The Model Minority Myth

From The Practice November/December 2018
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

Since its introduction in popular media more than a half century ago, the term “model minority” has often been used to refer to a minority group perceived as particularly successful, especially in a manner that contrasts with other minority groups. The term could, by its definition and logic, be applied to any number of groups defined by any number of criteria, but it is perhaps most commonly used to frame discussions of race. In particular, the model minority designation is often applied to Asian Americans, who, as a group, are often praised for apparent success across academic, economic, and cultural domains—successes typically offered in contrast to the perceived achievements of other racial groups.

Despite having the highest median income of any racial group, Asian Americans also have the largest income gap of any racial group.

The model minority argument, however, is not without controversy and has earned the labels of stereotype and myth as critics have taken aim at both its premises and conclusions. Many point to the purpose of the argument as disingenuous insofar as it is intended to drive a wedge between different disadvantaged groups. Others claim that it is misleading because performance metrics and even representation figures do not speak to many of the biases that persist today. For example, in the case of Asian Americans specifically, these apparent successes are often not indicative of ascension to leadership positions (see “Diagnosing the Issue”).

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the model minority argument, however, is an underlying methodological shortcoming—an inability to account for the nuanced composition of the Asian American community itself. As we see in “A Snapshot of the Asian American Community,” the Asian American community encompasses a diverse group. What’s more, that diversity has direct implications for the very indicators touted as success stories under the model minority rationale. In short, while Asian Americans as a whole may be doing well across a number of important indicators, an examination of the various groups within reveals a more complex story.

As the New York Times reported this past August, income is one key area where aggregated figures are deceiving. More specifically, despite having the highest median income of any racial group, Asian Americans also have the largest income gap of any racial group. As of 2016, the top 10th percentile of Asian Americans earns 10.7 times as much as the bottom 10th percentile, compared with 9.8 for black earners and 7.8 for both Hispanic and white earners. Indeed, in New York City, Asians experience the highest poverty rates of any immigrant group. The fact that the richest 10th percentile of Asian Americans are earning more than that of any other racial group, however, is enough to render these disparities virtually invisible.

The Pew Research Center data upon which the New York Times reporting is largely based explores the issue of inequality within the Asian American community even further. It turns out that unlike any other racial group measured (white, black, or Hispanic), the majority of Asian American adults in the United States are foreign born—a whopping 78 percent. As the Pew Research Center notes, 81 percent of the growth of the Asian American adult population between 1970 and 2016 owes to immigration. These figures are particularly significant to Asian American income inequality, considering how Asian immigration has changed over the past half century. Within that 46-year time period, there were distinct waves of immigration characterized by different circumstances, including waxing and waning emphases on family reunification and, more recently, skills and education.

The model minority argument often privileges generalizations based on surface-level analysis at the expense of more-refined and nuanced investigation.

But again, these trends should not just be understood in the aggregate. As the New York Times relays from the 2016 American Community Survey, different countries of origin have featured more prominently in different decades of immigration since the 1970s. Korean, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese saw their biggest immigration numbers in the 1980s and 1990s. The biggest decade for Thai, Filipino, and Pakistani immigrants was the 2000s, while the same is true for Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Japanese immigrants in the 2010s. To drive home the disparities that exist within the Asian American community, the New York Times piece also plots median household income and education according to country of origin, revealing Indian Americans to have the highest levels on both accounts. Meanwhile, Burmese, Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian Americans lag behind other Asian Americans on these indicators.

Variance—and disparity—within the Asian American community demonstrate where the model minority myth may fall flat. Moreover, the argument often privileges generalizations based on surface-level analysis at the expense of more-refined and nuanced investigation. For those who do take the time to look deeper, the Asian American experience is anything but simple.