The "Myth of the Model Minority" is Just an Average
it's no more true or false than any other average
There’s been a long-running conversation about the “myth of the model minority,” the idea that Asian Americans somehow represent a symbol of social success. There’s a lot of those complaints out there. Here’s a new piece by Hua Hsu in the New Yorker. Here’s a recent piece in the Times. Here’s NPR. Here’s WaPo. Here’s Time. Here’s National Geographic. Here’s CNBC. Here’s NBC News. Here’s Harvard Business Review. Here’s Forbes. There are multiple books on the subject. I could go on. There's plenty to critique there, but a lot of this conversation seems to deliberately obscure the origins of the idea.
The model minority construct is the product of referring to large groups in a way we do every day without controversy. Asian Americans have frequently been represented in social science and politics as a “model minority” because on average they have far higher incomes than the national average, perform best on all manner of educational metrics, and commit crimes at dramatically lower levels. If people think of the average Asian American as someone who is law-abiding, did well in school, and earns an enviable salary, they’re not wrong, any more than it would be wrong to say that the average American man’s height is 5’9. Obviously, it’s stupid to assume that any individual Asian you meet has a high income, just like it’s stupid to assume any individual man will be 5’9. But this constant weird troubling of the very notion of demographic metrics isn’t constructive. Of course “the average Asian American” is a construct, as all averages are, and many Asian Americans are not like the average. But I find it tiring, this pretense that people don’t understand what a demographic average is in this context and none other.
If the complaint is that these statistics are somehow factually incorrect, that’s interesting, but would require a lot of proof. If instead the argument is that we shouldn’t pay attention to such averages because they obscure the diversity of outcomes within each group, I think that’s a valid point of view, but I don’t think the people who complain about the model minority construct are remotely consistent in this. We use averages for social justice purposes all the time - we know Black people face a lot of social inequality thanks to the compilation of averages, to pick an important example. Of course we should never prejudge any individual based on their broad demographic categories. But we need to apply these rules consistently across different contexts, and we don’t.
If you want to discourage projecting averages onto individuals, you should do that with all kinds of people. A lot of these pieces like to stress that some Asian people are poor, some Asian people do badly in school, and some Asian people commit crimes, so therefore referring to averages is illegitimate. This piece, for example, seems premised on the idea that the notion of spread within a sampled population is groundbreaking and undermines the very concept of a median or mean. Other issues aside, it immediately forces me to point out that every other group also has internal diversity too. To pick an obvious group, white people! Many white people are poor. Many white people struggle in school. Many white people commit crimes or are the victims of crime. Many white people lack political or social power. And yet often the same exact people who complain about the myth of the model minority turn around and talk about white people as a unified bloc of wealth and privilege. There are some profoundly wealthy Black people in this country; should we therefore not refer to how low the average Black net worth is? If nothing else, there’s a profound lack of consistency in this regard.
If the idea is that we should pay a lot less attention to demographic identity because these groupings always distort who we are as individuals, I say, yeah! I’m on board. But that attitude usually offends the social justice set. The trouble is that the people who complain about the model minority thing tend to be very enthusiastic practitioners of political philosophies that stress group identity above all other things. The lurking issue here is that when you emphasize your Asianness, or your anything-ness, you’re strengthening the social tendency to lump you in with people who share that grouping. This is an ineradicable element of identity politics; those who practice it complain constantly about the detriments of having a group identity forced onto you, and yet their “solution” is to fixate ever more intensely on those identities, reducing human individuality until it’s totally subservient to group identity. But it’s precisely the human tendency to categorize in this way that leads people to embrace stereotypes. You cannot selectively empower the notion that we are our racial categories; if you strengthen those categories when politically convenient for you, you strengthen them when they would seem to straightjacket you as well.
We’re a tribal species by nature but I do strongly believe that we can overcome identity differences and see each other as members of the same community. But what liberals are attempting in the 21st century is to relentlessly insist that we are not the same and that our identity group differences define us, while at the same time demanding that there be no discrimination between groups. And I just don’t think that’s possible. In a perfect world, maybe, but we don’t live in one, and in this world the more you tell people that they’re not a part of your tribe the more you ensure that they will mistreat you. We need to expand our spheres of sympathy, to include, not to draw racial lines even deeper. I think this fixation on difference if a profound social problem, and it seems to me that the model minority myth is a perfect example of where current social justice norms break down. “I am a member of this group, and that belonging defines me, but make no assumptions about me based on my group identity” is a natural enough thing to desire, but I think one that's doomed to go unfulfilled.
I suspect the basic impetus behind these essays goes something like this. Asian Americans are, obviously, people of color. In the modern liberal imagination, to be a person of color is to suffer. And many, many Asian Americans have suffered deeply in our history. But right now, today, the average Asian American enjoys a quality of life that’s enviable, at least through the necessarily reductive prism of demographic statistics. What's more, Asian Americans in the chattering classes in media and academia almost certainly enjoy even better metrics than the Asian American norm. This exacerbates the tension of being seen as, to use the utterly deranged social justice term, “white adjacent.” So there’s a tendency to muddy the waters about these demographic statistics and dismiss their salience through focusing on the much looser construct of the model minority. But none of this is constructive; the root assumption, that to be an authentic person of color you must suffer, is not just an ugly idea but I think a profoundly racist one as well. And again I suggest that rather than writing another essay about how it’s uncomfortable for you to have averages assumed onto you, you fight for a world where we don’t impute averages onto individuals, period.
I understand that there’s a lot of baggage associated with this topic, that it’s not comfortable to have all this stuff projected onto you. It must be truly dehumanizing to live under the burden of other people’s assumptions. The frustrations of being expected to conform to stereotypes must be intense. But it’s entirely unclear to me why people choose to filter those frustrations through these bizarre identity politics prisms rather than grabbing on to the simple wisdom that you shouldn’t judge people by their broad group identities, as variation from the mean is universal in human affairs. Two facts that are easy to balance: demographic factors like average income or education level have material consequences we can’t ignore; you know nothing about any individual based solely on such statistics. So let’s fight for a liberal imagination that understands the valence of averages without ever imputing them onto individuals. But like I said, that’s a wisdom that has to apply to everybody all the time.