The Model Minority Myth?

A recently released report that claims to poke holes in the idea of Asian-American students as the “model minority” – excelling academically and outperforming white students in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences – looks more like the latest phase of a long-running effort by Asian-American activists to persuade college administrators to establish admissions quotas and other race-based preferences for at least some students of Asian descent.

The report, titled “Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight” and jointly issued by New York University, the College Board, and a commission of self-described Asian-American educators and community leaders, points out that Asian-Americans are not a homogeneous group of super-achievers, but an assortment of dozens of varying cultures and ethnicities with roots in the continent of Asia and its surrounding islands: Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Malaysians, just to name a few. Confusing matters further is that “Asian-Americans” are often lumped together for statistical purposes with “Pacific Islanders,” which adds Samoans, Fijians, and others to the mix.

Not surprisingly, the histories and cultural values of all those ethnic groups vary enormously. China, Japan, Korea, and India have had literate and sophisticated civilizations for centuries, even millennia, and education has traditionally occupied a high place in the value systems of those who roots are in those civilizations – which clearly has something to do with why Indian-American children win spelling bees and Chinese-American high school students get double 800s on their SATs. It clearly makes little sense to group those ethnicities with, say, Samoans, Guamanians, and the Hmong of Vietnam, who have no tradition of literacy before the twentieth century and whose U.S.-dwelling teen-age offspring may well be the first in their families even to consider going to college. Those latter young people tend to be found in two-year community colleges, not the prestigious four-year universities where Asians from the former group are the ones represented in disproportionate numbers (at Stanford, for example, at least a fourth of the undergraduate student body is Asian in ethnicity, even though the university has no affirmative action program in place for Asians).

All well and good, so far. But the report, written by NYU education professor Robert Teranishi and a group called the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, does some ethnicity-lumping of its own, apparently hoping to demonstrate that Asian-Americans ought to be viewed as another victim group in need of preferences and cultural diversity programs rather than as the bootstrap-propelled high achievers of popular stereotype. The report points out, for example, that 64 percent of foreign-born Chinese-American children in Brooklyn speak English “less than very well,” and that 33 percent of Hmong-Americans in St. Paul, Minn., live below the poverty level. A section of the report titled “A Call for Action” urges that schools “hire more Asian American and Pacific Islander faculty, staff, consultants, and researchers to identify and guide work in education at every level, on behalf of all groups, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders” and “modify our desired learning outcomes and provide curricula that reflect Asian American and Pacific Islander history, art, literature, and culture.” In other words, more affirmative action and multiculturalism – as well as more new jobs for diversity bureaucrats.

Furthermore, as a story on the report in the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out, the NYU/College Board/Commission study does not exactly break new ground. The Chronicle story linked to a Chronicle story from 1993 reporting on lobbying efforts by Asian-American advocacy groups to institute affirmative-action programs for Asians by pointing out ethnic and cultural diversity among their various constituent groups.

The Chronicle story also pointed out that although the report urged universities to base their policies (such as expanding affirmative action) on “fact, not fiction,” it ignored one salient fact reported in a January 2008 Chronicle story: that at several public universities that recently got rid of affirmative action policies under court order or legislative mandate, Asian-American students proved to be the major beneficiaries. Their enrollments, rather than declining, actually increased.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

3 thoughts on “The Model Minority Myth?

  1. This article demonstrates the idiocy of race-based criteria of any sort.
    Affirmative action is morally objectionable, fraught with practical difficulties, and might do more harm than good.

  2. I guess low-performing south-east Asian groups may feel justifiably annoyed at being lumped in with high-performing north-east Asians (Chinese, Japanese & Koreans), rather than with eg Hispanics. Presumably the same is true of different European-descent groups, if anyone were to study it.

  3. Reading the “The Gatekeepers”, about admissions policies and procedures at Wesleyan University, one gets the impression that Asians may have a point, if not the one favored here. In that book, it was apparent that Asians (or at least those of Chinese heritage) were subjected to admissions ceiling- schools did not want to appear too Asian. Of course, carefully distinguishing between Asian ethnic groups that have been heretofore illegitimately lumped together begs the question of when this will become necessary for European ethnicities.

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