Housing Advocacy

Dismantling the Model Minority Myth Should be Everybody’s Project

The National Coalition For Asian Pacific American Community Development (CAPACD) recently released a report that gives a demographic profile of poor Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and highlights the […]

The National Coalition For Asian Pacific American Community Development (CAPACD) recently released a report that gives a demographic profile of poor Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and highlights the dramatic growth of the AAPI poor population in the wake of the recession.

One of the ulterior motives in producing this report is to debunk the Model Minority Myth.   There is some community self-interest in this approach—as a coalition of organizations who serve low-income and poor AAPI communities, we often get confused looks from people who don’t understand that there is economic need in AAPI communities. So, one big reason why we wrote the report and why we put the cold, hard data out there, is that we’re trying to build a factual case as to why AAPI poverty is a real issue, deserving of real attention and resources.

But, a less obvious but equally important reason for the report is that everybody concerned with equity and the broader struggle for social justice should be concerned with dismantling the Model Minority Myth. The Model Minority Myth not only causes us to overlook the needs and real problems of AAPIs who do not fit the stereotype but also its continued existence undermines the larger project for social change and racial justice.

Anybody who has experienced a sibling rivalry should understand this at an emotional level.  “Why can’t you be more like so-n-so?” is a pretty damaging thing for a kid to hear. 

But the Model Minority Myth goes deeper.  
It undermines a racial equity framing. When other communities of color—African Americans, Latinos, Native American’s, etc.—talk about racism and inequity, a common response is “Asians come to this country with nothing, face barriers and look how successful they are.  Why can’t you be more like them?”  It says that the disparate economic outcomes for communities of color is something cultural (culture of poverty, culture of complaint, culture of takers not makers) or about not being industrious enough or not being STEM oriented enough or having a bad attitude or being too attached to playing the victim. 

It says that you non-Asian people of color are disproportionately poor because something there is something wrong with what you are doing, wrong with your culture and maybe even something wrong with you  and not because there is anything that needs to change at a larger, more systemic level (well, nothing except to cut government programs which incentivize a culture of dependency).

But the relative economic success of AAPIs is more an artifact of US immigration policy and about basic geography than it is about any inherent or cultural differences between AAPIs and other communities of color. Let me explain, in my own roundabout way, by telling a story of how I went down the data rabbit hole that is AAPI poverty.

After the release of the 2010 decennial Census data, there were many different demographic overviews published, comparing the 2010 data to the 2000 data, some of which cited the Asian American poverty 2010 rate as 11 percent and noted that this was lower than the 2000 Asian American poverty rate of 13 percent (see, for example, page 35 of “A Community of Contrasts” published by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice) and lower than the 2010 general poverty rate of 14 percent. To the extent that these data points reached the general consciousness, they reinforced the larger narrative that Asian Americans were doing well economically—and not just doing well, but doing better than everybody else—and somehow managing to stay above the Recession’s undertow. But, at National CAPACD, we were surprised and confused by the data. We had been hearing fairly consistently from our community-based member organizations—groups on the ground who provide a broad array of services in low-income AAPI communities—that economic need in their service populations was notably increasing. So we looked deeper into the numbers (and this became our recently released “Spotlight on AAPI Poverty” report, see link above).

From 2000 to 2010, the raw number of AAPIs living below the poverty line increased by over 540,000 or a percentage increase of 43 percent. This percentage increase was greater than the overall growth in the poverty population (36 percent) and behind only the Census’ racial/ethnic category of “Hispanic” (a 58 percent increase in the number of Latino poor) for all racial/ethnic groups. This percentage increase in the number of poor AAPI people was more in line with what we and our members were experiencing on the ground.  But we were still confused as why this increase was not reflected in the poverty rate.

In the 2012 report “Rise of the Asian Americans,” the Pew Research Center reports “…[Asian Americans] are the best-educated, highest-income, fastest-growing race group in the country.”  And from 2000 to 2010, the general Asian American population grew by 43 percent, a larger growth rate than any other racial/ethnic group. But while the population of highly educated, high income AAPIs was growing quickly, the population in poverty was also increasing, as discussed immediately above.  But against a growing population base that is fueled in large part by immigration of highly educated, highly skilled workers (e.g., approximately a 100,000 H-1B Visas a year issued to workers from Asian countries), major increases in the poverty population are not reflected in the poverty rate.

In this way, the AAPI population is becoming more bifurcated. The majority of growth of the non-poor population from 2000 to 2010 was due to immigration, while the majority of growth of the poor population was due to increases in native-born poverty. This is a change from the growth trends from 1990 to 2000, where the majority of population growth within both the poor and non-poor populations were due to increases in foreign born populations. That is, while the AAPI non-poor population growth is still fueled by immigration, the poor population is increasingly home grown. There is still economic need in the AAPI immigrant community and not all AAPI immigrants are rich tech workers. But the larger point still stands: growing AAPI poverty is obscured by growing AAPI wealth.  But these are two separate populations.  The success of one does not necessarily touch the needs of the other.

Our current immigration policies (and will likely become more so if Immigration Reform passes) privilege highly educated immigrants who have a sponsoring employer waiting for them. And sheer distance and the vast barrier of the Pacific Ocean make it harder for the huddled masses of potential economic migrants from Asia to enter this country without authorization. So, the mostly static AAPI poverty rate is as much a product of immigration policy and geography as it is anything inherent to AAPI race/culture.

Armed with these facts, progressive AAPIs who care about equity and social and economic justice need to refuse to be part of the racial wedge that separates most Americans from a true perception of the current depths of racial and economic inequity in our country. And Americans of all stripes should fight to see beyond the Model Minority Myth.

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