Tim Wise and the “Model Minority Myth” Myth

Today’s political environment is one where the concept of “Social Justice” has become so ingrained in many people’s minds as to render the perception of being oppressed a reason to be entitled to various forms of compensation. As a result, public apologies; favorable legislation, and demands for forms of financial reparations can be reasonably demanded simply by citing the existence of disparities on basis of race, gender, class, and a variety of other forms of interpersonal distinction. In such an environment, it is unsurprising that statistical evidence of these supposed disparities is often interpreted in such a manner as to maximize the supposed grievance of the oppressed identity groups.

A clear example of this behavior becomes evident when reading a 15-year old article written in 2002 by “anti-racist essayist” Tim Wise. In this article, Tim Wise attempts to establish the oppressed nature of African-Americans by arguing against what he refers to as the “Model Minority Myth”. According to Mr. Wise, opponents of the notion that income disparities between black and white Americans can be sufficiently explained by past and current societal oppression—usually referred to as white males—make the fallacious argument that it ignores the overall success rate of Asian Americans.

Mr. Wise starts off his article by commenting on the fact that he often receives this argument by white people who pride themselves on their color-blindness. However, the notion of racial color-blindness refers to disregard for racial characteristics when selecting which individuals participate in some activity or receive some service. It is disingenuous to demand that self-proclaimed color-blind people should refrain from making any argument in any context at all that includes ethnicity in any way or form. Subsequently, Mr. Wise continues by illuminating on the historical context of this argument, although without providing any source to substantiate his claim.

First, I noted that the Asian “model minority” myth has long been a staple of white conservative race commentary, though rarely have members of the various Asian communities in the U.S. pushed the notion themselves. The genesis of this argumentation goes back to the 1950s and ’60s, when prominent magazines ran articles lauding the “hard-working” Chinese or Japanese, and explicitly contrasting their “success” with the “failure” of African Americans. That they offered such a contrast at the height of the modern civil rights movement — as if to say to black folks, “stop complaining about racism and just work harder” — should not be lost on anyone. Of course, none of these magazines ever editorialized in favor of lifting immigration restrictions that had kept Asian populations small in the U.S. from the 1880s until 1965, despite their respect for the “model minorities.” Neither did any such admirers speak out against internment of hard-working Japanese Americans during World War Two, or the killing of hard-working Southeast Asians during the Vietnam War.

The lack of sources makes it difficult to explicitly verify the degree of truth of the claims advanced by Mr. Wise. However, even if for the sake of argument it is conceded that literally every magazine that ever in its editorial history put forward positive claims about Asian-Americans had kept silent about immigration restrictions; internment, and the Vietnam War, it does not follow that the recognition of the relative success of certain minority groups should necessarily be accompanied by support for more immigration or opposition to the Vietnam War.

To rephrase; even if it can be successfully argued that certain policy prescriptions on these topics are desirable, it is a misguided argument that factual commentary on a certain group of Americans morally requires one to support these policy prescriptions. After this, Mr. Wise continues on to his main argument as to why comparisons between African-Americans and Asian-Americans are improper.

Indeed, Asian success in the U.S. relative to others is largely due to immigration policies that favor immigrants with pre-existing skills and education. As the Glass Ceiling Commission discovered in 1995, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the highly educated APA community already had college degrees before coming to the U.S., or were in college upon arrival. Thanks to preferences for educated immigrants, APAs are two-thirds more likely than whites and three times more likely than blacks to have a college degree. More than 8 in 10 Indian immigrants from 1966-1977 had advanced degrees and training in such areas as science, medicine or engineering.

Pre-existing educational advantages are implicated in Asian success, but hardly indicate genetic or cultural superiority. After all, to claim superior Asian genes or culture as the reasons for achievement in the U.S. requires one to ignore the rampant poverty of persons from the same backgrounds in their countries of origin. There is no shortage, after all, of desperately poor Asians in the slums of Manila, Calcutta and Hong Kong: testament to the absurdity of cultural superiority claims for Asians as a group.

