Recently Forbes ran a contentious article that slipped through the cracks without much commentary. The piece, written by Jason Richwine of the American Enterprise Institute, declared Indian Americans “The New Model Minority,” as if we were competing for the title in a pageant.
Let’s clear this up once and for all. Being called a “model minority” is an unwelcome characterization that is damaging and tough to overcome. Why do you think the “old” model minorities—East Asian Americans—have struggled to shed the label since they were first saddled with it in the 1960s because of “their advanced educations and high earnings.”
Today, the term is largely regarded as a stereotype, and it is surprising that Richwine—and Forbes, for that matter—could be so out of touch.
The phrase “model minority” inherently pits one minority group against others, as Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, argues in her response to the Forbes piece. After all, if one community is the “model,” then the others are problematic and less desirable.
To squeeze a whole community into the “model minority” mold, you usually have to resort to stereotypes, like this one in the Forbes piece: “Most Americans know only one thing about Indians—they are really good at spelling bees.” (Just for the record, I never even entered the National Spelling Bee, and I can’t recite etymologies on demand.)
Such seemingly harmless generalizations lead down worrisome paths. For example, Richwine doesn’t make a cultural distinction between Indian immigrants and Indian Americans born and raised in the U.S. Beyond that, he cites tests that assess “intelligence” down ethnic and racial lines—a practice rich with controversy. There are serious questions around how cultural bias influences these tests, right down to the definition of “intelligence.”
He presses on anyway, attributing Indian Americans’ overall “success” in the U.S. to three factors: culture, education (that is, an “obsessive emphasis on academic achievement”) and most significantly, IQ. This success is defined by the number of Indian Americans with college degrees (69 percent), their median head of household annual salary ($83,000), and their representation in high-paying fields like medicine and information technology. In other words, being a “model minority” boils down to one thing—money. But even this characterization is deeply problematic. Figures like median income skew the way a population is portrayed because they do not tell about the gap between the highest earners and the lowest. In fact, Indian Americans aren’t just IT workers, engineers and doctors—they are activists, journalists, taxi drivers, sales clerks and more.
So what’s the point of labeling a group a “model minority”? The answer has everything to do with immigration policy.
“Minority” in this case doesn’t refer to long-established communities, like African Americans. It’s actually a code word for “non-white immigrant,” which is why the term “model minority” originated around the same time as the Immigration Act of 1965. This lifted immigration quotas on non-European nations and brought a wave of immigrants to the U.S. from Asia, in particular. Calling Asians a “model minority” was a subtle way of saying who the U.S. wanted in and who they wanted to keep out.
Richwine illustrates this coded meaning when he states that Indian Americans have higher levels of wealth and education than Mexican Americans, and that all immigrant groups have the potential to be model minorities. He then calls for a “new immigration policy that prioritizes skills over family reunification … by emphasizing education, work experience and IQ.”
What’s wrong with this argument? Plenty. It values communities—and their right to be in the U.S.—based on economic success. It suggests that only immigrants with college degrees or high IQs can contribute to society, when in reality, industriousness knows no boundaries. It also looks at ethnic communities in generalized, static terms, ignoring their internal diversity, history and reasons for migrating. And it callously fails to look at the bigger picture, such as American and global economic policies that have benefited some countries while leaving others disadvantaged.
Who defines what makes a skill valuable? Where does a willingness to work hard fit in? And last but not least, are we going to treat immigrants like cash cows, valuing them for their earning power?
Ultimately, the Forbes piece misses a very important point—that is, the successes of immigrant communities and minority communities are deeply intertwined.
Labeling Indian Americans the new “model minority” might serve a political purpose. But it serves no purpose at all for Indian Americans—or for the other groups that the tired and tedious moniker pits us against.
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian American community issues and cultural trends.