Questioning the Image of Asian Americans as the “Model Minority”

asian pacific american youth

Asian Pacific American youth. (Photo: Charlie Nguyen/flickr)

The South Asian cab driver was brimming with fatherly pride as he told his story from behind the wheel of a New York City taxi.   He has three sons studying at Princeton, NYU and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Never in his life as a cabbie of more than 20 years did he imagine seeing his sons at such prestigious schools, he said.

“My son in Princeton doesn’t want me to visit him, maybe he has many girlfriends,” he seemed to grouse.

His story falls right in line with the narrative of America’s “model minority.” But it would be wrong to assume that the child of every Asian cab driver in the city is doing so well, experts say.

A new report issued on February 22 by the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) calls the Asian “model minority” paradigm a myth.  Vivian Tseng, a moderator at an event to discuss the new report, labeled it a “persistent, tenacious” concept.

There’s no question that Asian Pacific American (APA) youth dominate New York’s elite specialized high schools. But APA students make up 14 percent of the city’s public school population, and not all of them are successful or go to Ivy League schools, said Wayne Ho, executive director of CACF. “A large percentage of them are struggling,” he said.

The “model minority” narrative came to prominence in the 1960s during the flowering of the civil rights movement, said Tseng, a former faculty member in psychology and Asian American studies at California State University, Northridge. While African Americans took to the streets demanding social change, Asian Americans excelled in life as if to say “we don’t need structural changes.”

A half century later, the idea of Asians as a “model minority” is now undergoing a reevaluation.  The latest study, We’re Not Even Allowed to Ask for Help: Debunking the Myth of the Model Minority, examines how factors like poverty, overcrowding in schools, and unequal distribution of resources put Asian Pacific American students at a disadvantage.

The report’s authors say the myth overshadows the many difficulties facing APA youth and prevents students from receiving the full range of educational opportunities, support and resources to which they have a right.

The report collected interviews from Asian students across the city, such the following:

“The other Asians in my school are not the best students. Pretty much they are the worst. All they do is cut or smoke or go to the pool hall and stand outside. And, I don’t want to join them.”

The report revealed that the “model minority” myth is embedded within the community itself and students feel intense pressure at home.

“They’ve expected me to go to an Ivy League ever since I was little…I feel a lot of pressure. If I get a B, I get mad. They also expect me to help my brother. They keep saying we are depending on you so that when we’re older, we don’t have to work anymore, and we can just depend on you.”

The report further noted that:

– In 2009, of New York City “Asian/Pacific Island” general education graduates (the 2005–06 cohort), more than one in three were deemed “not college ready.”

 -94 percent of NYC public schools enroll APA students, often in small numbers and percentages;

– Half of APA children come from families with incomes below the 200 percent of the poverty threshold;

– Almost one-third, or 32 percent, of poor school-age Asian children were Limited English Proficient (LEP);

– Nearly 1 in 5 English language learners in the city are APA.

Being labeled model minority is a “false narrative,” said the panelists reacting to the report. It “ignores the diversity” of cultures, languages and socioeconomic conditions of APA students, said CACF deputy director Vanessa Leung.

The panelists, including Council Member and former public school teacher Daniel Dromm, noted that APA students are often targeted for bullying. He praised the report for “shining a light” on the issues facing students and hindering their ability to excel.

The report calls on Mayor Bloomberg to assemble an independent task force to further analyze data such as the “relationship of resources and outcomes” in terms of APA enrollment by race, ethnicity, LEP (Limited English Proficiency) status and special needs. In schools where immigrant minorities are facing a certain degree of isolation, the need for “culturally competent” organizations and staff was likewise recommended.

It also urged improved outreach to parents with limited English skills and those without computer skills.

“We need to make sure that parents are really engaged,” said Leung.

Expanding the view to South Asian immigrants, Monami Maulik of Desis Rising Up & Moving, or DRUM, said today’s South Asian immigrants are not the professionals who came to the U.S. in the 1960s. Many are cab drivers and low-income workers who struggle with poverty.

“Stop looking at us from the antiquated lens of class privilege,” she said.

Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.