Again, Mr. Wise fails to provide any source or citation to bolster his claims. In addition, it is unclear to which degree Mr. Wise believes this self-selection of Asian-Americans explains the disparity between Asian-Americans and African-Americans. Judging from the overall argumentation, it is reasonable to assume that Mr. Wise desires to explain away any discrepancy. However, a single-minded focus on the number of college-educated Asians as if they were a single group provides a misleading picture.

For example, more recent data from the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau reveals that 15% of the Asian immigrants do not possess even a high school diploma, compared to the 10% of U.S. born adults.[1] Additionally, a single-minded lumping together of “Asian-Americans” as a single category eliminates any differences arising due to the differences in origin between these peoples. Anyone supportively reading Mr. Wise’s analysis would have to ignore the fact that about 25% of Vietnamese immigrants have completed college, while only 15% of immigrants from Cambodia and Laos completed college compared to a rate of 33.5% in the U.S. overall.[2] Any claim that “Asian-Americans” as a single category are self-selected on basis of educational attainment is therefore too simplistic as a proper explanation.

Next, Mr. Wise’s claim that widespread poverty in Asian nations undermines any theory of genetic or cultural Asian superiority is only valid if decontextualized. In fact, a more fitting conservative argument could point to the notion that many Asian migrants are culturally compatible with the “American Dream”, or simply that Asian-Americans—as opposed to simply Asians—have a relatively beneficial culture with respect to socio-economic development.

Mr. Wise continues his line of argumentation by claiming that any supposed positive discrepancy between Asian-Americans and white Americans is based on household income. He then posits the argument that this discrepancy between household incomes is partially explained by the fact that Asian-Americans do, on average, have larger households with more income-generating individuals. However, measures of personal income by ethnicity do, in fact, exist and point to the same observation as any household-based measurement of income: Asian-Americans do earn a higher median income than white Americans.[3] Mr. Wise, however, offers an additional couple of arguments.

An additional reason why the average income of Asian families is higher than that of whites is because Asians are concentrated in parts of the country that have higher average incomes and costs of living. The three states with the largest Asian populations and a disproportionate share of the overall Asian population (California, New York and Hawaii), rank 13th, 4th, and 16th in terms of average income: all within the top third of states. Whereas 76 percent of Asian Americans live in the higher-income regions of the West and Northeast, only 41 percent of whites and 28 percent of blacks are in these regions. Over half of all APAs in the U.S. live in just five major U.S. cities (Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City): all of which have higher than average household incomes, and much higher costs of living than most of the U.S.

According to the Census Bureau, in 1996, median household income was $35,500. But in states with disproportionate shares of Asians (NY and Hawaii, for example), median household income was $39,000 and $42,000 respectively. This means that APA median income will be skewed upward, relative to the rest of the country, but given cost of living differences, actual disposable income and living standards will be no better and often worse.

It is important for scholarly inquiry to be very careful in interpreting this form of data. The causation between the share of APAs and the level of regional income could point in either direction or even both. Alternatively, a certain factor—such as greater economic development—could possibly explain both the higher regional income and the larger share of Asian-Americans. By itself, pointing out that many APAs live in high-income areas does not equal a convincing explanation without first establishing the causal relationship.

Nevertheless, even if we give Mr. Wise the benefit of the doubt and assume that the share of Asian-Americans does not positively affect regional income, Mr. Wise does not elaborate on the degree to which this phenomenon actually positively skews the income of Asian Americans. Furthermore, the final comment regarding the higher cost of living for many Asian-Americans in relation to actual disposable income has a direct implication ignored by Mr. Wise. Namely the fact that the lower regional cost of living for the large share of African-Americans living in low-income areas could possibly imply that their actual disposable income might be understated if one merely looks at personal income levels.

Finally, while Mr. Wise uses the argument of spatial ethnic concentration to explain why Asian-Americans aren’t actually doing better than white Americans, it is likely that a similar explanation regarding black spatial concentration would habitually be explained away as yet another symptom of oppression. Subsequently, Mr. Wise furthers his argument and actually claims that Asian-Americans are actually doing a lot worse than white Americans.

More importantly, claims of Asian success obscure the fact that the Asian American child poverty rate is nearly double the white rate, and according to a New York Times report in May of 1996, Southeast Asians have the highest rates of welfare dependence of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Nearly half of all Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees in the U.S. live in poverty, with annual incomes in 1990 of less than $10,000 per year. Amazingly, even those Southeast Asians with college degrees face obstacles. Two-thirds of Lao and Hmong-American college graduates live below the poverty level, as do nearly half of Cambodian Americans and over a third of Vietnamese Americans with degrees.

