Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Asian Folks, Black Folks, and the Model Minority Myth

August 13th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance

The term “model minority” gained popularity during the 1980s, when it was used throughout the media, on college campuses, and in political discourse as description for Asian American communities, whose scholarly, cultural, and economic achievements and practices were believed to be superior to those of other ethnic minority groups.

Origins of the Model Minority Myth

The term “model minority” first appeared in 1966, when it was used in “Success Story: Japanese American Style,” an article by sociologist William Peterson. This article, published in the New York Times Magazine, argued that by maintaining solid family values and a strong work ethic, Japanese Americans had been able to succeed academically and economically, despite significant anti-Asian prejudice throughout the U.S. Peterson argued that strong family values and an abiding belief in the merit of hard work are inherent to Japanese culture, and that these features have enabled this small maligned ethnic community to achieve economic stability and to avoid the stigma of being a labeled “problem minority.”

The widespread application of this term to the broader Asian American community did not, however, take place until the early 1980s, when several cover articles in national magazines depicted Asian American high school and college students as academically gifted, a conclusion extrapolated from measures like the S.AT. and A.C.T., on which students of Asian descent outperformed all other U.S. ethnic groups. Feature articles in national magazines attributed Asian students’ achievements to the existence of an undisclosed cultural or genetic proclivity toward academic success. This sampling of titles from national magazines reflects the widespread fascination, throughout the 1980s, with Asian Americans’ perceived intellectual prowess:

  • “Asian Americans: ‘A Model Minority,’” Newsweek, 1982.
  • “The Drive to Excel,” Newsweek, 1984.
  • “America’s Greatest Success Story: The Triumph of Asian Americans,” The New Republic, 1985.
  • “America’s Super Minority,” Fortune, 1986.
  • “The New Whiz Kids,” Time, 1987.

The Trouble with the Model Minority Myth

Almost since the inception of the term, Asian American activists and community leaders have spoken out against the categorization of this diverse and growing population as a model minority. Asian American opposition of this term has been confusing to many outside of the community, who see the stereotypes associated with U.S. Asian identity (high-achieving, intelligent, studious) as harmless and even flattering compared to the stereotypes associated with other racial minority groups.

Over time, Americans both within and outside of the U.S. Asian community have joined together to resist the perpetuation of the model minority stereotype, which is considered objectionable for the following reasons:

  1. The widespread association of Asian Americans with superior intellectual and economic abilities and achievement reinforces the invisibility of the social, economic, and academic struggles of many within this identity group, thus decreasing access to and availability of aid to assist community members in crisis.
  2. Implicit in the praise for Asian Americans as a population whose cultural values enable them to succeed in the face of prejudice is the suggestion that discrimination against U.S.-based Asian communities can go unaddressed.
  3. The depiction of Asian Americans as academic and economically superior even to members of the dominant ethnic group (U.S. whites) is interpreted by many as justification for anti-Asian fear of domination by the ethnic “other.”
  4. The singling out of Asian Americans as the model minority (the right kind of minority, the acceptable minority), further marginalizes other non-white populations, and alienates those people-of-color groups not seen as “models” from creating meaningful and productive alliances with men and women of Asian descent.
  5. The internalization of the model minority stereotype by Asian American men, women, and children leads the marginalization within U.S. Asian communities of young people whose abilities and interests diverge from the high-achieving, socially and economically conservative, family-oriented stereotype.
  6. The characterization by the national media of Asian Americans as sharing the economic, academic, and cultural interests of white people in terms of academic and economic pits the perceived interests of Asian communities against the interests of other less economically privileged minority groups, on key political issues like welfare reform, crime, and affirmative action.

A New Model Minority?

Even as Asian American activists and community leaders speak out against the negative impact of the model minority stereotype, other ethnic groups are beginning to see the term applied to their own economic successes. Notable among those ethnic groups newly noted as model minorities are black African immigrants to the U.S. and Great Britain. To read my earlier blogpost on this subject, click HERE.

In 2000, the London Daily Times revealed their finding that black Africans were the most educated members of British Society. More recently, U.S. news outlets have begun to publish similar reports. A number of U.S. newspapers have pointed out that African and Caribbean immigrants and the children of African and Caribbean immigrants make up a disproportionate number of the black students at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities; and in 2008 African American columnist Clarence Page elaborated on black African immigrants’ status as the U.S. population group with the highest education attainment, outstripping even the performance of the previously designated model minority group, Asian Americans. Page offered up the title “the new model minority” to describe African immigrants’ extraordinary success.

Despite the growing recognition of black Africans’ impressive achievements in the U.S. and Great Britain, it is unlikely that this group will displace Asian Americans’ as that non-white population most widely associated with intellectual ability. It will be some time before the centuries’ old association of blackness with ignorance and savagery gives way to other less pejorative notions.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Immigrants, Asian American, Current Events, Higher Education, immigrants, Model Minority, race, Stereotypes

One Response

  1. DC teacher

    Thank you for the historical background on the minority myth. I am amazed it’s popularity is so comparatively recent. These things have a way of feeling like it’s “always been that way.”

    I just wanted to note that as a public school teacher in DC, I experienced the effect of this phenomenon first-hand. I worked in a struggling school that was upwards of 90% black, with the remainder made up of latino and Asian immigrant students. Among our black students a signifant percentage were African immigrants from various areas, particularly Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Cameroon.

    The most talented math student in the school last year was Chinese. This young man not only was prepared well by his prior education, he loved the subject and plans to pursue it. His older brother, who I taught and who graduated a year ago, also excelled in math compared to his peers, but expressed to me frustration with the assumption that he would become an engineer by his peers and many teachers. He did well in my math classes not through genius, but work ethic. He did well in all of his classes.

    Our Ethiopian and Eritrean students also consistently outperformed their peers. I will tell you frankly, if sheepishly, that as a teacher they were generally a welcome relief in my classes.

    I worked with a group of dedicated, well-meaning teachers who believe strongly in the ability of each child to succeed, and who dismiss out of hand the idea that any minority group has a genetic advantage on any other. At least let us hope that an emphasis on African immigrants’ success will help continue to dispel that well disproven idea.

    So how did we explain the comparative success of our immigrant students?

    First, and I cannot state this strongly enough, to a large degree we decided it was a school quality problem. The District of Columbia Public Schools, like many urban school districts, is an utter crime. Our immigrant students had a leg up in that they had simply been exposed to the consistent underperformance of DCPS for a shorter period of time.

    Second, we did notice cultural differences in the expectations of parents and guardians. Which is not to say that many of our African-American parents did not stress to their children the importance of education. However, it seemed that “talking the talk” was one thing, and “walking the walk” was another. Many of our African-American parents were themselves products of DCPS, and thus could not model or teach the actual behaviors required to value education.

    I believe that there has to be a way to examine and fight against both of these factors. As a simple teacher, I’m not sure what they are.