Why We All Lose With the Model Minority Myth

by Suzanne Lee and Lydia Lowe. Posted Aug. 9, 2018.

Much is being made of a lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian American applicants to Harvard University in order to reinforce the narrative that race should no longer be a factor in the admissions process. Plaintiffs allege that Asian American applicants with top scores for academics, test results and extracurricular activities were nonetheless admitted at lower levels than applicants of other races, when factors such as “personality” were taken into consideration. The suit is led by Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative organization that has opposed affirmative action programs on behalf of white applicants in the past.

The narrative that Asian Americans are the racial minority group that has pulled itself up by the bootstraps without government assistance is known as the Model Minority Myth; it has been deliberately promoted since the 1960s in opposition to policies designed to correct racial inequities. Asian Americans need to read our own history to remember that it was the Third World strikes of the post-Civil Rights era that opened up university admissions for communities of color across the country. Asian Americans in college rose from 16,000 nationwide in 1960 to 250,000 in 1980.

So, why are Asian Americans “over-represented” in elite universities today, and does this justify removing Asian Americans as a disadvantaged group?

Asian Americans are a complex racial category, with roots from many different countries, with a bi-polar class makeup of rich and poor. Today, geopolitical changes in Asia and shifts in immigration policy that give advantage to the wealthiest emigrants have created a new swell of the Asian American upper class. This sector is flocking to private prep schools and hyper-focused on gaining admissions to the elite universities. Meanwhile, the children of Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese laborers struggle like many of their Black and Latino counterparts and face growing poverty levels.

The polarized class makeup of Asian Americans is why the disaggregation (or separation) of Asian American data by ethnicity and geography, as well as a per capita analysis, is critical to understanding inequality in our communities. It is no wonder that data disaggregation and affirmative action have become hot-button issues for a small but highly visible Tea Party-backed group of conservative elites in the Asian American community. Generalized data touted as the Asian American success story is also distorted by the fact that the population is concentrated in the state of Hawaii and in urban areas with the highest cost of living, and that Asian American households on the average have more wage-earners in the home.

In addition, many Asian immigrants come from nations with a heavy emphasis on entrance exams that determine future opportunities for schooling and employment. It is common for children to spend years in preparation for these grueling exams, which represent the family’s sole opportunity for advancement.

Racial and economic inequality are at an all-time high, which is why there is as much need for special admissions today as there ever was. We are not living in a post-racial world, but in a racist world in which a select few have been admitted to the club on certain days.

Chinese American students advocate for civil rights at Rally for Inclusion, May 6, 2017 in San Francisco Chinatown. Photo: Eddie Wong

Special admissions programs at the universities are essential not only as reparations for the past but to address the worsening inequality today that is rooted in centuries of institutional racism. These programs are most needed by underrepresented Black and Latino communities but also should benefit disadvantaged Asian American students, not the wealthy elite that has become expert at gaming the system.

If, as we suspect, Asian Americans of all class backgrounds face a discriminatory bias known as the Bamboo Ceiling, the real target for elimination should be the longest-standing historical preference in university admissions—the category of “legacy” admissions that perpetuates white privilege by giving top advantage to the families of alumni. The Harvard Crimson reported last year that the Class of 2021 is made up of over 29 percent legacy students, who are three times more likely to get into the school than those with no family ties. Meanwhile, the New York Times found that, at 38 elite colleges, there are more students from the top one percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent of the economic ladder.

Asian Americans who are committed to civil rights for all must keep our focus on fighting racial and economic inequality together with other communities of color. We cannot allow ourselves to be used as a wedge by conservative forces seeking to undermine educational access, employment opportunities, and a political voice for communities of color.


Suzanne Lee is a former principal of the Josiah Quincy Elementary School and earned her Masters at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Lydia Lowe is a graduate of UMass/Boston, the only four-year Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution in the Commonwealth.



對美國哈佛大學訴訟的主要指控是,亞裔申請人受到歧視,以此加強一些說法,即種族不應再成為招生過程中的因素。原訴人聲稱,當 “人格” 等因素被納入考慮時,在學術、考試成績和課外活動方面,得分高的亞裔美國申請人,被錄取人數是低於其他種族的申請者。這訴訟是由公平取錄學生組織提出,這保守組織一向是反對平權行動計畫,過去是代表白種申請人發聲的。

亞裔美國人是少數族裔群體,在沒有政府援助的情況下,白手興家,這被稱為模範少數族裔神話; 自二十世紀六十年代以來,一直被有意提升,旨在糾正種族不平等現象的政策提出”反駁”。亞裔美國人需要閱讀我們自己的歷史,要緊記,這是第三世界在後民權時代的進逼,打開了全國各地大學的大門,在有色人種社區招生。在1960年,亞裔美國人在全國大學有1萬6千人,在1980年,上升到25萬。

那麼,在今天,亞裔美國人在精英大學裡有 “過度代表” 的情況,原因就是這樣,這是把亞裔美國人不當作為弱勢群體看待的理由嗎?


亞裔美國人是由兩極分化的階層構成,這是要理解我們社區中的不平等現象的理由,因此,亞裔美國人的種族和地理資料的細分 ( 或釐清 ) 以及人均分析是至關重要的。難怪在亞裔美國人社區資料分類和平權行動,已受到一個小但顯眼的茶黨關注,成為支持保守派亞裔精英群體的熱門話題。普遍的資料被吹捧為亞裔美國人的成功案例,人口集中的夏威夷和城市地區,生活費用是最高,而在亞裔美國人家庭有收入的人數,平均比起其他在家裡打工的人為多,也成了被扭曲的事實。




如像我們猜想的那樣,所有不同階級背景的亞裔美國人,都面臨著一個被稱為 “竹竿天花板” 的歧視性偏見,那麼真正要消滅的目標,應該是大學招生中歷史猶久的選擇–“傳統” 招生類別。通過給校友家庭以最大的優勢,使白人的特權得以延續。哈佛大學報《緋紅》Harvard Crimson去年報導說,在2021年畢業班,有百份之29% 是由有傳統關係學生組成的,他們比沒有家庭關係的人入學,更高出3倍。與此同時,《紐約時報》發現,在38所精英大學,學生來自百份之1 經濟階梯,更多於是來自整個百份之60的經濟底層。


李素影是約西亞昆士小學的前任校長,在哈佛大學教育研究院獲碩士學位。駱理德是波士頓 /麻州大學畢業生,這大學是麻州唯一設有四年制亞裔美國人和美州原住民太平洋島民服務中心。

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