Indeed, Asian “success” rhetoric ignores the persistent barriers to advancement faced by Asians relative to whites. On average, APAs with a college degree earn 11 percent less than comparable whites, and APAs with a high school diploma earn, on average, 26 percent less than their white counterparts. When Asian American men have qualifications comparable to white men, they still receive fewer high-ranking positions than those same white men. APA male engineers and scientists are 20 percent less likely than white men to move into management positions in their respective companies, despite no differences in ambition or desire for such positions.

It is unclear if the claims made by Mr. Wise are factually correct, considering the repeated negligence with respect to properly citing empirical claims. Even if the picture sketched by the unnamed 1996 New York Times report was correct then, more recent data about the rate of poverty among Asian-Americans sketches a picture that does not support Mr. Wise’s narrative. As recently as 2014, the poverty rate of both Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans equaled 15%, a percentage approximately equal to the overall U.S. poverty rate in that same year. While this rate is notably higher than the poverty rate faced by white Americans, the simplistic comparison between these two groups would indeed ignore the aforementioned fact that many Asian immigrants do not appear to be self-selected and are on average less educated than the average U.S. citizen.

The second paragraph written by Mr. Wise is similarly unsourced, yet more recent reports of Asian-American college graduates overall reveals that they earn an average annual salary of $51,481 compared to $49,972 for white Americans. Similarly, Asian-Americans with Master’s degrees earn an average annual salary of $61,452 compared to $52,318 for white Americans with a Master’s degree.[3] This recent data allows me to raise two different but connected points. First, Mr. Wise’s assertion that Asian-Americans face “persistent barriers” is not as unilaterally supported by the data as he might think.

Secondly, simplistic comparisons between income levels and corporate positions between ethnic groups are not substantiative to establish the existence of persistent barriers and oppression. From this data, we cannot establish that white people face barriers to earn higher income compared to Asians, which is a notion likely supported by Mr. Wise. However, the same also holds true when looking at income disparities between white and black Americans. Nevertheless, Mr. Wise moves beyond his statistical analysis.

Beyond statistics, there are other points to be made. First, if whites truly believe that Asians are culturally superior and add to the quality of schools and workplaces, then why aren’t these folks clamoring for a massive increase in immigration from Asian nations? Why not flood the borders, since we could all benefit from a little more Asian genius? Why not have white CEOs step down from their positions and let Japanese managers take their place?

Mr. Wise, in this paragraph, again conflates descriptive with prescriptive statements. Any claim that Asian immigrants in the past have been—supposedly partially for cultural reasons—have been able to surpass white Americans socio-economically in many respects, does not oblige the person making such a claim to support unrestricted mass-immigration in the present. Such an obligation would only follow if the person in question contended that economic growth was the only consideration with respect to determining migration policy.

Even if we supposed that prescriptive statements necessarily lead to ethical obligations to support certain policies, as Mr. Wise suggests, one could easily turn this line of argumentation against him. In face of such an ethical obligation, and in face of the fact that South-East Asian immigrants tend to have neglectable crime levels and perform better socio-economically compared to literally any other form of immigrant, we could easily make the argument that the U.S. should reject migrants of any other ethnicity. Secondly, acknowledging that Asian-Americans on average do earn higher incomes and occupy relatively high positions based on their individual merit does in no way support the notion that non-Asian CEOs should be forced to resign from their position. Blatant ethical fallacies like this do not, in fact, support Mr. Wise’s position in the slightest. Nevertheless, he is far from done.

Secondly, whites who trumpet the model minority concept would be the first to object if Asian Americans began to bump their own white children from college slots, even if they did so by way of higher test scores and “merit” indicators. Just ask yourself what would happen if next year the top 3500 applicants to U.C.-Berkeley, in terms of SAT score and grades, happened to be Asian Americans, especially since there are only 3500 slots in the freshman class. Would the regents allow the freshman class at the state’s flagship school to become 100 percent Asian? Or for that matter even 80 percent or 70 percent? How would white Californians react to such a development, including those who praise hard-working Asian kids for their educational excellence and scholarly achievements? How would white alums react if their favorite “model minorities” were suddenly seen as taking slots not from black and Latino youth, but from their own white children? To ask the question is to answer it.

