Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Debunking a Mythical "Model" Minority

Once upon a time, there was a great monolithic group of human beings who seemed to have remarkable abilities to achieve against all odds, the smartest in the land. Often they were referred to when castigating other groups of dark hue in the kingdom who did not seem to do so well as this group. People would say "Why can't you be more like them?" and " Look at how well they are doing, they prove to all that everyone in the land can achieve if only they work hard." This tale is probably familiar to most of us, we've grown up with one version or another of this mythical model minority. Like so many tales from that great collection of American racial and ethnic stereotypes, this one also turns out to be just a story. Check it out (from the New York Times):

The image of Asian-Americans as a homogeneous group of high achievers taking over the campuses of the nation’s most selective colleges came under assault in a report issued Monday.

The report, by New York University, the College Board and a commission of mostly Asian-American educators and community leaders, largely avoids the debates over both affirmative action and the heavy representation of Asian-Americans at the most selective colleges.

But it pokes holes in stereotypes about Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, including the perception that they cluster in science, technology, engineering and math. And it points out that the term “Asian-American” is extraordinarily broad, embracing members of many ethnic groups.

“Certainly there’s a lot of Asians doing well, at the top of the curve, and that’s a point of pride, but there are just as many struggling at the bottom of the curve, and we wanted to draw attention to that,” said Robert T. Teranishi, the N.Y.U. education professor who wrote the report, “Facts, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight.”

“Our goal,” Professor Teranishi added, “is to have people understand that the population is very diverse.”

The report, based on federal education, immigration and census data, as well as statistics from the College Board, noted that the federally defined categories of Asian-American and Pacific Islander included dozens of groups, each with its own language and culture, as varied as the Hmong, Samoans, Bengalis and Sri Lankans.

Their educational backgrounds, the report said, vary widely: while most of the nation’s Hmong and Cambodian adults have never finished high school, most Pakistanis and Indians have at least a bachelor’s degree.

The SAT scores of Asian-Americans, it said, like those of other Americans, tend to correlate with the income and educational level of their parents.

“The notion of lumping all people into a single category and assuming they have no needs is wrong,” said Alma R. Clayton-Pederson, vice president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who was a member of the commission the College Board financed to produce the report.

“Our backgrounds are very different,” added Dr. Clayton-Pederson, who is black, “but it’s almost like the reverse of what happened to African-Americans.”

The report found that contrary to stereotype, most of the bachelor’s degrees that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders received in 2003 were in business, management, social sciences or humanities, not in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering or math. And while Asians earned 32 percent of the nation’s STEM doctorates that year, within that 32 percent more than four of five degree recipients were international students from Asia, not Asian-Americans.

The report also said that more Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders were enrolled in community colleges than in either public or private four-year colleges. But the idea that Asian-American “model minority” students are edging out all others is so ubiquitous that quips like “U.C.L.A. really stands for United Caucasians Lost Among Asians” or “M.I.T. means Made in Taiwan” have become common, the report said. (This is a must read. Read all about it!)

Racial and ethnic stereotypes are a double edged sword, whichever way they cut, positive or negative they can create problems in our society blinding us to truths that could guide intelligent public policy and personal behavior. They can even get people hurt (from the Boston Globe):

"As court guards led away Thu Phan, 18, his mother stared at him intently, dumbfounded by charges that he had instigated the brutal beating of two young teens last summer.

"I don't know what happened to my kid," said the Vietnamese woman, who declined to give her name, after her son's arraignment earlier this month. "They go out and play and then I don't know what happened."

She is not alone. Vietnamese teenagers are more likely to feel disconnected from their parents and are less inclined to open up to them about their problems than other teenagers in the city, according to a 2006 survey of Boston schoolchildren conducted by the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center. The survey, known as the Boston Youth Survey, is conducted every other year and focuses on students in Boston's public high schools.

Leaders in Boston's Vietnamese community have asked Harvard to conduct a separate survey solely of Vietnamese teens, to figure out whether the gap between Vietnamese adults and children could lead to the kind of violence exhibited last August in the brutal beating of two Vietnamese-American teens.

Phan and four other Vietnamese teenagers and young men have been indicted for their alleged involvement in the fight, which was captured on videotape and sent a shockwave through the community." (Read all about it)

I have to wonder whether or not the stereotype of Asian men as docile geeks might have kept people from recognizing the problems some of these young Vietnamese Americans were having and their potential for violence (unlike certain other minority youth whose violent tendencies are assumed). If so the model minority myth is a real disservice to these young people and their community. Racial and ethnic stereotypes are "vain imaginings" an obstacle to social and spiritual progress. Perhaps this new report will contribute to breaking the mental chains of the popular myth of the model minority.

"Arise and, armed with the power of faith, shatter to pieces the gods of your vain imaginings, the sowers of dissension amongst you. Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 217)