Selected Skirmishes: Mything the Point


Have you ever marveled at those successful members of disadvantaged minority groups, those who have somehow surmounted large odds to make it big in America? Aha, you disgusting bigot! You just can't control your primordial racist impulse to minimize the ravages of the white man's insidious institutional oppression. Why, you must harbor the soul of a Nazi.

Such a lashing is very close to what kept readers of the world-famous Washington Post from sitting down for several days this summer. In a remarkable journalistic episode of "Don't move, or I'll shoot," Post subscribers were bombarded with this front-page news last June: "Myth of Model Minority Haunts Asian Americans: Stereotype Eclipses Group's Problems."

This gem lands a politically correct sucker punch: Just when patriotic Americans might be feeling good about seeing discriminated-against nonwhites being rewarded for their pluck and persistence with a median family income (for all Asian-Americans) 19 percent above the general population's, they are laid cold with a haymaker on the tragedy of "model minority" status.

Of course, Asian success in White America is a bit more fearsome to Anglo sociologists than it is to wealthy suburbanites named Kim, Singh, or Tanaka. The Yellow Peril is fearsome to rabble rousers of the right for genetic reasons and to ideologues of the left for tactical ones. American (or Hong Kong) capitalism must not be given credit for transforming poor yellow into bright green. That would unsnap the dogmatic link between "white racism" and "free enterprise" and make the government look klutzy. Federal aid has done so little for Asians (outside of that generous housing program for Japanese-Americans during World War II) while heaping largesse on far less financially successful groups.

Native Americans, for instance, have had billions spent in their name by their very own U.S. government department for the past 100 years. Yet they come in dead last in just about every measure of economic or social status. Could lead the unsophisticated to spot a dangerously suggestive correlation.

The Post marshaled an impressive array of facts to dismiss this silliness. The crack investigative journalists at the paper found that "while there are many Asian Americans far above the U.S. median, many also fall far below it." Unbelievable! I trust they held the presses after unearthing this late-breaking news: Asians both above and below the national average! (Apparently, the boys and girls of Lake Woebegone—all above average—are now the national norm. Their disappointment level will be way above the mean!)

A professor of Asian-American studies at Wesleyan informed us that "the 'mythology of success' has been an enormous disservice to Asian Americans who find this characterization does not at all reflect their own experience." This prompted the Post to comment, "Critics say the stereotype not only ignores the plight of those who don't fit, it overstates the achievements of Asian Americans….Worse, they say, it exposes Asian Americans to resentment and racial hostility and exacts a heavy toll in the stress it places on many who can't live up to those high expectations."

If we intimidate and humiliate the Asians, at least we pay them well for their decimation. Asian-American families make, at the median, 18 percent more than whites, double the income of blacks. But recent Asian immigrants who are just beginning to work bring the Asians' numbers way down. The more-established Japanese-Americans, for example, boast a median family income 37 percent above that of the U.S. population as a whole.

But don't you dare, honky boy, think of this as "success." That would be "insulting and condescending," said the Post, "especially when an Asian-American small grocery store owner is hailed as a great success where a similarly well educated white would be thought of as a failure." You people (as Ross Perot would say) probably thought Asians needed role models, but these pseudo-heroes are simply used to making whites comfortable about racist oppression.

Such perverse constructions of ethnic-studies scholarship thrill pale audiences, titillating white guilt (just as angry black rap music is overwhelmingly sold to white teenagers). Manipulating Caucasian hopes and fears is good clean sport, safely removed from the difficult and consequential business of devising workable, innovative ways of helping disadvantaged minorities up the economic ladder. Putting whitey in the spotlight as a clumsy, awkward socioeconomic stage performer gives the entire community something to gawk at and more: instant proof of the ongoing existence of, if not lynch squads, racial insensitivity.

As Shelby Steele has so neatly delineated, identifying the existence of injustice grants the victims entitlement coupons payable by their oppressors. Empowerment via victimization is public-policy gold in them thar hills. I just hope—for their sake—that other minority groups don't become wealthy like the Asians. Because rising incomes could, for instance, tragically lead to the "myth of black success." And then white taxpayers will simply ignore the plight of Africans. There goes the neighborhood block grant.

But not to worry. Given the sophisticated design of our current array of social programs and our time-tested system of welfare dependency, I believe that the poor and disadvantaged are pretty well out of harm's way.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.