I thought that it was passe, the whole Asian Americans as model minority thing. That stereotype had its heyday in the 1980s when mainstream news magazines like Newsweek and Time ran glossy articles about Asian Americans, almost always immigrants, who had overcome great odds to achieve academic success. Although remnants of the stereotype remain, much of it has gone the way of VHS tapes and Atari systems as the public has become more educated about the fact that lauding Asian Americans for their special aptitude for academic achievement is in fact a stereotype.
Ostensibly it is a positive stereotype that praises Asian American students for their academic achievement. But upon further examination, it is as damaging a "positive" stereotype as saying African Americans are particularly gifted at sports, implying that individuals of an entire race don't excel at the range of human skills. So what if you're the Asian American kid who doesn't excel at academics? What if you were the artistic one like Amy Tan who wanted to be a fiction writer? Or you were Asian American who excelled at sports like Jeremy Lin, but for a long time couldn't catch a break because people just couldn't wrap their minds around the concept of an Asian American basketball player.
There are a host of problems with the stereotype including the fact that labeling one group the model minority draws unwelcome comparisons to other minority groups. As one of my Latina students once asked me indignantly, "Are we [Latinos] therefore the deviant minority?" So with the public and the chattering class now educated about the perils of the myth, it was quite stunning yesterday to see an iteration of it.
Charles Murray put up a post on the American Enterprise Institute website purporting to sympathize with the discrimination directed "against hard-working, high-achieving young people" who were being shut out "because of the color of their skin." He was writing about the percentage of Asian American students at elite universities in the country and speculating about whether there is an Asian American quota at these schools like there used to be a Jewish quota. He thought he was being objective and race neutral.
The problem was that the entire article focused almost exclusively on race and academics, again, drawing the direct line from a student's Asian American-ness only to academic achievement, as if academics is the only thing Asian Americans excel at and the only factor they can be defined by. There is no discussion of the fact that Asian Americans, compared to other racial and ethnic groups, enjoy higher soci--economic status, which would correlate with academic performance. Entirely missing in Murray's discussion is any acknowledgement of the deep legacies of inequalies wrought by historical patterns of forced versus voluntary migration of African slaves and newer immigrant groups. "Asian Americans are smart because they are Asian Americans" is what he is suggesting.
Then the most shocking passage of all was what Murray speculated about what admissions officers were thinking but would never admit about Asian American applicants, what he called the "sub rosa rationale for the Asian American ceiling":
“Yes, they get high test scores and grades in high school, because that’s all they and their ambitious parents care about. They aren’t intellectually curious. They don’t add to classroom discussions. They don’t have any interests outside academics or maybe music. They don’t come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. They don’t add as much to the university environment as other kids whose test scores and grades aren’t as high.”
He hastens to add, "I didn’t write that down because I believe it, or because I think any admissions officer in any elite university in the country will defend it in public, but because something like that logic is the only justification for a ceiling on Asian-American admissions." (original emphasis) The lady doth protest to much, methinks. I'm still searching for the data source of that conclusion. Did he survey admissions officers? Did he even conduct one interview? Did he run regression analysis and eliminate SES and all relevant variables and he was only left with this view?
Or did he just articulate, while disavowing it, the standard dispossessed person's rant that trots out the racist stereotypes that goes along with the model minority myth, namely that Asian Americans are technically competent, even brilliant, but soulless automatons? Lots of very talented students of every race and ethnicity get shut out by elite universities because there are a finite number of seats in each class. To suggest that Asian American students are being disproportionately disadvantaged by the system is disengenuous. Compared to what groups? Based on what measure of merit? To just focus on race and academic achievement again pits this allegedly most "deserving" group against others who are presumably less deserving who are taking up an excellent Asian American's spot. I need to find my Rubik's cube and dig out my ratty Ms. PacMan tshirt--the 1980s model minority myth is back again.