about it, because it seems to confirm the myth conservatives tell about the United States: that anyone can make it, if they simply try hard enough.
That’s false. The odds are stacked against African-Americans, especially, thanks to centuries of slavery, segregation and more, not to mention ongoing current prejudice. But we should be able to acknowledge the facts of racism — including racism against Asians — without denying or diminishing the astonishing success of Asian-Americans.
Alas, we apparently can’t. In the all-or-nothing politics of our moment, any statement about Asian accomplishments seems like a concession to the other side. So the easiest thing to do is to dismiss it as a myth, manufactured by the right-wing propaganda machine.
Witness a friend-of-the-court brief submitted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in the case about affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, which the Supreme Court will hear in the fall. A conservative group has charged that the schools discriminate against Asian-Americans, who allegedly must attain higher grades and test scores than peers from other backgrounds to gain admission.
Instead of refuting that claim, the brief takes the plaintiffs to task for asserting it. By arguing that Asian-Americans have — on average — stronger academic records than other applicants, the lawsuit “perpetuates the ‘model minority’ myth,” the brief clams. It also notes that conservatives have long invoked Asian success “to argue that other communities of color ‘simply need to work harder to attain social and economic mobility.’ ”
But the honest response to that argument is to highlight the different historical experiences of these groups, not to ignore the facts about Asian-Americans. Although Asian-Americans represent about 6% of the national population, they make up between 20% and 25% of students at Ivy League colleges and other highly competitive schools like Stanford and MIT. At the California Institute of Technology, which doesn’t use race preferences in admissions, 40% of students are Asian-American; at UCLA and Berkeley, where race preferences are prohibited by law, Asian-Americans represent about a third of the students.
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Between 2006 and 2017, every racial and ethnic group saw its SAT scores dip except for one: Asian-Americans. And in a 2009 study, sociologists at Princeton showed that Asian applicants to highly selective schools needed SAT scores 140 points higher than white students — when everything else was equal — to have the same chance of gaining admission.
It doesn’t follow that the schools discriminate against Asian-Americans, as the suit before the Supreme Court claims. Standardized test scores aren’t the only factor that colleges use in admissions, of course. And we wouldn’t want to fill up every class solely with students who aced the SAT.
Nor should we imagine that every Asian-American has the same academic and economic opportunity. Although Asian-Americans are nearly twice as likely as the average American adult to have a college degree — and also have higher median annual incomes — they experience higher rates of poverty than non-Hispanic whites. Indeed, the gap between rich and poor among Asians is greater than it is within any other racial group.
But even Asian-American students with economic disadvantages have demonstrated disproportionate success in school. At Stuyvesant High School, which was almost three-quarters Asian in 2019, half of the students qualified for reduced-price or free lunch, a standard measure of poverty. And of the students in that category, 90% were Asian.
We can and should discuss how Asians have succeeded so dramatically in America. Part of the reason stems from our immigration policies, which have favored people with professional skills — including many Asians — on the dubious grounds that our country needs them more. And we should also discuss the historical and structural constraints that have blocked other minorities — especially African-Americans — from sharing in the same bounty.
None of that will happen, however, if we simply dismiss Asian success as a myth propagated by whites in furtherance of anti-Black and anti-Brown racism. For the record, I don’t think Asian-Americans are a model minority; America — and its Asian minority — are far too diverse for that. But if we deny the outsized level of Asian-American achievement, we’re engaging in mythmaking of our own. The numbers don’t lie. And we shouldn’t, either.
Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.”
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