So let’s get real for a moment. Asian America is made up of over 45 distinct ethnic groups speaking over 100 language dialects. Among these groups, some, such as Hmong Americans, are among the poorest in the U.S. by ethnicity.
Moreover, statistics concerning our success exaggerate. The reality is that larger Asian American family incomes result in part from a larger number of earners per household. Asian Americans actually trail whites in per capita income. And the most successful Asian American ethnic groups—the Taiwanese, Indian, Malaysian, and Sri Lankan American minorities—include a large share of members who were drawn to the U.S. as business investors or highly skilled workers. That means that Asian Americans are by no means representative of Asians globally. U.S. immigration policy plays a role in constructing the Asian American “race.”
But regardless of the disadvantages some of us face, many Asians do enjoy privileges beyond the reach of other people of color. That might explain why some Asian Americans are bought into model minority stereotyping. Their attitudes mirror many on the right whose response to Asian American protest against Asian stereotyping goes something like can’t you people take a compliment?
But this Asian complicity with the stereotype is dangerous. Why? Consider this.
As I’ve pointed out before, the model minority stereotype originated as a tool to leverage white resentment toward the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In the midst of widespread black protest, the Asian model minority debuted in the media as evidence that racism will fall to quiet hard work, self-sacrifice, and compliance with authority. The model minority was contrasted with “problem minorities” in order to undercut support for reform. Between the lines, the suggestion was that black culture, not white racism, was the reason for black poverty, and black protest, for that reason, was neither legitimate nor helpful to black people who would do better to fix themselves than to try to fix the country.
Yet Asian Americans have prospered, and more, some would argue, than other people of color, as a result of desegregation, voting rights reforms, and programs like affirmative action. When we play into “problem minority” racism we threaten these gains.
Now, I get that the relatively small share of the U.S. population that is Asian American makes us less a threat to white racial domination than, say, Latinos or African Americans. And, for that reason, when Newt Gingrich refers to “entitlement junkies” and Mitt Romney disparages the 47%, they don’t have us in mind. But, we ought not kid ourselves. Dodging these attacks doesn’t make us safe.
Asian Americans may be only 6% of the U.S., but Asians are a very large percentage of the global population. And Asian countries such as China, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea are considered threats to American posterity. Playing to racism by exaggerating that “threat” is becoming a popular strategy of elected leaders trying to win political points with an increasingly resentful public.
The combination of xenophobic Asia-bashing and model minority stereotyping makes Asian Americans targets of resentment. And certain realities are causing that resentment to rise.
Privilege without power makes us vulnerable. To build power in a country whose racial demography is tilting against whites, we would do best to build bonds of cross-racial solidarity with other people of color. To do that, we must look beyond our common suffering and accept accountability for the privileges that divide us.