By Simon Hedlin, Contributing Writer
The Harvard Crimson, September 29, 2016 —
This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the popular notion of Asian-Americans as an exceptionally successful bunch. On January 9, 1966, sociology professor William Petersen published the highly influential essay, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” in which he proclaimed that Japanese-Americans, rather than being a “problem minority,” had within a short timespan emerged as a “model minority.”
Today, the model minority label is as alive and well as ever, the only difference being that the high praise now extends to every American of Asian descent. By both the political left and right, Asian-Americans are frequently lauded for high educational attainment and household incomes. Implicit in this stereotype is the belief that America would be better off if other ethnic groups tried to emulate those of us who have Asian roots.
Given my Taiwanese origin and Asian-American identity, I should perhaps be flattered by the model minority account and accept it as a compliment. But, in fact, I find it deeply problematic.
By looking at the group as a whole, it is clear that Asian-Americans are actually not the model citizens that we are often portrayed to be.
Like any other ethnic group in this country, we do well by some measures and poorly by others, which makes us neither a success story, nor a cause for concern.
Start with income and education. It is well-known that Asian-Americans on average have high incomes, and it is repeatedly pointed out that our median household income exceeds even that of whites. But this statistic does not take into account the basic fact that Asian-Americans live in significantly larger households. Indeed, the Census Bureau reported last year that, in per capita terms, Asian-Americans actually earned less than whites.
The public debate also tends to overlook the reality that Asian-Americans have less wealth than whites and are, at the same time, more likely to live in poverty. Similarly, those who cite the proportion of Asian-Americans that hold college or advanced degrees usually fail to mention that, nonetheless, Asian-Americans 25 years and older are, in fact, less likely than the average American to have graduated from high school.
Looking beyond earnings and schooling, another indicator of well-being is the proportion of people who have health insurance. By this gauge, too, Asian-Americans lag behind whites. There is also a significant gap in homeownership; during the period 2009-2013, the rate was only 58 percent for Asian-Americans, compared with 70 percent for whites.
In addition, vast numbers of Asian-Americans suffer from poor mental health, have low civic engagement, and lack access to social services and the judicial system—which do not seem like attributes that one would want to ascribe to model citizens.
On many counts, the average Asian-American does worse than the typical African-American or Hispanic person. According to some estimates, young Asian-Americans have a higher suicide rate than both African-Americans and Hispanics, and gambling addiction is a much more widespread problem among Asian-Americans than other ethnic groups. Asian-Americans are, on average, less likely to do volunteer work than African-Americans, and less likely to be proficient in English than Hispanics.
Proponents of the term model minority suggest that others should emulate Asian-Americans because there is supposedly something desirable about the group’s typical behavior and life outcomes.
So, what would the United States look like if that were true?
America already has an embarrassingly low voter turnout compared with most wealthy countries. Yet if African-Americans would have had the same low voter turnout as Asian-Americans in the 2012 presidential election, five million fewer African Americans would have cast their ballots. And in a country where we deeply value military service, it is worth noting that if Hispanics had served to the same lesser extent as Asian-Americans, the number of Hispanic veterans would be only about two-thirds of what it is today.
To sum up, if one looks at statistical averages, Asian-Americans as a whole do better than other ethnic groups on some metrics and do worse on others. Overall, many Asian-Americans are college-educated and have high incomes. But a large number have not graduated from high school and live below the poverty line.
Asian-Americans are often commended for starting businesses, creating jobs, and having a low crime rate—which obviously are great contributions. However, at the same time, a worryingly large proportion of Asian-Americans do not vote, volunteer, or serve in the armed forces. If the Asian-American experience teaches us anything at all, perhaps it is merely the fact that there are trade-offs in life.
It is apparent that Asian-Americans are like any other ethnic group in the United States: diverse and hard to generalize, and faced with stereotypes and discrimination. To use William Petersen’s terminology, we are not a “problem minority.” But neither are we a “model minority.”
Simon Hedlin, a student at Harvard Law School and a contributor to The Economist, is originally from Taiwan. Follow him on Twitter @simonhedlin.