Is the concept of the "Model Minority" hurting Asian Americans?



By now, I am sure that many of you have heard about the concept of the “model minority.” At least in the United States, this usually refers to the Asian American demographic because of their relative financial and educational success compared to other minority groups i.e. Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans. You’ll, often times, hear stories about how Asian Americans are hard workers, great members of the community, and positive contributors to society.

First of all, not only is this narrative problematic, as it denigrates other minority groups as though they are unproductive, uneducated, and criminals, but it obfuscates reality. One thing that you should know is the fact that in the United States, there is a wide range of diversity not only among major demographic groups but within minority groups as well. For example, among Black Americans, you will find that, ethnically, they consist of people from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, the Congo, and much more.  Among Hispanics, you will find people from countries like Peru, Argentina, Mexico, and even Spain. The point is, treating these groups as a monolith is somewhat misleading and, consequently, can lead to some devastating misconceptions.

Why exactly is differentiating between demographic groups so important in the United States? Due to the fact that policy is often developed to address problems in society, when people make the broad generalization that the Asian American demographic is performing well, both financially and educationally, you ignore the plights of the other cross sections of Asian Americans. For example, within just the Asian community there are roughly around 40 different ethnic groups that could easily be identified within it. Trying to compare the financial and social situation of Laotians, for example, to the situation of Indian Americans is impossible on many different levels.

It is important to make the distinction, amongst different ethnic groups, between education and financial capabilities because as discussed, they usually vary across the table. Take this into consideration, over half of the income that is earned by the Asian American demographic goes to the top 20 percent of income earners in the Asian American community. Even more astounding, the bottom 40 percent of income earners in the Asian American community only earn 13 percent of the income generated by the Asian American community in the United States. According to a political scientist at UC Riverside by the name of Karthick Ramakrishnan, there is “some significant class advantage in the Asian-American community,” and because of the high income being made by other Asian American communities, “the aggregate numbers mask the disparities” between the lower and upper classes.

To understand the extent of the income and social disparity within the Asian American demographic, let us take a brief look at the poverty numbers in multiple cities across the nation. In Dallas, for example, the poverty rate for Burmese and Nepalese, both 31 percent and 33 percent respectively, is far higher than the actual Asian American poverty rate in the city which is at 11 percent. In other major metropolitan areas in the United States, like Los Angeles, the data shows a pattern in which more affluent Asian American communities conflate or obfuscate the income data. Take Los Angeles, for example, where the poverty rate of Asian Americans as a whole is approximately 27%. While it is fairly high, especially when taking into consideration the overall poverty rate in the United States, it is among one of the lowest in the city.

Dividing up these numbers and looking at them holistically, however, a completely different reality exists. For the Asian American community in Los Angeles County, Tongans are at a poverty level of 78 percent, Bangladeshi at 57 percent, and Cambodian at 53 percent. This is highly problematic largely because of the lack of attention these groups are receiving because of the preconceived notion that Asian Americans are the ‘privileged’ or over achieving demographic in the United States.

This is only two cities out of the many in the United States. This unfortunate trend holds true for all major metropolitan areas in the country, thus begging the question, why have these different sub-demographics largely been ignored for so long? If the answer was so obvious we would probably not be entertaining this discourse, so, what went wrong? As previously mentioned before, perception and stereotypes play a large role in the way that policy is developed from the top-down. In hiding these numbers and distorting the facts, whether intentionally or not, we are putting significant groups of people at risk.

In order for lawmakers and politicians to tailor policy to assist these less than privileged groups, they must be aware of their situations in the first place. The struggling Asian American ethnic groups will continue to be ignored by mainstream society so long as their plight is not recognized for what it is. When their situation is minimized, there is no need for specialized policy. So, having said that, we need to bring to the forefront the truth behind the massive income gap and poverty gap that is pervasive among the Asian American communities across the country. In doing so, we, as a society, will help push for reform and for changes in our neighborhoods and cities by legitimizing their social and economic struggles that they face every single day.

If there is one takeaway that can be derived from this particular issue, in regards to the convoluted financial situation of Asian Americans, it is the fact that we can often times rely too heavily on data. Meaning, by trusting in data too blindly without trying to obtain a deeper understand of the issue, instead of a superficial one, we only bring harm to ourselves and to our communities. As discussed earlier, Asian Americans have been recognized for a large portion of American history as being the model minority. The ‘minority group’ that has overcome many odds and has become highly successful in such a competitive environment. As the numbers show, however, this is only true for a small portion of the so-called ‘model minority.’

There are many Asians in America who are suffering from poverty and destitution. It is ultimately our responsibility to shed some light on the truth and to show that not only are Asian-Americans not a monolith, but they are not all living a life of luxury like we probably imagined. The stereotypes about Asians in American and the generalizations that have been plastered all over their image has been, at the least, very damaging. It is time to roll back these preconceived notions and work towards recognizing the vast differences and realities that we all live in this place we call America.