In this section, Mr. Wise does not, in fact, offer an argument, but merely plays on the supposed bias of his audience against white people by suggesting a general tendency of hypocrisy. How “white Californians” in general would react to this trend is irrelevant to the topic at hand. The only relevant people to consider in this scenario are indeed the white Californians who “praise hard-working Asian kids for their educational excellence and scholarly achievements”. In my opinion, if the discriminatory scheme of Affirmative Action would be abolished and a truly merit-based system of college admission would possibly emerge thereafter, I would not object if the top positions were to be filled largely—or exclusively—by Asian-Americans. Even if I cannot speak for every white person that recognizes the relative affluence of Asian-Americans, it is a dishonest practice to suggest that they are hypocrites because they are white. Finally, Mr. Wise offers a final argument.

And finally, to argue that “Asians have made it, so why can’t blacks,” is to misunderstand the issue of moral and ethical responsibility to correct the harm of wrongful actions. Even if we accept that groups victimized by racism can “make it” without affirmative action or reparations, that would not deny (or indeed speak to in any way) the fact that society has an obligation to compensate the victims of injustice. After all, if my leg is blown off in an industrial accident, it hardly matters that many people with only one leg go on to succeed. The issue of compensatory justice remains, irrespective of what gains one can make without compensation.

There are a series of objections to be offered to this line of argumentation. First, Mr. Wise contradicts himself by silently shifting the original argument offered. The article in question was written to address the objection that Asian-American affluence suggests that racism might not be a “big deal” in the U.S. anymore. Secondly, it is merely asserted by Mr. Wise that affirmative action and reparations are ethical responsibilities of the U.S. government. Mr. Wise, however, misunderstands that the notion of collective responsibility for the actions of one’s (grand) parents is not validated by merely asserting it.

His only argument in support of this notion is by comparing the past racial injustice in the U.S. to an industrial accident. In this context, however, liability is limited to the victim of the accident and the owner(s) of the factory. In the case of racial injustice of past generations however, Mr. Wise desires the government to enact laws that either discriminate against people that aren’t liable for any damages—in the case of Affirmative Action—or to tax wealth from people that aren’t liable for any damages—in the case of reparations—including people that might have migrated to the U.S. as recently as a year ago.

Aside from the false nature of Mr. Wise’s equivalency, it also raises the question at which point grievance-based legislation might be enough. Mr. Wise, nor any other racial theorist in my knowledge, has ever offered a convincing sum of money, or scope of positive discrimination, at which point “compensatory justice” is finally fulfilled. I propose a more satisfactory theory of compensatory justice that urges people convinced of omnipresent oppression such as Mr. Wise to donate as much money as possible to community projects that support black communities as a whole.

The final paragraphs of Mr. Wise’s essay revolve around complaining about the rational capacity of a certain white county employee; an unrelated point about the supposed objectification of Asian women by white men, and the assertion that favorable views of Asian-American economic performance “stigmatizes” Asians who aren’t willing to fix the computers of white people. Mr. Wise ends his essay by asserting that whites use one group of color against another group of color in order to oppress them for their own gain.

Since Mr. Wise substitutes projections of evil intent upon white people for actual argumentation, I will not address these assertions and instead, conclude my rebuttal. In his essay, Mr. Wise has not provided a single citation to back up his claims and he continuously projected foul motives against anyone offering a counterargument to his narrative, derisively calling it the “model minority myth”. An objective look at recent data concerning Asian-Americans reveals that there is a degree of validity in using their affluence as an objection against simplistic notions that structural oppression hinders all non-white from advancing socio-economically. As an implication, this means that there is a valid reason to question the dominant narrative as to why many African-American communities are stuck in a continuous cycle of poverty, irrespective of the number of times any detraction of this narrative is called “racist”.


[1] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/asian-immigrants-united-states#Age,%20Education,%20Employment

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/184272/educational-attainment-of-college-diploma-or-higher-by-gender/

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, 2006. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_the_United_States

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