The `Model Minority' Myth

SOMEDAY the press will understand. Then everyone can understand that not all Asian-Americans are academic superstars. Then they will start seeing Asian-Americans as individual people instead of as members of a mythical "model minority."

On January 21, Parade, a tabloid insert in the Sunday editions of newspapers nationwide, ran a cover story titled "Why They Excel--What we can learn from our Asian-American students who are winning coveted places and high honors."

Asian-Americans make up 2.4 percent of the population of this country and 17.1 percent of the first-year class at Harvard. Can a single explanation account for this discrepancy?

The author of the Parade piece, Fox Butterfield, believes so. Basing his argument on observations from his 15 years in Asian countries, Butterfield glibly declares that the educational attainment of Asian-Americans is attributable to the common Asian heritage of Confucianism.

In his eyes, this ancient Chinese philosophy underlies the notions of hard work, education and a strong sense of family. Such a characterization, though common in the U.S., is superficial and inaccurately stereotypical.


Asian-Americans are more than just Asian transplanted to America. There is a unique set of forces and experiences associated with living in America that have little to do with the traditions and mores of the ancestral country. The real picture of Asian-Americans is much more complicated than the media stereotype of the model minority.

ASIAN-AMERICANS are a diverse group that defies simple generalizations. Even the generic term "Asian-American" is more a demo-graphic than a cultural term, created by government agencies to generate racial statistics.

Asian-Americans reflect a diversity of socioeconomic, historic, educational, ethnic, linguistic and cultural influences. Differences in English proficiency and degree of assimilation further distinguish Asian-Americans from one another. The common influence of Confucianism is almost negligible compared to these differences.

There are several more plausible reasons to explain the disproportionate representation of Asian-Americans in colleges.

Many Asian-Americans automatically assume that they will attend college, as reflected by their lower high school dropout rates and earlier planning for college. Parents often invest much of their own resources to improve the education of their children in hopes of giving the children better opportunities than they themselves had.

Certainly some of these values and beliefs are carried over from Asia. But the Asians who came to America are nothing like a random sample of the population of their native countries. Those people who are willing to consciously pull up stakes and move across the ocean to improve their lots are obviously exceptionally ambitious. This helps explain the extraordinary proportion of first-generation immigrants of all races who start their own businesses. Education and self-improvement are likely to be important values to such people.

Following the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished restrictive quotas based on national origin, Asians migrated to the U.S. in increasing numbers. Many of these newcomers were well-educated professionals attracted to an economy that promised greater opportunity for them and their families. The sons and daughters of this "brain-drain" wave of immigration comprise a large part of today's college-age Asian Americans.

But not all immigrants picked up and moved of their own volition. In 1975, the United States began opening its doors to political refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Unlike the first wave of professionals and military families, the second wave of refugees were largely unprepared for life in a new country.

These political refugees, who came with little money or knowledge of the new language, were more likely to join the poor, less-educated residents of Chinatowns, Koreatowns, and other urban ghettos--the Asian-Americans whom the public rarely sees on the cover of magazines. One telling statistic: Fully 50 percent of Southeast Asian refugees in the U.S. are on welfare.

And Filipino-Americans, the second largest Asian ethnic group in the U.S., are among the most underrepresented of all minority groups in admission to selective colleges.

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