Model minority myth: Asian Americans during COVID-19
figcaption>Illustration Credit: Simone Zhao

For decades, Asian Americans have been perceived to be more successful than other racial minorities. However, beneath the surface this is an unrepresentative stereotype that helps to maintain systems of racial oppression in the US. This gap between perception and reality has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. But why, given that Asian Americans are so often depicted as the ‘model minority’, have attitudes changed so quickly? 

The portrayal of Asian Americans as an exemplary minority group against other people of colour (POC) communities is a reflection of the model minority myth, which has entered the Western psyche in the past decades. According to Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, a ‘model minority’ refers to a minority demographic that is perceived as particularly successful in contrast with other minority groups. This designation is often applied to Asian Americans, who are often portrayed as law-abiding, hardworking and socio-economically successful model citizens: living proof of the ‘American Dream’.

 Some might question whether the positive portrayal of a minority group is something to be celebrated? Isn’t this a win for Asian Americans? The problem, however, is just that. The model minority promotes a positive portrayal of a single minority group, one that is not not inclusive of other groups or even of all members of the group itself. The origins of the myth are also troubling; based on racial stereotypes, they obscure the experiences of many Asian-Americans.

The first issue with the model minority is that it is both inaccurate and unrepresentative of the Asian American demographic. By grouping all Asians under one monolithic stereotype, the model minority erases both the diversity of backgrounds as well as the history of racism and oppression against Asian Americans.

Stereotyping Asian Americans as affluent citizens dispels the varied experiences and hardships faced by groups including Asian immigrants and refugees. For example, of the 10.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, 1.7 million are Asian; one out of every seven Asian immigrants is undocumented. Moreover, of the 26,500 individuals granted asylum by the US in 2017, nearly a quarter was made up of Chinese nationals – the most of any other country, surpassing El Salvador and Guatemala by several thousand.

Many defend the model minority and argue that the stereotype must be largely true as Asians have the highest median household income than any other racial group in the US In addition, Asian Americans consistently have the lowest poverty rates in comparison to other racial groups. However, these figures are misleading: they do not account for wealth distribution. The Pew Research Center reports that Asian Americans have the greatest income inequality out of any racial group in the US. In 2016, “Asians in the top 10% of the income distribution earned 10.7 times as much as Asians in the bottom 10%”.

The overall Asian American population fares well economically with a median annual household income of $73,060, compared with $53,600 among all American households. Be that as it may, these figures differ dramatically between Asian subgroups. Indian households have the highest median income of $100,000 and the lowest poverty rate of 7.5%, followed by Filipinos with a median income of $80,000 and Japanese with $74,000. Meanwhile, there are also several groups of Asian Americans with household incomes below the U.S. median including Burmese households that have the lowest median income of $36,000 and a poverty rate of 35%, Nepalese with a median income of $43,500 and Bangladeshi with $49,800.

The model minority stereotype hides this massive economic disparity among Asian Americans because it reduces the Asian diaspora to just a few groups. People often think of Asian Americans as just East Asians and Indian Americans, while the term encompasses populations from dozens of countries and ethnic groups. The Asian model minority not only fails to encompass the ethnic and cultural diversity of Asian Americans but it also erases the unique histories and experiences of each group.

Once Asian Americans’ ethnic diversity and historical contexts are taken into consideration, a very different picture is revealed. While 80% of Japanese Americans are US born, 85% of Burmese Americans are immigrants – many of whom recently entered the country as refugees. Subsequently, Japanese and Indians have the highest levels of English proficiency among Asian subgroups at 84% and 80% respectively, compared to Burmese at 28%. Low English proficiency rates are also similar among other Asian subgroups with a large percentage of refugees including Vietnamese and Bhutanese.

What these figures of massive disparity among Asian Americans indicate is the importance of factors such as English proficiency and being US born on socioeconomic mobility. The model minority myth neglects such factors; thus, it is not only a misrepresentation of Asian Americans, but it also creates highly intransigent standards for other racial minority groups in the United States. If the model minority stereotype fails to encompass even the subgroups among Asian Americans, how can it act as a standard for minorities as a whole?

