Frank Wu: ‘Model Minority’ is not a Compliment

The US-China Perception Monitor’s student journalists YuXuan Chen and Xiaoyi (Baker) Lu recently conducted an in-depth Zoom interview with Professor Frank Wu on a range of issues related to Chinese Americans and US-China relations.  Wu is president of Queens College, City University of New York. He previously served as the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor and Chancellor & Dean at University of California Hastings College of the Law. Wu was the first Asian American to serve in those positions at Queens College and UC Hastings.

USCPM: You gave a speech at Google sometime ago, in which you talked about the “Model Minority” stereotype for Asian Americans. You made a very thoughtful and powerful argument against the phrase. Could you share with our readers about your insight on this issue?

Wu: There are actually some Asian who like the ‘Model Minority’ image. It’s a myth. Let me explain what it is and then what’s going on factually and then talk about the political use of this image.

The image of ‘model minority’ is that Asian immigrants and their American born progeny are super successful. They’re smart, hard-working and don’t protest and don’t make a fuss.  That’s the idea of the whiz kid rocket scientist who wins every science fair and math contest and spelling bee. It’s the idea that parents coming here penniless with nothing more than the shirts on their backs. Their kids become valedictorian at the high school. It’s the idea that at the age of 11 they took the SAT and got a perfect score. Basically, in sum, Asian Americans are good citizens who should be applaud. But it’s dangerous.

Part of ‘Model Minority’ is also this must be biology or culture and it shows there’s no racial discrimination that is meaningful in United States because of the success of Asian-American. Now when I talk about this, people sometimes ask “What’s wrong with you? They are complimenting you. Are you some crazy hypersensitive politically correct person that you think that’s racist? They are trying to say your good.”

Let’s unpack this. Let me start by saying for the people have made it I applaud them, and that’s great, that’s fantastic. We should all applaud, congratulate, admire and emulate them. The problem is when we believe it’s because of their race or their culture, an “Oriental secret” that explains this.

Factually, there are multiple problems with this image. Let’s start with selectivity of migration. It’s brain drain. Many – not all – Asians have human capital or financial capital. Their have higher education. You can’t say when someone spends 10 million on a San Francisco penthouse that they buy as an investment property for their children, that they arrived on these shores penniless. They didn’t arrive penniless. They arrived rich.

It is also not true across-the-board. There are all sorts of ethnic variations. You look at Southeast refugees they look statistically and demographically like African and Latino populations. It’s true if you just look at Chinese, South Korean, and earlier people of Japanese descent. But even among those people, there’s a problem. These people concentrate on New York, California, places that are high-income high cost. They’re not distributed the way the population is in general and many more live in the multigenerational household. When you look at household income you’re often comparing a grandparent, two parents and a teenager all making money versus a nuclear family or a family with a single parent so you’re not comparing individual income.

There’s another issue here which is the bimodal distribution of the population. Let’s just take people of Chinese descent coming to the US. The population is bimodal. It’s not a one peak bell curve; it’s a two peak bell curve. One peak is students in elite institutions and Chinese immigrants in the middle class. They are not impoverished. Then you have another peak. Nobody talks about this. Then you have undocumented immigrants. The original dreamers were undocumented Chinese. Some people of Chinese descent get exercised. They say, I’m not illegal. I get that. You have cousins, distant cousins. They work at the all-you-can-eat buffets, they are the waiters and waitresses in Chinatown, they are domestic staff at hotels. There’s a whole other peak of the curve. They’re crowded into tenements, and some were smuggled in by the snakehead gang operations. So, it’s a bimodal distribution in terms of resources and outcomes.

I have described the myth and why empirically why we should be concerned about it. There are other reasons it should be rejected.

The three reasons it’s truly problematic is that, first, it allows the whitewashing of bias. By the way, there is a great study of Asian Americans. My friend Buck Gee did it. It’s in Harvard Business Review. It documents everything statistically, looking at Silicon Valley. Asian Americans are promoted into management at lower rates than anybody else (using an appropriate baseline of those qualified). That includes other people of color. Yet when Asian Americans complain, people say, what? Why are you complaining?  you’re all like the movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” you’re all doing so well and you’re doing better than you would in your “homeland.” The model minority myth makes it impossible for Asian Americans in need or facing discrimination to say I am not privileged. People assume your privilege despite your problems.

The second problem is it stirs up racial resentment. When someone calls you an overachiever, they’re implying you got more than you deserve. How come you got into that school? Where are the real Americans? The late Ronald Takaki, the famous historian of Asian Americans, says Asians punished by their virtues rather than their vices. Go back to the exclusion era, there was a famous pamphlet written by Samuel Gompers. You can find copies easily on the web. He was a progressive labor leader, he was white, in the comparatively skilled labor of rolling cigars, and he and wrote the pamphlet called ‘meat versus rice.’ It says ‘Asiatic coolies must be kept out because they eat rice. Europeans have to eat meat to survive. So Asians have an advantage. It’s an absurd premise, but it was successful. The model minority myth is the part of the exclusion movement. It’s the idea of the Asians working too hard. It does not mean smart and hardworking but means you’re a nerd and too competitive. What does it mean to have a strong family? It means you’re too clannish. Everything that seems positive gets turned on its head to be bad and people become angry. Why are you so successful?  America is a culture that celebrates the underdog, the come-from-behind lovable losers. America is all about people who are high and mighty being toppled and falling from grace. They get their comeuppance. As a result for Asian Americans to be portrayed as super successful, that’s going to cause people to punch us in the nose.

The final reason why the model minority myth is distributing is false flattery. It’s a none too subtle means of saying to African and Latino population, ‘they made it, why can’t you?’ The modern version of model minority myth comes from New York Times Sunday magazine article, written by William Petersen, and people have called it the most influential article ever written about Asian Americans, by someone who wasn’t even a scholar of Asian Americans. It is an article from 1966 that talks about Japanese Americans specifically and it is about how great Japanese Americans are how they got out of the internment camps in WWII and made it. You read all of the article and, in the end, it shows the real point of the article. Petersen said the example of these Asian Americans is in contrast to whom might be called the problem minorities to use his words. Then he goes on and compares Japanese Americans to “Negroes” and “Mexicans”. The whole point of his argument is to say the Asians are great, but black people and brown people are bad. It uses the Asian Americans as a pawn to say, you see there’s no racial discrimination because we have Asian Americans. It’s actually a non-sequitur. The fact that you have an abundance of Asian-American does not excuse the absence of African Americans. It doesn’t mean you don’t have anti-Black prejudice. It just means you substituted a population in some way you’re more comfortable with.

Some people, like me, are unwilling to compare groups on a racial basis. Suppose we put aside all our qualms and objections to comparing racial and ethnic groups. If you want to do a fair comparison, this is not even a fair comparison because you’re typically comparing immigrants since most Asian Americans are immigrants with foreign-born background, to people are native-born. Even among people of Asian descent, you observe what a social scientist would call regression to the mean. It turns out that Asian Americans over generations look like other Americans. I am pretty hard working. But I’m nowhere near as hard working as my parents were. They sacrificed. Wow. I’m a slacker. Meanwhile, newcomers from Africa, like Asian immigrants, on average they do well. But that doesn’t justify comparing foreign-born blacks to native born African American, because their situations are different; they are facing a different set of circumstances. They started at different points in history. I object to all racial generalizations. But if you were going to compare you should at least use a historically accurate, contextualized approach to the comparison.

Yuxuan is a college student majoring in International relations at New York University. Baker is a student in master’s program at School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.