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Affirmative Action and the Model Minority Myth

On October 31st, 2022, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments for Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, marking a significant development in the topical debate around affirmative action. At the center of the conversation are Asian Americans. Edward Blum, co-founder of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), is the vanguard for the fight against affirmative action, using high-achieving Asian Americans as the primary subject for his argument. Underpinning the case against affirmative action is the narrative that Asian Americans are opposed to affirmative action on the basis of being held to a higher standard compared to other racial groups. 

In other words, Edward Blum and his constituents have claimed that they are fighting for racial equality on behalf of the Asian American community by asking: if Asian Americans are more qualified for admission, why should less qualified Black American and Latinx applicants be admitted simply because of their race or ethnicity?

Blum’s argument is self-contradicting; on one hand, he says that Asian Americans do not want affirmative action policies because they are held to a higher standard to other racial groups—on the other, Blum himself holds them to a higher standard, suggesting that Asian Americans deserve admission because they are more driven and educated as a monolithic group. Blum’s argument exemplifies the model minority myth, or the belief that Asian Americans are the “superior” and more “successful” minority, especially in comparison to other minority groups in the United States. However, despite the seemingly positive connotation of the model minority myth for Asian Americans, the concept is insidious. Beyond its historical cultivation of anti-Black and anti-Latinx sentiments, the model minority myth discriminates against Asian Americans. For students considering the college admissions process, the end of affirmative action has shifted the landscape of higher education with harmful stereotypes, perpetuated both by the end of affirmative action and the model minority myth. Behind the argument against affirmative action is the myth itself; a bigoted argument that has historically divided students, cultivated anti-Black racism in Asian Americans communities, encouraged essentialism, and duplicitously represented Asian American success.

The lynchpin of SFFA and Edward Blum’s meritocratic argument draws a parallel between Harvard’s current use of affirmative action and their history of discriminating against Jewish students. SFFA further alleges that Harvard violated Title VI by intentionally discriminating against Asian American applicants, and their practices led them to admit under-qualified non-Asian applicants at the expense of qualified, Asian American applicants. In an article published on SFFA’s website by Richard Sander, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and a critic of affirmative action, Sander claims that half of Black law students in American law schools have first-year GPAs that put them in the bottom 10 percent. The argument that seats have been stolen from Asian Americans is incredibly harmful because of how it implies that Black and Latinx students would not receive admissions from elite universities if not for affirmative action—that these students have been unfairly helped by affirmative action. Blum, Sander, and their colleagues may claim to fight for equality, but they are certainly fighting against equity. Further, SFFA promotes the model minority myth in the process. By arguing that Asian American students are high-achieving, SFFA subscribes to the model minority myth, invalidating their “just” argument given the model minority myth’s problematic connotations. 

The History of the Myth

The model minority myth originated in the 20th century, designed to pit minorities, especially Asian Americans and Black Americans, against each other. In the process of framing Asian Americans as the “ideal” minority, Black Americans were denigrated for their supposed “inability” to climb the socioeconomic ladder when, in comparison, Asian Americans were doing so easily and rapidly. Sociologist William Pettersen’s article “Success Story, Japanese-American Style” popularized this myth by unfairly comparing the post-WWII success of Japanese Americans to the perceived lack of success in African American communities, laying the foundation for this harmful stereotype. Kat Chow, co-founder of NPR’s Code Switch, also introduced the idea in an article published in 2017 that the wedge placed between Asian Americans and Black Americans “minimiz[ed] the role racism plays in the persistent struggles of other racial/ethnic minority groups” implying that “racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values.” 

The historical context in which the model minority myth emerged has left Asian Americans with lingering anti-Black and anti-Latinx sentiments. This stereotype perpetuates the idea that if Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people worked as hard as Asian Americans, racism against them would be less pervasive. OiYan Poon, the director of Race & Intersectional Studies at Colorado State University, draws a direct line between present-day anti-Black sentiments and the model minority myth, claiming that the myth is a “a way to say without saying that Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, if they work hard like Asian Americans, maybe calls around racism are overblown.” The myth also homogenizes diverse Asian American identities into a single essentialist narrative, promoting the false belief that all Asian Americans are uniformly hard-working and accepted in white society. 

This ignorance of others can go so far as to itself in a warped self-image in Asian Americans, where East and South Asians alike claim that they are not “people of color” and are instead closer in proximity to whiteness. These effects of the model minority myth overlook the varied access to resources and education within different Asian American communities. The Hmong community is a revealing example of an ethnic group within Asian America that is marginalized by the model minority myth. Chali Lee, a third-year Hmong student at Clovis Community College, describes that the model minority myth caused others to see him as just another “Asian” male taking up valuable space at college, when in reality, Hmong-American individuals in the are one of the most systematically disenfranchised ethnic groups in the United States.

Looking Ahead

The Supreme Court ruled on SFFA v. Harvard in June of 2023 in favor of Students for Fair Admissions, claiming that the affirmative action policies do violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Though Chief Justice Roberts in the majority opinion specified that students should continue to share stories tied to their racial identity in their applications, SCOTUS’ support of SFFA reinforced the harm that the model minority myth has already caused. The current political and legal landscape, therefore, upholds the model minority myth—whether in explicit or implicit terms.

As affirmative action’s primary opponent, SFFA has used the Asian American success story with the Supreme Court to “defend” racial equality on behalf of the Asian American community. Unfortunately, SCOTUS has affirmed a case that is driven by the model minority myth, reinforcing a dangerous narrative that does not serve the interests of college students or people of color. The model minority myth’s problematic past and present, including its anti-Black and anti-Latinx roots, its cultivation of essentialism, and its duplicitous representation of Asian American economic success, proves that Edward Blum and SFFA do not actually have Asian American interests in mind, and are simply bolstering stereotypes about Asian Americans in their crusade against affirmative action. As the conversation continues in the United States, it is imperative that Asian Americans not only remain supportive of the success of other minorities and cognizant of their own privilege, but also recognize the real opponent of this debate: the model minority myth.

Image Source: The Daily Illini

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