It was on this illogical basis that the myth was founded – the term “model minority” was first coined by sociology professor William Petersen during the civil rights movement. He created the term to contrast with the country’s “problem minorities”, which referred to Black and Latino Americans. In 1966, Petersen published an article in the New York Times titled, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style”. Essentially, he argued that if Japanese Americans can be successful in the United States, why can’t Black and Latino Americans? Surely, if one racial minority group can do it, so can others.

However, just as it was illustrated that Burmese refugees should not be held to the same standard as Indian immigrants, Black and Latino Americans should not be judged against Asian Americans. Black Americans have been subjected to a system of oppression for hundreds of years; recognized as property as opposed to citizens. While slave owners received thousands of dollars in compensation for the emancipation of their slaves, African Americans began their free lives with economic disadvantages such as segregation and redlining.

Latino American immigrants are hypo-selected, meaning that the immigration process is not selective and uninfluenced by factors such as English proficiency or educational attainment. As a result of hypo-selection, Latin American immigrants are less likely to have graduated from college. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America have the lowest educational attainment rates. Only 7% of Mexicans and 11% of Central Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 54% and 46% respectively have less than a high school diploma.

In contrast, Asian immigrants have been hyper-selected since the 1960s. This means that unlike Latin Americans, Asian immigration targets those that fit a specific profile. The immigration process purposefully selects and admits college-educated Asian immigrants from specific socio-economic backgrounds. This is a direct result of the elimination of national origin quotas in the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965, after which American immigration began to focus on attracting skilled labour from non-European countries, particularly in Asia.

According to sociology professors from Columbia University and University of California, Irvine, “[The] positive selectivity [of Asian American immigrants] places them and their U.S.-born children at a more favorable starting point in their quest for socioeconomic attainment compared to other second-generation groups, and even compared to third- and higher-generation whites and blacks.” Asians immigrating to the US are more likely to have higher levels of education than other immigrants; this gives them a head start in terms of socioeconomic opportunity.

The hyper-selectivity of Asian American immigrants continues today; in 2017, 53% of East and South Asian immigrants had a bachelor’s degree or more, while only 15% had less than a high school diploma. This is a complete reversal of the education attainment rates of Mexicans and Central Americans.

The model minority myth assumes that all racial minority groups began on equal footing, which is far from the truth. It is a false idea that was engineered to vilify Black and Latino Americans and create division among POC. By fostering an apparent sense of superiority, the myth perpetuates racism against Blacks and Hispanics within the Asian community. The myth essentially gives Asian Americans an ‘honorary’ seat at the table of the oppressors at the cost of denouncing white privilege and upholding the racial hierarchy.

The COVID-19 crisis has seen an increase in hate crimes directed at Asian Americans. The President fanned the flames of the anti-Asian sentiment by repeatedly referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”, while simultaneously vowing to protect the “amazing people” he himself helped to endanger.

This contradiction further reveals that the model minority myth is a fabricated narrative, deployed by those who seek to discriminate against racial groups. William Petersen did not seek to praise Asian Americans for their accomplishments, nor grant them the title of the ‘model citizen’ of American society. Petersen’s aim was to weaponize the relative success of Asian Americans, success that is purposefully engineered by immigration policies and political propaganda, to further denigrate Black and Latino Americans.

 Asian Americans may now be known as model citizens and “amazing people”, but as scholars point out, “less than a century ago, Chinese immigrants were described as illiterate, undesirable, and unassimilable foreigners, full of “filth and disease,” and unfit for U.S. citizenship.” Despite the fact that Asian are now the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the US, Chinese nationals were prohibited from entering the US through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – a law that was not repealed until 1943.

The deliberate assimilation of Asian Americans as the model minority demonstrates how the image of minority groups is manipulated to suit the interests of the White establishment. Just as Asian immigrants quickly went from unwelcome foreigners to model minorities in a rallying effort against Black and Latino Americans, Asian Americans are once again alienated as they became scapegoats for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ultimately, the model minority myth glorifies the American paradigm of freedom and equal opportunity, while masking the nation’s history of oppression and systemic racism. It is a weapon of the oppressor – a strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ that seeks to distract from larger issues at hand.