Modeling Minorities

Taking Note

INTELLECTUALS PREOCCUPIED with the Black-Jewish rift may soon have another conflict for their discourse--the developing tensions between Blacks and Asian-Americans.

The issue of affirmative action, among others, has divided the Black and Jewish communities. The tension stems largely from an argument made by certain critics of affirmative action that Jews overcame racism and discrimination without affirmative action. "Why can't Blacks?" those critics ask.

Now it seems the drama of worsening relations among minority groups is to be played out again--with one actor exchanged for another. When Time magazine portrays Asian-Americans as a model minority, it sows the seeds for needless conflict between Blacks and Asian-Americans--groups that might otherwise be united.

The model minority theory says that Asian-Americans have succeeded by adopting the "correct" values, the values of the work ethic. Conversely, Black failure to adopt these values has resulted in their socio-economic problems.

We've heard this before, in the attacks on affirmative action: if Blacks adopted some of the values that have enabled Jews to succeed in American society, they would pull themselves out of the poverty cycle.

Both the affirmative action and model minority arguments pit minority groups against each other on a scale of legitimacy. In the words of Harvard Professor Glenn C. Loury, these arguments "require us to compare degrees of suffering and extents of moral outrage as experienced internally, subjectively, by different peoples." In Loury's view, it is Blacks who compare the suffering of minority groups when they respond to their critics by saying "you didn't suffer as we did."

Yet, it is those who ask why Blacks have not achieved what other groups have--those arguing the model minority formula--who are doing the comparing. Those questioners assume that Blacks and other minority groups have had the same hardships and obstacles. It is not the Black reply but the conservative question that compares suffering.

The real reply should be that the measuring of Blacks against other minorities attempts the impossible--comparisons between the experiences of minority groups in America. The tragic consequence of these baseless comparisons is that some Blacks, rather than refusing to be held up for comparison with other groups, attack the group to which they are being unfavorably compared. The attempt of certain Blacks to downplay the importance of the holocaust points up this tendency to deprecate the suffering of another minority.

Such an attempt is inexcusable, but it is the inevitable consequence of pointless attempts to compare the suffering and experiences of minority groups--attempts that appear to be recurring, now in the case of Asian-Americans and Blacks. As academics like Takaki have pointed out, we can see the results of these attempts in current tension between Asian-Americans and Black communities on college campuses.

The strategy should be to understand the structural factors behind Black economic difficulties and attempt to remedy them, not to compare Black performance with other groups.

The comparison argument can be scrapped because no "values" can alter the fact that the jobs provided by American corporations are leaving the predominantly Black inner cities, and being replaced by low-paying service jobs.

While the same economic factors do not affect each minority group in America, all of those groups have to labor under the burden of being pitted against each other on a scale of approval imposed by others. The model minority argument puts both Blacks and Asian-Americans in an unfair position; the argument presumes to pass judgment on Asian-Americans by mainstream American standards.

In fact, we are now in a position to turn the situation around. The tendency to measure minorities against each other should not divide them, but provide a common enemy to unite against.