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Affirmative Action and the Model Minority Myth

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

Affirmative Action and the Model Minority Myth 

Affirmative action is the practice of favoring certain groups that have been discriminated against in the past. The purpose of Affirmative Action is to aid disadvantaged groups so that the playing field is more fair. Historically, affirmative action has long been disputed by white people. Supreme Court Cases such as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Gratz v. Bollinger, and Grutter v. Bollinger have shaped the requirements and standards for affirmative action. 

Now, Asian Americans have replaced whites as the group disadvantaged by affirmative action. On average Asian Americans obtain higher test scores and grades than the rest of the American population. Among Harvard applicants from 2000 to 2017 for example, Asian Americans scored an average 767 across all SAT sections compared to a 745 for whites, a 718 for Hispanics, and a 704 for African Americans. They are also more likely to be college educated. 54% who identify as Asian have earned a bachelor’s degree. Compare this to just 37% of whites, the next highest group. 

This results in a stereotype of Asian Americans as being the model minority. A model minority is a minority which achieves higher degrees of socioeconomic success than the population average. Often, the model minority is used as an example of how you only need to work hard to overcome discrimination. They are the minority that other minorities need to emulate. 

There are obvious problems with such a perception. For one, the model minority myth generalizes Asian Americans too much while ignoring differences among Asian ethnicities. A 2014 report from the Center for American Progress and AAPI Data found that around half of Asian Americans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, only 27% of Vietnamese Americans and 17% of Hmong and Cambodian Americans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Other groups such as Bhutanese Americans and Burmese Americans have college rates of 15% and 34% respectively. Clearly there is a large difference between different ethnicities which makes it irresponsible to classify all Asian Americans as being successful. Often when people refer to Asians, they mean East Asians: people from China, South Korea, and Japan. This completely leaves out Asians from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Southwest Asia. Asians from Nepal, Bhutan, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and a myriad of other places do not achieve the same level of success as Asians from India, China, Japan, and South Korea. This is largely due to unequal resources such as wealth and education. According to the 2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey, 57% of Cambodian Americans and 53% of Hmong Americans say that there is a serious problem with the quality of education at their children’s schools. In terms of wealth, income equality in the U.S. is greatest among Asians. Pew Research Center reports that form 1970 to 2016 the gap in the standard of living for Asians nearly doubled and the distribution of income became the most unequal among America’s major racial and ethnic groups. 

Given this information, it is clear that some Asians can benefit from affirmative action. Many desperately need affirmative action to be able to attend university since their living situation greatly hinders them. However, there are also many Asians who are harmed by affirmative action since it  results in them being held to higher standards. That is why it is understandable that some Asians have conflicting opinions on affirmative action. On one hand no one wants to be punished for being successful but on the other hand some sacrifices need to be made for society to improve. 

Another problem with the model minority myth is that it places unfair pressure on Asian Americans to do well. One 2013 study by the international journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping found that Asian American students were significantly more worried about school and family expectations. For Asian Americans who can’t live up to society’s high expectations, they feel overwhelmingly imcompetent. This can happen even when the person is considered average compared to the rest of the population. Consequently, this can lead to a divide where you have the “good” Asians and the “bad” Asians. The “good” Asians are those who are successful and seen as honorary whites. The “bad” Asians are those who are unsuccessful and don’t conform to stereotypes. 

The bias that is present in affirmative action policies undoubtedly affects Asian Americans and perpetuates this model minority myth. However, affirmative action does allow many disadvantaged groups to gain access to higher education. So what does this mean? Honestly, who can say? Affirmative action has good intentions but it is a fact that it can have negative side effects on Asians. Regardless of whether you are for or against affirmative action, it’s important to recognize the real burdens that Asian Americans carry because of the model minority myth. 



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