Stop Pointing at Asian Americans to Downplay Racism at Universities

By Sophie Khan and Huixian Li, fellows at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University Law Center

This op-ed is cross-posted, with permission, and was originally posted in The Hill.

The U.S. Justice Department’s recent move to investigate Harvard’s affirmative action policy continues this country’s long history of pitting people of color against each other, in this case, Asians against African Americans and Latinos, to advance the interests of white Americans.

When the term “model minority” was coined in the New York Times in 1966 to describe Japanese Americans, the nation was awash with racial unrest and a growing movement against racial inequality. Soon after, U.S. News & World Report depicted Chinese Americans as “winning wealth and respect by dint of [their] own hard work.” Similar stories in Time, Fortune and Newsweek praised Asian American groups, building a narrative that undermined claims of institutional racism by African American civil rights leaders.

A half century later, little has changed. The model minority trope, typically applied to Asian Americans, is still trotted out to downplay racism and dismiss claims of white privilege. But even as the myth persists, as we’re seeing in the resurgent debate over affirmative action, we now know its flaws. One, apparent in our own research, is that it glosses over the substantial diversity of the Asian American population. The model minority myth is largely based on aggregate statistics showing higher median incomes and educational attainment for Asian Americans over other racial and ethnic groups, including whites.

But when the Asian American community is broken down into its respective ethnic groups, a drastically different picture emerges. The poverty rate among Nepalese Americans is 21 percent higher than the official poverty rate. Hmong Americans are 20 percent less likely to have a bachelor’s degree or more than the average American. In contrast, 70 percent of Indian Americans have at least a bachelor degree, and their average household income is 80 percent higher than the American average.

The myth continues to be used as evidence against institutional racism. If Asians can do well, it says, any minority group can, if they just apply themselves. But research suggests that the upward mobility of Asian Americans over the past century is actually a result of post-war declines in labor market discrimination against them as compared to other minorities. Meanwhile, restrictive immigration policies since 1965 have favored and attracted highly educated Asians to the United States. In contrast, most African Americans can trace their family history back to generations of slavery, followed by a century and a half of systematic racism.

Even as labor market discrimination against Asian Americans has declined, studies show that institutional discrimination never disappeared. Asian job applicants with “whitened” first names received a 7 percent higher callback rate than those with “ethnically Asian” first names. Asian renters and home buyers are told about and shown fewer units than whites with the same economic background, and Asian home buyers are offered less financial help. Since 9/11, the New York Police Department has subjected Muslim Americans, many from Asia, to discriminatory religious profiling and unlawful surveillance.

The Justice Department’s Harvard investigation is based on the idea that whites and Asian Americans are facing discrimination. However, ramping up affirmative action in college admissions could actually benefit underrepresented Asian American groups. At the University of California in Berkeley, which bans race conscious admissions, Asian Americans, who make up about 15 percent of the college-aged population in California, make up more than 40 percent of the student body.

But, while Berkeley has approximately twice the share of Asian Americans as Ivy League universities with affirmative action, 69 percent of the Asian Americans enrolled are Chinese Americans or South Asian Americans. Many Asian American groups have worked to overturn the University of California system’s affirmative action ban so that applicants from underrepresented Asian groups are considered more holistically.

It’s worth noting that while opponents of affirmative action say the practice hurts Asian Americans, most Asian Americans support the practice. The real concern of opponents isn’t advancing justice for Asian Americans. It’s about ending the race-conscious policies they believe hurt white people. Affirmative action opponents who claim to support “merit-based” college admissions often ignore that legacy admissions favorapplicants from wealthy white families while disadvantaging Asian American applicants and other people of color, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants and less likely to have parents that graduated from elite American universities.

Offering up an imaginary monolithic culture as the model for success is futile and dangerous. The model minority rhetoric ignores institutional racism against Asian Americans, not to mention fundamental differences in the history and current reality faced by other people of color, such as African Americans and Latinos. Ignoring these backstories enables society to shirk responsibility for the racial inequality that still exists today. Concrete policies like affirmative action can help us move beyond stereotypes and confront racism together.