The Economic Truth About the ‘Model Minority’

Recent history underscores the fact that we can't make smart economic decisions based on wrongheaded stereotypes.

By Imara Jones Mar 25, 2014

As the United States hurtles toward becoming a nation where people of color form a majority of the population, economic differences between communities of color must come into sharper focus. A group that epitomizes this need perhaps better than most are Asians and Pacific Islanders living in America. That’s because their recent history underscores the fact that we can’t make smart economic decisions based on wrongheaded economic stereotypes.

Unfairly labeled as an economic superclass, the truth is that there are vast disparities in economic well-being across the spectrum of Asian-Americans. Given that individuals from Asia form America’s fastest growing population, the country has to grapple with the reality of this diversity. Doing so is key to ensuring prosperity in states and entire regions across the nation. But doing so will require a dramatic shift in mass thought. Looking at the gap between the economic perception of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders and the reality of their economic lives makes the point. 

The Model Minority Fallacy

Since the 1960s Asians and Pacific Islanders have been typecast as part of a "model minority" of non-whites capable of outperforming the rest. The hard-fought and hard-won higher rates of college completion and median incomes of AAPI Americans have been used to nullify the idea that the nation’s legacy of racial and economic injustice continue to matter.

The problem is that the term "model minority" applies only to racial and ethnic racial groups such as those from the Chinese mainland and Indian subcontinent. Asians comprise the largest populations of people on the planet and cover over a third of the earth’s landmass. Any label applied to such diverse human beings as the Pashtuns living in rugged areas of Pakistan, to the Javanese people on the volcanic islands of Indonesia to Japanese communities along the stricken shores of the Fukushima coast are bound to be inaccurate.

Despite its deeply problematic origins and inherent weaknesses, the "model minority" continues to be trumpeted by public intellectuals deeply invested in it as a concept. One is Charles Murray, whose 1994 book "The Bell Curve" argues that "cognitive" and "cultural" differences between racial groups explains racial disparities. Recently cited by Paul Ryan to explain why young black and Latino men have sky-high unemployment, Murray wrote just after President Obama’s reelection that every day "observation of Asians around the world reveal them to be conspicuously entrepreneurial, industrious, family-oriented, and self-reliant." 

But as a Professor Ellen Wu–author of "The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority"–wrote earlier this year in The L.A. Times, the idea of the model minority "fascinates" because it allows America to explain away or even justify economic inequities without having to take any action to actually erase them. The problem with this culturally based explanation for economic achievement is that it falls apart under closer inspection.

What the Facts Show

As a recent report by the Center for American Progress lays out, the "model minority" view masks real economic pain and hardship for large parts of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community. 

Of more than 14 different AAPI ethnic groups included in the study, all but three had poverty rates nearly equal to or higher than whites. Only three of the ethnic groups had per capita incomes higher than whites, underscoring that while AAPI individuals on average may earn more, these earnings have to spread over larger families who are in need. Moreover, Asians and Pacific Islanders have the highest long-term unemployment rate of any group in America. Nearly half of Asian-Americans who are unemployed have been without work for six months or more.

The lack of heterogeneity of Asia is reflected in the range of economic outcomes of the people of Asian descent living in the United States. Individuals from countries such as India, China, Japan and the Philippines–with their varying combination of strong education systems, economic opportunity, widespread use of English and cultural history with the United States–do well in America. Whereas others fleeing political or economic oppression from countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan and Bangladesh find it far harder. Showing just how large these economic gaps can be, Indian-Americans on average have per capita incomes twice as large as Cambodian-Americans.

And as people of color make up a larger proportion of the American population each year, these differences in economic need will matter more and more.

Though there are half as many people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent in the United States than African-Americans–nearly 20 million versus 44 million–they are the fastest growing population of any group in America. Between 2000 and 2010, the Asian-American population increased by 50 percent. Every single state saw growth in these communities, some by as much as 116 percent. Interestingly, Southern and Western states including Georgia and Nevada racked up the fastest growth. If governors and legislators ignore the real contrasts amongst Asian-Americans as part of a "model minority" ideal, they leave an increasing number of their residents behind economically.

Of course just how to grapple with and accept the range of AAPI economic realities is up for debate within these communities.

Arguing Over the Future

The latest book by author and professor Amy Chua of "Tiger Mom" fame, titled "The Triple Package" uses the "model minority" argument and extends it to other groups prospering in the United States economically such as Nigerians, Cubans and Lebanese. Mainstream publications such as Forbes have asked whether prominent Indian-Americans such as Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley of Louisiana and South Carolina respectively form "a new model minority?" 

But other writers and thought leaders such as 23-year-old Suey Park reject the concept outright and argues that it blocks the wider society’s ability to recognize Asian-Americans as people. "The model minority prevents Asian-American women from being seen as separate from Asian-American men and from finding our own place among women of color feminism," says Park. "That’s why I started the #notyourAsiansidekick hashtag." 

Regardless of the outcome of these political and cultural debates, the facts show that the term "model minority" is totally meaningless when applied to the array of human beings and the range of their needs that it’s meant to cover. The only way it works at all is to shrink it to ever smaller groups of people and to subdivide them further still. All that this slicing, dicing and spinning does of course is to undermine the very point of the phrase. That’s good news. Perhaps with its shrinking explanatory power the country can return to addressing the stubborn structural and institutional barriers which all Americans of color continue to face.