The term “model minority” can refer to any minority group that is perceived to have achieved a high level of socioeconomic success, but is most often used in reference to Asian Americans. William Petersen first used the words “model minority” in a 1966 New York Times article praising the work ethic and family values of Japanese Americans. That same year, the U.S. News and World Report used the same phrase in a similar article about Chinese Americans, and it quickly caught on. The actual phrase has lost some popularity—thanks partly to an increased backlash against the term from Asian-American scholars in the 70s and 80s—but the stereotype behind it is still going strong. And why not? It’s true that Asians have surpassed white Americans in both average levels of education and median household income. And when considering the rich and varied tapestry of harmful ethnic stereotypes, the idea of Asians as polite, hardworking, and highly educated might seem like a refreshing, even flattering change. The truth, however, is that the model minority stereotype has a more complex history and more insidious consequences than what meets the eye.
In terms of accuracy, the model-minority stereotype is already flawed because it treats an entire continent of people as a monolith. Sure, Asian Americans as a whole have a remarkably high degree of socioeconomic success, but why would any researcher worth their salt want to focus on nearly fifty different countries as a whole? Looking at statistics on Asian-American poverty parsed by ethnicity reveals huge disparities, with poverty rates for different countries of origin ranging from well below 10 percent to well above 50 percent.
If you view Asian Americans as some kind of Chinese/Japanese/Indian blob, it is all too easy to assume that we just don’t really need to worry about Asians anymore in the fight for racial equality, even though 64.9 percent of Bhutanese Americans are living below the poverty line. The assumption that all Asian Americans are successful due to their work ethic and self-reliance is harmful on both an individual and societal level. Research has shown that Asian-American students who are struggling in school feel so pressured to live up to the stereotype of being academically talented that they are reluctant to seek outside help, causing them to perform even worse in classes.
Perhaps the most harmful and frustrating consequences of the model minority stereotype are not in relation to Asian Americans themselves but rather to other minorities. It’s no coincidence that the term “model minority” first gained popularity towards the end of the civil rights movement; it provided white Americans with a handy justification for their opposition to racial activism. The persistent narrative embraced by white people is that Asian Americans achieved socioeconomic equality by keeping their heads down, working hard, and respecting the government—not through political protest.
Asian Americans have been held up as a model for other minorities to emulate for years. In 1966, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, defending his now infamous report on Black families, compared the “enlightened” family life of Asian Americans to that of African Americans. And just this past spring, the New York Magazine published a bizarre article, which began as a critique of Hillary Clinton and ended by attributing Asian Americans’ status as “among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America” to their work ethic and stable families.
Besides being an inaccurate representation of Asian-American history and falsely equating the experiences of one minority with those of another, these claims perpetuate and encourage white apathy. As long as white people continue to convince themselves that they have played no role in the successes and failures of minorities, they have no real incentive to oppose or even acknowledge systematic racism. If we seek true progress, people of color cannot let white America pit us against each other in some kind of grotesque competition to see who can assimilate the most. In the end, the myth of the model minority only serves to prop up another, greater myth: that of the American meritocracy.