By Ellen McGirt
April 17, 2017

Blogger and political columnist Andrew Sullivan created a small firestorm over the weekend when he wondered aloud in a recent column how, if America is so racist, that Asian Americans have experienced such outsized personal and financial success. He started by talking about Dr. David Dao, the passenger who was brutally removed from a United Airlines flight, then began calling out the media for exploring the racial implications of the event.

Here’s the graph that got everyone heated up:

Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?

Sullivan’s analysis is not unusual, but it totally misses the mark. The history of discrimination and race-based violence toward Asian immigrants is true, in fact, it was far worse than he describes. But the happy ending he implies did not come from grit, education and good ol’ family values. It’s also not always so happy, either. And the implication that one group has the “right stuff” and another one doesn’t, is both insulting and hurtful.

Luckily, in the online melee that followed, some useful knowledge was dropped. Journalist Jeff Guo took on Sullivan in this extraordinary Twitter thread, explaining that education is not the key to Asian American success. Instead, he says, it was that white Americans explicitly decided to stop being so racist toward them.

“First, there were a lot of incentives for the white mainstream to champion and promote stories of Asian American success after WWII,” he tweets. “Importantly: Elevating Asian Americans as ‘deserving’ and ‘hardworking’ was a tactic to denigrate African Americans,” and minimize the potential impact of the civil rights movement. “This is why the ‘model minority’ label is so distasteful. It is a status conferred by the majority for the majority’s own purposes.”

The Asian American experience in America is complex – involving immigrants from many countries, the Cold War, and global politics, for starters – so I don’t want to give it the short shrift here. For more information, I’d direct you to Guo’s interview with historian Ellen Wu, and her seminal work on this subject, The Color of Success. Here’s one fascinating nugget from Wu, which helps explain how Chinese communities embraced the most flattering versions of themselves as a tactic to avoid racist attacks:

When I started digging, I found that this idea of this model Chinese family, with the perfect children who always just loved to study and who don’t have time to get into trouble or date — started to circulate quite prominently in the 1950s. That speaks to America’s anxieties about juvenile delinquency.

Also, since these stories were taking place in Chinatowns, it allowed Americans to claim that America had these remaining repositories of traditional Chinese values at a time when the Communist Chinese had completely dismantled them. So there’s this other level where these stories are also anti-Communist — they are doing this other ideological work.

Though the income advantage enjoyed by certain subsets of the Asian American population breaks down when you control for education level, and even further when you examine specific demographics, the pressure parents still feel to use education and achievement as a hedge against a racist world remains profound. In many cases, it can be emotionally crippling. “Ditto stuff like violin lessons, piano lessons, etc.,” tweeted Guo. “People make fun of these stereotypes but I find them heartbreaking.”

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