Busting the Model Minority myth

For Asians in America, the US Census is an important tool to help understand a diverse nation, and dispel stereotypes.

Sally Tyler

Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Asia, The World

29 May 2017

Underfunding the decennial US Census could particularly short-change Southeast Asian-Americans and other minorities, writes Sally Tyler.

In the United States, May is officially designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a celebration of the culture, traditions and history of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in America. It is typically marked by thematic exhibitions, performances and educational sessions at universities, in federal government agencies, and in the workplaces of some large employers.

The month of May was chosen by Congress to recognise Asian heritage because the completion of the transcontinental railroad, built largely by Chinese immigrant labour, was on 10 May, 1869. The railroad fostered the growth of commerce across the US and helped secure American global economic dominance into the 20th Century.

For their efforts, the Chinese workers were rewarded with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law to prohibit a specific group from immigrating to the US, coincidentally also enacted in May.

While there may be kimchi samplings, hula demonstrations and anime screenings to observe the month, there will also be serious discussion of the significant contributions of Asians to American culture, and how discrimination still plagues this often-overlooked minority. One such exploration concerns the Model Minority Myth, and the subtly harmful effect it has dealt Asian-Americans.

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The term “model minority” was first used in the 1960’s to describe Japanese-Americans, but is now associated more broadly with all Asian-Americans, and particularly East Asians. The term, as first used, described a gleaming embodiment of the American Dream, characterised by socio-economic success, academic achievement and family stability. What may have been initially interpreted as a compliment has taken on the dimension of a velvet straitjacket, trapping millions of Asian Americans in a stereotypical construct, with dangerous repercussions.

The most pernicious aspect of the stereotype is that it fails to acknowledge the robust diversity within the Asian-American community. The sixth-generation Chinese businessman in San Francisco is no more like the second-generation Vietnamese fisherman in rural Louisiana than he is the first-generation Indian computer coder who just landed in Houston. The model minority stereotype may ultimately punish Asian-Americans, by suggesting their success makes government social safety net programs unnecessary – an assertion which overstates the academic/economic status achieved by some groups, predominantly East Asians and Indians, many of whom were recruited under the H1-B visa program to attract highly-skilled workers, while ignoring the socioeconomic disparities that exist among newer immigrant groups, such as the Hmong, Lao and Cambodian.

Southeast Asians may stand to lose the most if the Model Minority Myth is used as the basis to develop policy. Many Southeast Asian immigrants who arrived in the US following the Vietnam War had been denied formal education due to the conflict. For instance, approximately 70 per cent of Indian Americans over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, whereas only 26 per cent of Vietnamese Americans report the same.

Poverty levels among Southeast Asian Americans are also higher, with 29 per cent of Cambodians and 37 per cent of Hmong living in poverty, far above the national average. This suggests that some groups of Asians in America could benefit from social safety net programs. But there is also encouraging news in that the generation of Southeast Asian-Americans born in the US is beginning to reverse the trend by demonstrating a higher level of college completion.

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The most in-depth instrument for measuring the demographic distribution of ethnic groups in America is the US Census, undertaken every ten years. The 2010 Census found that the Asian population grew faster than any other race group in the US in the preceding decade. While Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese remain the largest groups of Asian-Americans; the Bhutanese population in America grew by an astounding 9,000 per cent during this time, with the Burmese showing an almost 500 per cent expansion.

The 2020 Census may be blunted, however, by severe underfunding proposed in President Trump’s initial budget. While previous administrations have increased funding for the census in the years immediately preceding the count (President Obama increased funding more than 60 per cent in 2008 in preparation for the 2010 Census), President Trump has requested level funding at $1.5 billion, which experts say will not be nearly enough to complete an accurate census.

A significant undercount could particularly impact key communities; as low-income households, renters, those without phones and non-English speakers traditionally have lower response rates. Legions of canvassers are typically employed to go into neighbourhoods on foot to track down information from non-respondents, but cutbacks will likely jeopardise their hiring.

Congress will have an opportunity to override Trump’s slight of the census as the budget process unfolds, and the stakes are high, for both policy and politics. Policymakers use census results to develop social safety-net distribution formulae; supporting programs such as Medicaid, special education grants, and food stamps. The communities which rely heavily on these programs will be hurt the most if a census undercount affects funding for them.

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Census results are also the basis for Congressional redistricting, making it an extremely partisan topic. Urban voters and minorities have historically tended to support Democrats in US elections, so as population shifts to cities and as minorities grow, Republicans, who may wish to limit their political representation, have a motive to trigger an undercount in the next census.

This decennial mapping of America’s changing face comes as a new survey provides context for the complex views of some Americans toward immigrants. Upending earlier assumptions, it shows decisively that the working-class white vote which led to Trump’s victory was rooted in cultural, not economic, fears/frustrations. Nearly seven in ten (68 per cent) working-class white Americans think the “American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence,” as opposed to less than half (44 per cent) of college-educated whites who think the same.

A formidable 62 per cent of working-class whites think the growing number of immigrants “threatens American culture.”

Working-class whites surveyed may be more insular and have less first-hand experience with America’s diverse ethnic landscape, as 41 per cent still live in their hometowns; whereas only 21 per cent of college-educated whites remain in the town where they grew up.

Accurate info from a vigorously-conducted census could illuminate the true snapshot of America as a 21st Century nation of immigrants, and help to overcome stereotypes leading to cultural isolation and xenophobia. If only Congressional appropriators were willing to stand up for what really counts, and who should be counted.

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