Nick Kristof’s distasteful reframing of the model minority as “The Asian Advantage” in the New York Times
When the presidential candidates square off and debate in this campaign, I hope
they don’t think Asian Americans are such “success stories” they can simply
write us off when it comes to public policy.
And I hope someone doesn’t point to us and say, Asian Americans are the “good
example” or, heaven forbid, the “Model Minority.”
You never know. They may have read The New York Times.
If you’re still buzzing about Nicholas Kristof’s “The Asian
in Sunday’s New York Times, I don’t blame you.
Talk about a major infusion of positive stereotype re-enforcement!
We didn’t need it. And, of course, it’s wrong. It’s Kristof, a Tiger Dad by
marriage, letting us know his stripes–about how he feels about us Asian
But he doesn’t want to roar too loudly as a Caucasian guy, and even acknowledges
the awkwardness of his initial question, “Why are Asian Americans so successful
Maybe it’s because he knows that despite the Census data for income and
educational attainment (We’re No.1), it’s unwise to use such a broad brush when
it comes to generalizing about Asian American success.
Income is often misleading due to the large numbers of earners in an Asian
American household. It’s even more misleading when you break down the numbers by
ethnicity. Disaggregate the dozens of Asian ethnicities in the U.S. and the
poverty rates are astonishingly high for Southeast Asians (Hmong Americans, 37.8
percent; Cambodian Americans, 29.3 percent; and Laotian Americans, 18.5
percent). If poverty is success (as I suppose it might be for, say, a priest or
monk), then I guess those numbers are consistent with the assumptions of
Kristof’s basic question.
But what bothers me is his provocative corollary set-up question, which reframes
the old “Model Minority” discussion in a new, slightly less offensive way: “Does
the success of Asian Americans suggest that the age of discrimination is behind
If Asian Americans have discovered the secret to the end of discrimination, that
would be right up there with driving in the historic Golden Spike!
Indeed, if we held some formula for success, that might make us the new
post-racial exemplars for all non-successful types. (Oh, you mean people of
color, perhaps?) Maybe even someone Kristof describes at the end of his column
could benefit, such the “black boy in Baltimore who is raised by a struggling
single mom, whom society regards as a potential menace.”
It’s a ridiculously offensive line, laced with that old-fashioned model minority
mindset. But that’s what Kristof’s “Asian Advantage” is about–an attempt to lend
credence to a tired iconic stereotype.
Here’s what Asian Americans really know to this day: Not all Asian Americans are
successful, and even successful Asian Americans know discrimination isn’t over.
Ask the Harvard grad who can’t a job in his field. The bamboo curtain bends but
That’s the ironic thing about the new scholarly work Kristof cites in his
“The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” by sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min
Zhou, was intended to be an antidote to the hard cultural stands that
commentators like Kristof on both the left and the right are fond of taking to
explain Asian American success. A little nuance is better, right?
Lee and Zhou write that these commentators focus on cultural traits, values,
attitudes and behavioral patterns as “fixed and essential to ethno-racial
groups.” Ignored are the structural factors in society that affect educational
attainment: “the effects of ethno-racial stereotypes, implicit biases, and
microaggressions–the brief, commonplace verbal, behavioral, and institutional
indignities imposed on marginalized ethno-racial groups.”
That, folks, is what we non-academics would call modern, everyday racism.
Lee and Zhou’s research is based on 82 in-depth interviews with Chinese and
Vietnamese immigrants in Los Angeles.
And though Kristof cites the book, he does it a tad selectively.
For example, Lee and Zhou on page 169 of their tome come away with this strong
conclusion about Asian American success that Kristof gives short shrift:
“The Asian American success frame is so constricting only a very small minority
attain it,” write Lee and Zhou. “Based on our in-depth interviews, we found that
most 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese did not achieve the
success frame and that many did not come even close.”
Far from stories of Asian success, the authors found some interviewees who had
not graduated from college or “languished” until they ultimately graduated
beyond four years. Some just dropped out.
Behind the success stories are these real stories that form a new invisible
Asian American–the kind that most want to deny really exist.
“Their stories, while not atypical, go unnoticed and unremarked upon by their
immigrant parents, other immigrant children, their ethnic communities, the
American mainstream media, and even social scientists,” Lee and Zhou write.
“Because these disconfirming narratives remained behind the veil, the cases of
these immigrant children seemed like exceptions to Asian American
exceptionalism. So strong is the perception that the success frame is normative
for Asian Americans that the 1.5-second generation Chinese and Vietnamese who
could not attain it, or who chose to forego it altogether, find themselves at
odds with their immigrant parents, their coethnics, and their ethnic
That nuance of Lee and Zhou’s work is lost from reading Kristof’s column.
So how did Asian American achievers become successful? Lee and Zhou say much of
it is due to the kind of immigrants who have come here since the Immigration and
Naturalization Act of 1965. When the racist quotas of the past were finally
lifted, the people who came weren’t your typical early immigrants. Post-65s were
all self-selected, prone to education and new world success. And when they
sought opportunity in the U.S., Lee and Zhou say they used the social capital in
their community networks to succeed.
That’s it. That’s the real Asian advantage.
The social capital and being around other Asians explain our success, not
comparing ourselves to non-Asians.
“Before proceeding, we add an important caveat and word of caution,” write Lee
and Zhou. “Our study focused on the children of Chinese and Vietnamese
immigrants in Los Angeles, where ethnic communities are sizeable, ethnic capital
is abundant, and strong ethnic economies create tangible and intangible
That may explain why refugee communities in far-flung places in the Midwest may
not do as well as other Asian groups.
“Lacking ethnic capital in their communities (or lacking ethnic communities
altogether), poor and working-class Asian immigrants and their children must
rely exclusively on publicly available resources in non-metropolitan areas,”
write Lee and Zhou.” With no access to ethnic resources, their prospects for
mobility may be just as precarious as those of working-class children from
non-Asian and non-hyper-selected ethno-racial backgrounds. We should not turn a
blind eye to this segment of the Asian American population, nor can we ignore
poor Asian American groups like Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong, who drop out of
high schools at higher rates than African Americans and Latinos. Public policies
should not ignore the children of Asian immigrants from whom supplemental
resources are out of reach, especially in those environments were these
additional resources are critical to attaining intergenerational mobility.”
Read that passage in Lee and Zhou’s book and you realize the questions posed in
Kristof’s piece are just a phony pose.
Nice of him to quote from some of Lee and Zhou’s work, but he misses their point
if all he wants to do is reframe the model minority debate and restate his own
cultural bias–that “success of Asian Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong
families and passion for education. Bravo!”
Yeah, that’s part of it. But sometimes hard work doesn’t produce success. Only
more sweat and often frustration.
But since Kristof wants to be seen as a liberal good guy, he does get back to
this bottom line: “Let’s not use the success of Asians to pat ourselves on the
back and pretend that discrimination is history.”
Funny, I don’t see anyone who knows how hard it is to be Asian
American–especially in non-traditional fields for Asian Americans like the
media, the arts, or politics–patting himself on the back thinking discrimination
No, for that, it takes the positive action that has always changed society:
public policy and legislative changes, such as the lifting of racist immigration
quotas, the ending of anti-miscegenation laws, and the repeal of laws forbidding
property ownership. And yes, the preservation of affirmative action to provide
diversity in schools and the workplace.
That’s where the hard work still remains to be done and the reason it’s
important to hear someone in the upcoming campaign address Asian Americans as
more than a stereotype.
But we won’t get what we all need if people buy into the views of the Tiger Moms
and Dads blinded by their own success.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.